Recent advances in brain research have proven that an infant’s environment has a dramatic effect on brain-building and healthy development. It is this early stage of brain development that results in how, and how well, one thinks and learns—both as children and as adults.
In the first years of a baby’s life, the brain is busy building its wiring system. Activity in the brain creates tiny electrical connections called synapses. The amount of stimulation an infant receives directly affects how many synapses are formed. Repetitive and consistent stimulation strengthens these connections and makes them permanent. Those connections that don’t get used may be dropped away.
The early years are the “prime time” for a young developing brain. This intense period of brain growth and network building capacity happens only once in a lifetime. As caregivers and parents, we have this brief but unique opportunity to help encourage the formation of brain circuitry in our infants.
Fascinating facts that researchers have discovered
- Infants have a biological need and desire to learn.
- The foundational networking of the brain’s synapses is nearly complete after the rapid brain development of the first three years.
- The more age-appropriate and interesting experiences, both physical and social-emotional, that an infant participates in, the more circuitry is built for enhanced learning in the future.
- Infants have a definite preference for the human face, voice, touch and smell over everything else. Therefore, the infant’s best toy is you, as you speak, move, touch and talk with them.
- Interesting stimulation can enhance curiosity, attentiveness, concentration and love of learning in the growing infant and toddler.
- Language stimulation is fundamental to all areas of cognitive development. Infants and children who are conversed with, read to, and otherwise engaged in lots of verbal interaction show more advanced linguistic skills than children who are not as verbally engaged by their caregivers.
Babies are social creatures. At first they learn how to be social mainly through watching parents and other family members. Later babies will learn, too, from people outside the family. While babies are young, parents can show them how people should behave towards one another by setting a good example.
- Talk to your child. You need to talk to your baby, even though they probably won’t understand what parents are saying for quite some time. You should also pause in their conversations, too, to give your babies a chance to reply. This will show to carry on a conversation with others, which is an important social skill.
- Repeat noises. You should repeat the noises their babies make. This will show babies that you are paying attention to what they’re saying, and that what they are saying is meaningful.
- Provide Social toys. You should provide social toys such as stuffed animals, animal mobiles, and dolls. Babies will soon carry on conversations with them.
- Encourage social smiling. You can encourage social smiling which emerges at about four months of age, by of course, smiling at their babies often.
This will be a rapid change for most babies. Babies will be learning many new motor skills.
Some things that parents can do to help their babies’ development in this area:
- Head/Neck control. Hold the babies upright for a few minutes at a time, supporting their heads at first, until they have the neck strength to hold their heads steady.
- Upward stimulation. You can place your babies on their stomachs, then hold or shake something interesting above them. Babies will naturally look up toward the sound. This can also be done by making on interesting noise above babies’ heads.
Sitting is a skill that children will be working on during the period from about six to eight months. At first babies will only be able to sit alone, unsupported, for a few seconds at a time.
Slowly these periods will grow longer. By nine months of age or so, most babies will probably be able to sit without support for long periods of time.
Some ways to encourage sitting
- Hold your baby in sitting positions. You can hold your babies in sitting positions, supporting their heads and necks if needed.
- Prop them up. You can prop their babies in sitting positions in a soft, safe place.
- Sit them on the floor. You can put your baby in sitting positions on the floor with his legs open and his hands in front on the floor between his legs. Hold in this position for a few seconds if they need the support.
- Pull them into position. You can gently pull your babies from lying to sitting positions (this exercise also encourages head/neck control).
Fine Motor Development
- Fine motor skills will develop more quickly if parents give their babies plenty of opportunity to use their hands to manipulate objects, touch, explore, and experiment.
- By six months of age, most babies begin reaching for objects both in and out of their reach. Eye/hand coordination as well as grasp are steadily improving.
Some tips how you can help your babies improve their fine motor skills
- Stimulate grasp. You can place objects into your babies’ hands to stimulate grasp. Then gently pull.
- Practice reaching. You can provide ample opportunity for your babies to reach for and grasp interesting objects. Some examples are stuffed animals, rattles, blocks, and busy boards.
- Practice handing. You can hand objects to your babies, then encourage them to hand them back.
- Provide finger foods. When children begin eating solids, you can provide plenty of finger-food at mealtimes so your babies can feed themselves.
Fine motor skills development
From the age of six months on, babies will begin more and more to understand language. They will first understand names, then single words, and finally simple sentences. babies will understand spoken Language much earlier than they will be able to speak it.
During this time that babies will begin to develop simple problem solving skills. Here’s how parents can help stimulate language and intellectual skills:
- Talk to your babies
- Imitate your baby
- Carry on conversations with your babies.
- Make eye contact with your babies while talking to them
- Read to your babies
- Concentrate on a few words
- Use visuals when introducing a new word, parents should show their babies a drawing or picture of the new word, too.
- Encourage curiosity. Parents should let their babies experiment and explore. Parents can encourage curiosity and creativity by letting their babies do things “their way”. Babies learn more through experience than by being told or shown how to do things. Parents should keep in mind, too, that there is nothing wrong if babies play with toys in unusual ways. If babies prefer to look at a book upside down, that’s okay. Babies are always experimenting and learning. Parents should not limit their babies’ experiences by believing that there is a “wright way” to do things.
Can holding, cuddling, and eye contact help infants grow and develop?
Infants need gentle touching, holding and eye contact just as they need food to grow and develop. Research has demonstrated that nurturing touch actually helps infants gain weight and develop healthy relationships with caregivers, as holding and stroking an infant stimulates the brain to release important hormones necessary for growth.
What you can do
- Hold the infant when the infant needs to be held. Simple cues include crying, fussing, reaching for you, or gazing toward you.
- You can hold an infant while you tend to the verbal needs of another child.
- Provide other “touch” experiences for the infant, even at a very early age. Put the infant on various surfaces using fabrics and materials, such as towels, soft blankets, straw mats, etc.
- Allow the infant to touch a variety of surfaces: sticky, smooth, wet, bumpy and cold.
- Watch for signs of what kinds of touch the infant likes and dislikes. Does he smile and seem to enjoy the experience or does he fuss and pull away? Stop any touch experiences the infant seems to dislike.
- Infants sense things (touch) through many parts of their body, so rub noses, and touch elbows and knees.
BrainWonders. ©2002 ZERO TO THREE, Erikson Institute, and Boston University School of Medicine. Adapted from www. zerotothree.org with permission of ZERO TO THREE.
Starting Smart: How Early Experiences Affect Brain Development. T. Hawley, An Ounce of Prevention Fund and ZERO TO THREE Paper (1998).
From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development. J. Shonkoff & D. Phillips (Eds.), National Research Council-Institute of Medicine, National Academy Press (2000).
Rethinking the Brain: New Insights into Early Brain Development. Rima Shore, Families & Work Institute (1997).