Childhood is not a race.
Every child has an in-build clock that triggers when a baby is ready to reach his physical and mental milestones. But some babies are held back by a lack of opportunity to move. And this may be more significant than first thought.
The latest research suggests learning to walk later may have long-lasting negative effects on the bones of children.
A study published last month shows a strong link between bone strength and the time babies started to walk and jump.
Researchers analysed data from over 2000 children born in the 1990s. The babies’ physical development was documented and compared with their bone density 17 years later. To their surprise, the researchers found that greater physical activity at an earlier age led to higher bone density and better muscle size in adolescence.
Lead researcher Dr Alex Ireland explains: “Being more active gives you stronger muscles which can then apply bigger forces to the bones as we walk, run or jump, helping to strengthen bones as we grow older.”
Earlier studies carried out by Dr Ireland showed that babies who started to walk early could have up to 40% higher bone mass in their shin bones compared to toddlers that still crawled at 15 months.
Babies usually start to walk spontaneously while they explore their environment and interact with their parents. The motivation to walk appears to be embedded in our human genes. All babies learn to walk; they do not need to be shown how to do it.
But before babies are in the position to learn to walk, they first need to be sufficiently mobile on the floor. All babies progress through stages of increasing mobility. It starts with rolling over, later progresses to rocking on all fours, then to crawling and eventually walking. Although some babies prefer to bottom shuffle rather than crawl.
These stages are essential in allowing babies to mature. Every effort should be made to encourage this natural development as much as possible by giving babies plenty of freedom to move.
The term “Container Baby” is now increasingly used by paediatricians to describe a baby that spends a majority of his time in an enclosed space. These containers are devices that stop a baby from moving freely such as a car seat, bumbo seat, swing chair or baby walker.
It might seem counter-intuitive but baby walkers don’t help babies to walk. This is because they reduce babies’ floor time, which deprives babies of an opportunity to develop muscle strength and control. It also denies them the opportunity to explore their environment fully.
Babies in walkers receive less useful sensory input such as visual and tactile information, which they require to make meaningful physical advancements.
Babies make better natural progress on the floor. A play mat or blanket can help to cushion the area as small falls and uncontrolled tumbles are unavoidable.
Outdoor play also helps babies by providing more varied experiences and allows babies to connect with the natural world. Babies benefit from improved awareness and motor skill developments, if they are allowed to engage in active outdoor play and exploration.
Whether inside or outdoors the floor is the best and most natural place for a baby to develop.
Do you ever wish your baby was able to entertain himself, even if it was just for a tiny bit of time?
You may feel terribly guilty for even having such thoughts. Maybe you think you are being selfish. That you put your own needs before that of your baby.
But what if I told you that your baby will actually benefit from self-directed play? He definitely will and I will offer you examples later. All forms of play support your baby’s development. Independent play is one of them.
Once you have a good understanding of how your baby’s brain works and how to support your baby's natural drive to play, you can adopt a routine which encourages independent play.
By definition play is “an activity that children engage in for enjoyment and recreation”. Play is behaviour that is always freely chosen, self-motivated and personally directed.
During play your baby will learn to seek out things that provide him with pleasure. Knowing what you enjoy is a great advantage in a world filled with endless options.
Having plenty of opportunities to engage in self-directed play will help your baby choose hobbies when he gets older. Your baby will also learn to concentrate for increasingly long periods. This will be a helpful skill once he starts school.
We often think that babies need to be entertained all the time. But some child experts argue that boredom is good, because unstructured time gives children an opportunity to explore their inner and outer worlds. Parents that feel the need to avoid boredom at all cost are more likely to seek unsuitable alternatives for their child’s spare time. Activities like watching TV require no physical or mental abilities.
If a toddler can entertain himself through play, it means he spends more time honing useful skills.
Think of a child trying to balance a toy on top of another, or doing a puzzle or playing on the floor, talking along during imaginary play. These activities offer opportunities to strengthen muscles and develop coordination. They require imagination and engage the brain in many ways.
Independent play is a lot more than simply time away from you. And it pays to start early.
Independent play has many advantages, but often babies are reluctant to engage in solo play. If you have a baby that clings to you from the moment he wakes to the minute he falls asleep, you are not alone.
Three reasons why babies often don’t take to playing on their own are: Nature, habit and understanding your baby.
Human brains don’t get upgraded like software. Only evolution can change the way our bodies function. But evolution is a very slow process. This means our brains have not changed over the last few thousand years.
For our species to survive, Nature has equipped babies with a brain that is hard-wired to demand constant connection with a caring adult. A long time ago it assured the survival of our species.
At the beginning of life, babies rely completely on their parents for food, safety and transport. This dependent behaviour of a newborn will naturally decrease as they get older if they are given opportunities.
To fulfil our newborn’s early needs we often spend almost 24 hours a day in the baby’s presence. Baby carrying, co-sleeping and breastfeeding are all desirable activities that allow mums and babies to bond.
But with a contented baby in the pouch, we sometimes have to remind ourselves, that babies need the opportunity to kick their limbs freely to develop motor skills and coordination.
The problem is, being physically separated from you can cause your baby distress. He needs to be able to communicate with you to stay mentally close. So be prepared to stay close during this transition and respond sensitively to your baby’s needs.
From the day he is born your baby is trying to communicate with you.
At first this happens through tongue poking, facial expressions and crying. Later it develops into noise making and pointing. And finally your baby will learn to talk.
Whatever your baby is able to express, it is your job as a parent to make the correct interpretation. This requires the power of observation and plenty of patience.
Here are some examples of what your baby might try to communicate:
Make sure that your baby can see you and regain connection with you as soon as he requires it. The aim is NOT to extend the time away from you artificially. Neither is it to get your baby to tolerate being without you for longer periods of time. The aim is for your baby to be so absorbed in his own thoughts, that he doesn’t need you.
Babies love copying what they see. Babies copy our facial expressions from birth. As they get older they also copy your actions. It always makes sense to support this kind of natural behaviour.
To encourage independent play, allow your baby to play in the same room as you doing similar activities. If you are putting away laundry, allow your baby to play with rolled up socks. If you are emptying the dishwasher or preparing food, offer your baby pots and pans to play with.
If you observe closely, you will realise that your baby doesn’t necessarily want the toy that he has been desperately trying to reach. Rather your baby relishes the challenge of getting there. If you hand him the toy you spoil the fun.
Independent play is a learning curve for you and the baby.
When your baby feels that his need for attention has been fully addressed, you will achieve the best results of independent play. Having every need fulfilled allows your baby to enter a state of contentment and wanting to be on his own.
A good time to fill your baby’s need for attention is during routine activities like eating meals together, getting dressed, changing nappies and winding down for bedtime.
Your child needs to feel loved and valued to be content by himself.
Spend time on the floor playing together so you learn to recognise when baby is interested in something. Make sure he is really engrossed and don’t leave at the first opportunity. A chance to leave your baby for short periods of time will occur when the self-absorbed play becomes commonplace. Say a brief good bye (“I can see you are busy with that toy, I will be back in one minute”) and leave.
Sneaking away is more likely to lead to your baby becoming clingy.
If you choose toys for your baby through the eyes of an adult you may not find one that is of interest for your baby. Instead of choosing a toy for your baby, watch and see what your baby wants to investigate. For a baby everything is new. An overstimulating toy can be as off-putting for a baby as an under-stimulating one.
Allow your baby to choose an engaging object.
New parents are suckers for marketing. I know because I was one of them. Toys with flashing lights that speak in two languages are sold to new parents as stimulating and helpful for brain development. In reality this is far from the truth.
What your baby really craves are things that give immediate response to their action.
Your child can use his muscle, observe the reaction and understand the connection.
Compare this to an electronic toy where your baby cannot relate his own action to the myriad of resulting lights and sounds. Your baby will lose interest in such toys far more quickly.
Offer two toys. If your baby gets bored with one, he has another one to fall back to. Babies have short attention spans. The advantage of this is that babies often switch easily between two toys. It appears they forget that one toy became boring whilst playing with the other.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking more toys will lead to longer independent play. Babies get easily overwhelmed by too much choice and instead of choosing the best toy they don’t play at all.
As adults we can handle a lot of noise without losing concentration. This is a learned skill, and because we do it all the time, we forget that babies have not yet mastered this skill.
Noise can be anything that distracts a baby from the task in hand. It can be actual noise. It can be flashing lights or a parent suddenly making an appearance. The concentration is lost and independent play is over.
Safety is of course an important consideration. Ideally you want to create a safe environment that does not require your frequent checking. Try to only interrupt when there is a natural lull in the play.
Always remember that your baby’s attention span is incredibly short. Allow your baby to be in charge of when independent play starts AND finishes. Over time his ability to concentrate and explore will increase naturally. Until then, he will be happier to know you are always available.
Hopefully the article enlightened you to how to introduce your baby to independent play.
When you view independent play as a process rather than a goal you are more likely to achieve the desired result. You will also enjoy the journey more and appreciate the small achievements your baby makes.
Also remember that the right play mat can help.
You are playing with your baby every day. On some days playing is fun. But sometimes it can feel a bit repetitive and one-sided.
If only your baby could talk.
Did you know there is a lot you can do to put your baby on the right path to talking early?
Let me tell you about an amazing trick that you can use to help your baby learn words faster. It isn’t an abracadabra kind of trick, but something that scientists have discovered. It is based on the different brain structures in babies. And it results in babies learning language super-fast.
Once you understand how your baby’s brain performs this little miracle, you may find interactions with your baby more fun. And it will benefit your baby’s brain development.
Your own adult brain is highly organised.
It may not feel like it at the moment if you are looking after a small baby. But your brain regions are all neatly organised.
For your senses, having an organised brain means they are clearly divided into: hearing, sight, touch, smell and taste.
Babies’ brains on the other hand are different.
The brain regions responsible for each sense are located much closer together in babies' than in adult brains. On top of that, your baby’s brain has many brain cells, as many as you. But connections between these brain cells have not yet formed. At least not many.
Because parts of the brain are near each other, when one part gets stimulated, neighbouring regions also get activated. This results in senses overlapping.
This overlap of senses doesn’t usually happen in adults. After babyhood we grow out of it. Although in rare cases it can persist into adulthood. The painter Kandinsky is reported to have heard orchestras play in his head when he was creating his paintings. His sensory overlap was between sight and hearing.
The sensory overlap in your baby's brain, which helps your baby to learn words faster, is between hearing and touch. When your baby hears a word the part of the brain responsible for hearing lights up. And the neighbouring part of the brain responsible for touch also gets some of the stimulation.
It sounds crazy, but this is what happens in your baby’s brain when senses intermingle. You tickle your baby’s foot and he hears the word “foot”. Or, the other alternative, your baby hears the word “foot” and his foot starts tingling.
Isn’t that amazing?
Now that you are aware of this bizarre activity going on in your baby’s brain, how can you make use of it?
You could talk to your baby about his body parts for example when you change his nappy.
It is important to make sure that you touch your baby’s body part whilst you say the word in order for your baby to make the connection. The trick does not work if you touch your own nose and say “nose”. You baby has to actually feel it. So, the next time when you play with your baby’s foot, say “ooooh, tickly foot”. Or take his hands into yours and say “hands, hands, hands, we clap hands” a few times.
In a short time, your baby will be able to make the connection between words she hears and their meaning. When your baby is able to recognise the spoken word, you may recognise it because he will be looking at the object. It could be a hand or a foot.
Of course, childhood is not a race.
At Cosyplay we believe it is best to that make the most of every developmental stage, rather than racing to the next one. Patience is key in allowing your baby to reach his full potential.
So making use of your baby’s unusual brain ability is just a bit of fun for both of you. Saying that, the benefits of learning to talk early can be immense.
Being able to speak well before your child starts school is the best predictor of how well children perform when at school.
It is important that parents take the time to speak to their babies. Babies from poor backgrounds hear fewer words than children from more affluent backgrounds. Some researchers believe that the difference in the number of words is huge. By 3 years of age, there is a 30 million word gap between children from rich and poor families.
It looks like the quality of interaction during babyhood has long-lasting consequences.
This is because early experiences in babies affect the organisation of brain cells into a structured brain.
Talking to your baby whilst your baby is unable to reply might be boring for you. But rest assured your efforts are never wasted. Your baby will benefit.
You may also like: How babies learn to talk and ways to help
Babies love to explore. For babies the home environment is their playground. Family are their favourite playmates and items in their home are the props.
It’s not a surprise then that recent research suggests that the humble household items could affect your baby’s physical and mental development.
Professor Priscila Caçola from the University of Texas studied the effects of household items on babies' motor skills development.
Fine motor skills, also called dexterity, is the coordination of small muscle movements of the hand and fingers and the synchronization with the eyes.
Development of gross motor skills affect your baby's IQ. This is because being mobile allows your baby to explore a wider world. Your baby has now to make assessments of risk and remember to apply what he has learned before.
Fine motor skills show the ability to put thoughts into action and are also linked to mental development.
This is what Professor Caçola says about motor skills:
The development of motor skills occurs from the top down - first neck, then arms, then legs. And from the centre out - first neck, then shoulders, then elbows and wrists, then fingers.
It is true that genetic factors affect motor skills acquisition. All babies develop at a speed that is pre-determined by biological factors such as ethnicity, birth weight and size.
It is your baby’s genes which determine how quickly he loses body fat and gains muscle mass and how fast parts of his body develop. These factors therefore influence when your baby is ready to acquire any motor skills.
But besides the genetic predisposition, the environment provides the opportunities to develop the motor skills that your baby is capable of. A stimulating home environment will allow your baby to reach his full potential.
It can encourage your baby to engage in independent play.
Don’t underestimate household items. A home environment which provides space for physical development will also enhance the IQ.
The latest research highlights that many parents are unaware of the impact of the home environment. The lead scientist says: "When parents buy toys, they're rarely thinking 'I wonder if this is going to be great for my child's fine or gross motor skills”.
But the study found that particularly providing enough space for the baby in the home to play or move around freely is of importance.
Ideally there should be a special space for toys where the child can choose what to play with and get it without help.
But parental involvement is also required. The study showed the positive influence parents exhibited, that regularly played games with their baby. Games included clapping hands, waving and singing action songs like “heads, shoulders, knees and toes”. These activities helped practice movements and stimulated gross motor skills.
We thought it would be useful to compile a list of household items and the way they can be used to support your baby’s motor skills.
Simple household items can provide lots of stimulation for your baby.
Babies start recognising sounds in the womb. Leading researchers believe that your baby is hard-wired to learn language from the minute he is born.
During the first few months, it might not feel like your baby understands you, but your baby is listening to your voice, and will recognise much more than he can say. This is the difference between receptive language and expressive language. Expressive language always lags behind.
By the time your baby reaches 5 months, he will be able to recognise the sound pattern of his own name and turn his head when you call him.
By 6 months, your baby will know the words mummy and daddy and will be able to relate them to the right person.
Around 7 months, your baby’s babbling gets more word-like, although it will still be several months until he says his first word.
Research has shown that at 8 months babies use "statistics" to recognise words. You baby is so clever and he doesn’t even know it.
At around about his first birthday, your baby will say his first word and understand the meaning. He will point at the object to draw your attention – a major milestone for you and your baby.
Don’t think talking to your baby is a waste of time, because he doesn’t understand. You baby understands lots and will love to hear you talk about daily activities.
The latest research shows that babies prefer high-pitched, cooing, baby-like sounds over adult language. It makes babies pay attention.
This little video from McGill University shows the type of sounds researchers used to attract babies attention. Just look at the baby’s little face. The raised eyebrows and wide smile say it all.
Babies appear to recognise instantly when language is directed at them as opposed to adult language which is likely to be directed at another person.
Does that mean you should use baby-talk all the time? Probably not. Some research suggests that babies benefit from hearing properly spoken language. They call baby-directed speech “parentese”. Parentese uses actual words in short, simple sentences, often over and over again. This is different to “baby-language” which uses sounds and nonsense words.
Another great way to introduce more formal language to your baby is to read books. Book language is different from spoken language and prepares babies for language encountered during school.
Read more about how to introduce books early here:
Reading is a lovely way to be physically close to your baby and bond.
Being physically close enough to your baby is always helpful when it comes to language acquisition. Experiencing a sense of security and being relaxed are the pre-requisites for your baby to practice new sounds.
The most effective way to teach your baby to talk is by listening to him. Find something your baby is interested in and really give your baby your full attention.
This method is preferable to diverting your baby’s attention to something YOU find of importance and want to teach him. Let your baby lead the way during interaction and play.
Have you ever wondered if your baby really needs to be held this much? Have you ever wondered if it is true that cuddling and comforting a baby every time he cries is going to spoil him?
Let me offer you some assurance, and scientific evidence supports this view. It is normal for a new baby to cry every time you put him down. It is normal for your baby to be upset if he is not physically close to you when he is awake and aware of your absence. And science has lots of evidence to support your baby’s need for closeness. Science sadly also has proof of the long-term detrimental effect of sensory deprivation, caused by a lack of human touch. But more about that later.
Way back in the days when humans lived in caves, touch was the ultimate signal for a baby to know he was safe. Since then our brains and bodies have not changed much. Even though we now have central heating and baby monitors, our bodies and minds are programmed for physical closeness. Here is a great example to show that babies and mums are meant to connect through touch. Research has shown that a mother’s chest can help a baby regulate his body temperature straight after birth. This happens through skin-to-skin contact. After birth the mother’s chest is one to two degrees warmer than the baby’s body temperature providing a natural warming area for the baby. If the baby warms up the chest temperature drops, but can heat up again by two degrees in one minute if required.
One study even showed that a mum’s breasts can heat independently to regulate the temperature of twins. Convincing evidence that skin-to-skin is beneficial after birth.
Of course the breasts are also the place for feeding and there is lots of research that supports the benefits of breastfeeding. The nutritional aspect of breastfeeding is one thing, but the gentle touch offered during breastfeeding is also important for bonding. If for any reason you cannot breastfeed, rest assured that you can still bond with your baby by holding him close whilst bottle feeding. You can always give your baby an extra dose of sensory stimulation by undressing and holding your baby against your skin.
Why would you undress when you don’t have to? Because there is evidence to suggest that skin-to-skin contact reduces crying. This is particularly true at around 6 weeks, when babies cry the most. It calms babies and also makes them sleep better. Physical contact especially increases deep sleep in babies, which helps brain development and growth.
Amazingly research has shown that touch not only reduces stress in the baby, but the mum too. Physical contact with your baby will reduce the chances of developing depression. My own feeling is that there is a bit of a chicken-and-egg going on here. No mum wants to listen to a baby cry all the time. It makes you miserable, helpless and gives you the feeling you are a bad parent if you can’t soothe your baby. Simply increasing skin-to-skin contact has a calming effect on your baby. There are no negative side effects. Skin to skin works by releasing your happy hormones. It also works by calming your baby, which gives your ears and mind a break.
There are two sources which give scientists evidence of the negative effects of touch deprivation. They are premature babies and babies that grew up in Romanian orphanages. The sad cases of Romanian orphanages are an extreme example of maltreatment. But it is still remarkable what research can teach us. The effects resulting from lack of physical contact are irreversible and long-lasting even into adulthood. Touch deprived humans show vastly different hormone levels as babies and as adults. These hormones are linked to emotional and social bonding. The lack of touch also has a profound effect on physical and mental growth.
In comparison to Romanian orphans, babies in incubators are much better cared for. But despite the right temperature, nourishment and extra oxygen, doctors recognised that premature babies suffered because of a lack of touch. As a result hospitals all over the world introduced kangaroo care (skin-to-skin contact) as standard procedure.
And the results are amazing. Premature babies that are massaged gain weight faster, are more active, alert and responsive than babies that are not massaged.
Interestingly there seems to be a difference in how women and men touch babies. Mums generally engage in touch in a more soothing and calming way, whilst dads are often more playful whilst physically interacting with a baby. Both teach different things. Mums communicate calming comfort and safety, whilst dad’s playful touch is more likely to teach awareness of self, especially body self. It also helps a baby to practice the management of extremes of emotion such as excitement.
There is no single parenting book that does not mention the importance of touch.
A hug for comfort or a rough-and-tumble play keeps you connected with your baby throughout childhood. Negative forms of touch like smacking or other abuse will never be forgotten, but become part of your brain structure and function. Touch is an essential part of our happiness.
Do you remember that feeling when your baby was first born and you could hardly keep your eyes of his beautiful flawless face? Radiant skin, succulent lips, the whole face just utter perfection.
The amazing thing is your baby would have felt the same about looking at you.
Nature has equipped babies with awesome tools to allow them to connect with their parents. Here we want to give you some insight into the importance of facial interaction and the role it plays in communicating and bonding.
When babies are born, they cannot talk. But does that mean they are unable to communicate? Hardly. Any new mum can tell you, it is impossible to ignore a crying baby. Pretty clear communication there.
But you don’t mean THAT kind of communication. Surely we want to know what a baby thinks. If he is happy or if he prefers one activity to another.
Your baby does communicate these things too, but the signs are more subtle than the dreaded cry. Crying is mostly used to express negative emotions, like hunger or discomfort and sometimes babies even cry for no known reason. Facial expressions on the other hand are expressions of a whole range of emotions: pleasure, satisfaction, surprise, fear, as well as early signs of tiredness or boredom.
Your baby’s facial muscles are pretty well developed at birth compared to the rest of the body and continue to progress faster than the rest.
One of the earliest “milestones” that parents often await in great anticipation is the first smile. With all his limitations your baby is trying hard to communicate what is in his head. And at first he only has his face to express himself.
How do you reply?
When your baby puts in so much effort and uses all his facial muscles to interact, he expects you to reply. Ideally, he wants you to reply in his language.
One great technique is to copy his expression back to your baby first and then respond. When you mirror back his expression, you are telling your baby you understood.
Research has shown that babies are born with very active mirror neurons in their brains. These specialised brain cells allow your baby to accurately “read your mind”. This is the foundation of empathy. And because your baby’s perception is not yet clouded by words, mirror neurons fire like crazy when you use your face to interact with your baby. Giving your baby plenty of “brain food” through interacting and playing will help his social and emotional skills.
When you interact with your baby, a great thing to try is to act as if your baby’s facial expression was a sentence and then respond in simple sentences, as if your baby had spoken. It doesn’t matter that your baby doesn’t understand your words yet. He will be delighted to see a response to his action, making him feel that his intentions are understood. Feeling understood will make him happy and will make him want to communicate more.
The back-and-forth of baby expressing and mum responding is the first step in non-verbal communicating and turn taking. When you talk, your baby will watch and wait for his turn to “reply”.
Babies that experience responsiveness by a mum copying their behaviour, learn that they can affect their environment. You can make it even more exciting by exaggerating when you copy your baby’s facial expression and adding bits to it. Babies with responsive parents learn about their emotional experiences and develop more rapidly.
Babies that don’t experience facial interaction, might become withdrawn and are more likely to cry. Babies need interaction, and small clues about their emotional state might otherwise be missed. If they cannot communicate their emotional state, they will get upset regardless whether they wanted to communicate something positive or negative.
Researchers have come up with a very convincing experiment to show that babies get distressed when facial interactions are withdrawn for no obvious reason. They call it the Still Face Experiment and YouTube has an excellent video by Dr Edward Tronick.
Practice makes perfect. And so after your baby has perfected their facial expressions their bodily development will have caught up and other gestures will join the facial expressions, like pointing or waving arms and legs in excitement.
Once your baby can control their breathing – at about 3 months - they are able to screech and gurgle. All these things are predecessors of language. Allow your baby to make the most of each developmental stage, before they move on to the next. Building a strong foundation of connectedness is the key to a happy childhood.
Some child psychologists believe that facial interaction is so important, that they suggest forward facing buggies should be avoided, because it deprives babies of facial contact and an opportunity to interact. Emotions and new experiences cannot be shared and the opportunity to learn will be lost.
Here is what Dr Suzanne Zeedyk, Senior Lecturer in Developmental Psychology at Dundee University has to say:
“Life in a baby buggy is more isolated than many adults realise – and may be more emotionally impoverished than is good for children’s development.
The stroller years are precisely those when human brains are developing more rapidly than they ever will again. Young brains are being shaped by every single tiny experience that a child has. “
It seems, allowing your baby to reach his full potential might just come down to small differences like that.
Small things matter.