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It's child's play, really. Playing right with your baby in the first three years of life can have a profound influence on the kind of child and adult he or she becomes.
Here's why. When a baby is born, the brain cells begin making trillions of connections with each other as it starts to experience its environment. Human brains have a set number of neurons, or brain cells, but nobody really knows how many connections, called synapses, a brain can make, given the proper environment. Science does know, however that the synapses are where a baby's brain stores information. The more connections that are made and retained at critical times in the first three years of life, the greater opportunity for an emotionally, socially and intellectually successful baby. Of course genetics play a part in how babies turn out. But more and more evidence suggests it's the balance between genetics and environment -- nature and nurture -- that determines what kind of people we become. What can parents and others do to help a baby's brain make those all-important connections at critical times? Here is a guide.
The basics of baby interaction: Touch is extremely important. Babies benefit greatly from being held, cuddled and massaged. Car seats are important in the car, but as a means of transport outside the car, a front carrier or sling, often called a Snuggly, allows the hands to remain free while keeping the baby close. Such carriers promote bonding (between baby and Dad, too), and may also help reduce the risk of postpartum depression. A baby has a unique personality. Find ways to support it. An active infant needs lots of opportunities to play. A cautious baby needs extra time to get used to new situations and people. Babies cry when they are hungry, or in pain or lonely. It's best to respond to a baby's cry right away so the child will learn to trust a parent's care. Also, research has shown that when parents respond quickly, their children cry less. Teach by playing. Babies need to experience all their senses to learn. When a parent mimics their faces and babble, it enhances a baby's self-esteem. Be aware of a baby's cues. Alert: means ready to play. Inattentive: May need a rest. Fussy: May need cuddling and comforting. Babies like routines and repetition. Try to keep feeding, bathing and diaper changing times consistent and relaxed. Having a routine helps a baby develop a sense of security. Let your baby explore and discover, as long as he or she is safe. Limit television time. Using the television as a babysitter, even if the program is educational, cannot substitute for interaction with a caregiver. Babies like bouncing and motion, and it helps them develop a sense of balance. But never shake or hit a baby - it can cause brain damage or even death. Spend time talking and reading to your baby. Despite how silly it might sound, research has shown that infants respond better to "parentese," that higher-pitched sing-songy way adults talk to children. Children who hear a lot of words - especially positive ones - develop larger vocabularies. Some babies can be difficult to comfort at first. If you need help, ask for it. Also, if you're not taking care of yourself, it makes taking care of an infant even more difficult. Source: www.iamyourchild.org; The Kentucky Guide for Families; U.S. Department of Education. Being a "playful parent" Children learn when they play. When a child drops food off his high chair, he learns about gravity. Swinging helps with balance; playing with other kids teaches sharing; peek-a-boo "teaches them that people might go away but they also come back." Parents help children expand their abilities when they just play with them. Remember these tips: Share floor time. Play games your child wants at his level. Take snuggle breaks when your child begins to get frustrated to maintain a good connection. When playing a competitive game, let your child win most of the time at first; it helps her build a sense of accomplishment. "Then gradually build up your effort so that she can get a sense of her own abilities." Give your child undivided attention rather than keeping one eye on dinner or playing and working at the same time. When your child giggles, go with it. Figure out what's making him giggle and do it over and over again. Play dress-up, but let your child be the director. Let them assign you a role in their play and them ham it up. Take time in the morning to play. Just 10 minutes of acting silly with your child will provide an outlet for some of her playtime energy and therefore save you from anxiously fussing and nagging at her to get ready. Set aside time every week to play (enthusiastically) all the games you normally hate to play. Be prepared for wildly fun and exuberant play to switch instantly to tears and tantrums. That happens sometimes because children feel so safe and so well loved that they let out all the feelings they've been holding in. Just listen to them until they're done and then get back to playing. When two children fight over a toy, grab it and run, saying, "I never get to play with this toy! You two will never be able to get it away from me!" Then the two have to become a team and work together instead of taking it out on one another. Source: Dr. Lawrence Cohen, author of Playful Parenting, in an article for the Web site parentsoup.com. Getting ready to read: Read early and often to your child. Experts say they can't emphasize it enough: A child needs to have exposure to reading before he or she enters school These are the skills your children learn when you read aloud to them. Knowledge of printed letters and words and the relationship between sound and print. The meanings of many words. How books work and a variety of writing styles. Understanding the world in which they live. Knowing the difference between written language and everyday conversation. Getting pleasure from reading. How to listen. How to ask and answer questions, participate in discussions and follow rules of polite conversation. How to speak at an appropriate volume and speed, and use language to express their feelings and ideas. How to make reading fun for your child: Schedule reading times every day. Share a book at breakfast or bedtime, or in the afternoon. Talk about it ahead of time to build anticipation for reading times. Pick a comfortable, secure-feeling place for reading, Use different voices for the characters and be expressive as you read. Talk or sing about the pictures in a picture book. Don't expect to finish the book in one sitting. Children have short attention spans. They will be able to sit longer as they get older. Let them hold the book and turn the pages, as they get old enough to. (It's OK to skip pages.) Explain what the story's about, and show children the words as you read. Personalize a story by inserting comments and asking questions about your own family, pets or community as you read. Ask questions about the story and let the children ask questions as well. Point out things in the illustrations and name them. Reread your children's favorite books. Kids like to hear their favorite stories over and over again. It also helps them recognize repeated sound patterns, and figure out the meaning of unfamiliar words. If letters and words are pointed out during each reading, the child will start to pick up specific words and letter-sound relationships. Choose a variety of books to help children learn about different things. Alphabet books teach letters and how each letter sounds. Counting books introduce them to numbers. Poetry or rhyming books teach phonological awareness (understanding the relationship between sounds and language). Big books are good for pointing out letters, words and other features of print. Books about friendship and teamwork help reinforce social skills. Books about different cultures or those that explain how things work help them understand the world around them. Picture books can be used to encourage children to expand their imaginations by making up stories about the pictures. Try to keep outside interference to a minimum when you read. A child has trouble paying attention to more than one thing at a time. Sources: Dr. Jane Healy, an educational psychologist from Vail, Colo., during a recent conference on Language Acquisition and Early Literacy held by Children Inc. in Covington, Ky., The U.S. Department of Education, in its "Teaching our Youngest" guide. How to chose the right books for your baby: 0-6 months: Books with large designs or pictures with bright colors; stiff cardboard books or foldout books that can be propped up in the crib; cloth and soft vinyl books with simple pictures of people or familiar objects that can get washed or go in the bath. 6-12 months: Board books with photos of other babies or "chunky" board books that can be touched and tasted; books with photos of familiar objects like balls and bottles; books sturdy enough to be propped up or spread out in the crib or on a blanket; plastic or vinyl books for the bath; washable soft cloth books that can be cuddled and mouthed; small photo albums of family and friends. 12-24 months: Sturdy books that they can carry; books with photos of children doing familiar things like sleeping or playing; goodnight books for bedtime; books about saying goodbye and hello; books with only a few words on each page or simple rhymes and predictable text; any type of animal book. 2-3 years: Simple stories; rhyming books that can be memorized; bedtime books; books about counting, the alphabet, shapes and sizes; animal books, vehicle books; books about their favorite TV characters; books about saying hello and goodbye. 3-5 years: Books about children who look and live like them; counting books; concept books about things like size and time; simple "science" books about how things work; books about anything they show a special interest in; books about making friends, going to the doctor, going to school; books about having brothers and sisters; books with simple text they can memorize or read. Source: U.S. Department of Education; Dr. Jane Healy; www.zerotothree.org/brainwonders Critical periods: As mentioned earlier, scientific research has established that a child's brain goes through several critical periods in its development. These are phases during which the child's brain has to have certain experience or input in order to develop properly as it learns about different brain functions like how to see movement, feel emotion, understand language or develop memory. Each has a different developmental timetable, and along with that different critical periods. Vision: The process of "visual wiring" of a child's brain occurs in two processes, Dr. Elise Eliot says in her book. The first phase is genetically controlled and establishes a "crude wiring diagram," she said. Comparing the process to a long journey, the first phase would be like a plane ride that drops all the passengers at the airport but leaves them still with a ways to travel. At that point, Eliot writes, "nature leaves off and nurture finishes the trip." The second phase of visual wiring is controlled by experience - "the electrical activity generated by a baby's actual act of seeing." A baby's vision will show improvement at about 2 months of age, then again at about 4 months when there will be a sudden improvement. By six months of age, they are very aware of what's going on around them. Because of the need for early visual stimulation, children who have early problems, such as congenital cataracts or eye misalignment, should have them corrected as soon as possible. Otherwise, permanent impairment may result. Children's visual development is highly shapeable until about age two, and then gradually lessens until about age 8, when the visual growth is largely complete. For the first two months, the child focuses best on things that are 8-12 inches away - just the distance of a mother's face during feeding. "The Magic of Everyday Moments," a campaign launched by Zero to Three, suggests that parents help boost their baby's vision by holding toys in that optimal range and try to find toys that have high contrast, like black and white, and bright colors. While talking to the baby, play tracking games, moving an object slowly from side to side. The baby will follow with his eyes if he's awake and alert. If he needs a break, he'll let you know by turning away or crying. This activity also helps strengthen a baby's neck muscles because eventually he will move his head as well. Between 6-9 months, a baby begins to understand that people and things exist even if he or she can't see them. Parents can help reinforce this by playing peek-a-boo and disappearing and reappearing games (hide a toy or drop an object and watch the child try to find it). Hide-and-seek games in the 9-12 months age range also help reinforce this "object permanence." Also parents need to talk to their children when they are out of their sight to help reduce anxiety and help them play alone for brief periods. As they develop "object permanence," babies can become very persistent -- they remember what toy they were playing with the day before and want it back. Balance and motion: The critical period for the development of a child's vestibular system is 6-12 months of age. The vestibular system is in the inner ear. It senses the movement of the head and controls balance, posture and reflexes. Stimulation of the vestibular system is very important to motor learning and possibly higher cognitive development. Babies benefit from being rocked, bounced, carried, swung and spun (but not shaking). It's common to see a baby engage in "self-stimulation" of his or her vestibular system by bouncing and rocking themselves, or even banging their heads.
Touch: The sense of touch is one of the earliest a baby develops. Premature babies have shown marked improvement when they were given massages, and placed in "nests" of soft material inside the incubator.
Children 4-6 months old benefit from playing with toys of different textures, shapes, weights and functions. Anything a baby gets his hands on needs to be clean and safe for mouthing. Babies use their mouths as another way to get to know an object, so anything he handle needs to be big enough not to fit entirely into his mouth, and smooth enough not to scratch or irritate him. Offer toys that have a lot of variation in shape and texture - he can make these distinctions with his mouth.
Movement and coordination: Exercise and other environmental factors are important for strengthening a baby's muscles and ensuring that movements develop properly. Because parents are encouraged to put babies to sleep on their backs to reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, babies need to spend some of their waking time on their stomachs so they can work on upper body motions like pushing up, rolling over and crawling.
Dr. Eliot and others say that baby walkers actually delay the onset of independent sitting up and walking by giving a child the means to get around without walking. Because exercise in general improves the blood flow to the brain, it's just as important to a child's development as learning to read and write.
Newborns don't actually grip things intentionally; they're born with the reflex. Parents can encourage them to pay attention to their hands by finding toys that make gentle sounds when they move. At about 3 months, they begin to realize they can control their hands and begin to use them more. Then it's good to have lots of toys that are safe to hold, grab, poke and wave.
They also start reaching for things with both hands, and parents can encourage this by laying the baby on his back and holding a brightly colored toy within reach. As he reaches for the object and pulls it closer to examine it, talk to him and cheer him on-even at 3 months, he understands a parent's appreciation.
At 4-6 months, babies begin to gain greater control. They start to roll, reach and grasp more, and start to sit with assistance. Parents can help by placing their child in different positions - on her back, stomach and sitting with support. The infant gets a different perspective, and a chance to develop different skills like rolling, creeping and crawling, and using both hands while sitting. To help a child use his new motor skills to explore how things work, give him a variety of toys with different features (size, shape, texture, weight, function) and show him different ways to use them. Demonstrate switching objects from one hand to another, shaking them, banging them, pushing them and dropping them.
When a baby turns away, arches his back or starts to cry, it may mean he needs a break from intense play. This might be a good time for a snuggle-break. Bath time can provide a good learning environment for 6-9 month-olds. Parents should provide a variety of safe bath toys, and join the child in playing with them. This is also the time when babies begin to creep, crawl and scuttle about. Parents should create a safe environment for the child so that no dangerous objects are within her grasp and that anything she might pull herself up on is stable and will support her weight. Parents need to remember that babies develop at different rates, and early crawlers may not become early walkers. It's also a good time to encourage a baby's curiosity by letting him explore. Find out what's interesting him and encourage him to check it out.
Babies at this age also begin to hold things between thumb and forefinger, and enjoy "back- and-forth" games. Handing something to him and letting him hand it back helps him learn give-and-take as well as coordination.
After about 1 year of age, a toddler develops a better understanding of how things work. Parents can help encourage this by offering toys that represent real-world objects so a child can practice being a "big person." Activities like blowing bubbles and playing simple musical instruments help children make things happen. Parents should let toddlers start to help dress themselves to provide them with a sense of accomplishments. They can also participate in everyday activities with parents so they gain confidence.
Emotion and memory: Emotion and memory are controlled by a part of the brain called the limbic system. Its development depends on experience, and influences all other learning. To develop a normal limbic system, a child has to have normal social interaction, both with peers and parents, Eliot said. The critical period for this development is birth to age 3.
Parents can start encouraging this at birth by talking to their children about everything. Even at 1 month, a baby is a good listener. Engage in chitchat while changing diapers, rocking, walking. Babies like their parents' voice best, but will also indicate what other types of sounds they like. The smile is a baby's earliest form of communication. Smile back.
Behavior: The brain's frontal lobe controls behavior by inhibiting inappropriate movement, thought and emotions. Inhibition is important for self-regulation and focused attention, Eliot says. It's believed that lack of inhibition is the underlying cause of Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder. Children are unable to focus because they cannot filter out competing stimuli.
This kind of control develops very slowly, she says. Infants are in near constant motion; the more tired they are, the more active preschoolers get; elementary school children are unable to sit still for long periods, and many teenagers continue to have problems with impulse control.
At about six months, a child will begin to be wary of strangers and even family members he doesn't see often. Parents can help out by holding the baby when introducing him to new people. Give the new person one of the child's favorite toys to help engage him, and make sure family members know that the wariness is nothing personal.
After about 9 months, children begin to become more emotionally dependent on their parents, and separations become more difficult. Parents can minimize this by using positive language when saying goodbye. Smile as you talk about where you're going, and mention things that you will do together when you return.
Children at 9-12 months discover the word "no," but it can mean different things in different situations. Sometimes it's just his way of declaring his independence, or he may be making his likes and dislikes known. Or, he may just be tired.
At about 1 year and after, toddlers begin to enjoy watching and playing with peers. They learn many skills through imitation, and the interaction helps them understand how relationships work. Parents can start to introduce the idea of "turn-taking" by telling their child, "Now it's Annie's turn," as they pass a toy back and forth. But, experts say not to pressure a toddler to share if they're not ready.
Because toddlers are short on impulse control, parents need to employ different ways to guide them. Otherwise Mom or Dad winds up spending all day saying "no." Distraction and diversion are a good way to do this. Instead of saying, "No, don't do that," try diverting attention to another toy or activity.
Language: Children have to be exposed to language in order to master it. Research has shown that children with profound hearing impairments that go untreated in the first several years of life will have lasting language deficits as a result. Early ear infections can play a role in affecting language acquisition. Also, there are many case studies of children who were isolated in childhood and failed to develop normal language skills. As evidence of a critical period for language, research has found that early damage to the left hemisphere of the brain, where language skills are housed in adults, will not result in a loss of language skills in a child. Congenitally deaf individuals will not become fully fluent in sign language unless they learn it before age 6. And, learning a second language becomes more difficult after age 7. Eliot said a person can still learn a second language, but it's likely they won' t be able to master the grammar and accent as fluently.
At 3-4 months old, children begin to enjoy babbling. Baby babble progresses from open vowels to new sounds and combinations, with Ps, Ms, Bs and Ds. It's suggested that parents respond to babbling by talking to the baby as if he understands everything you're saying. These early conversations help expand his vocabulary. Parents should also pay attention to the rhythm of a baby's babbling. Babies learn the art of conversation this way. He will babble and pause, waiting for Mom or Dad to say something. Mom or Dad respond and pause, and he picks right back up. A baby's vocalizing continues as he gets older, and by age 4-6 months, he has a variety of sounds in his repertoire. The more a parent responds to his chatter, the more confident he becomes and the more interested in "talking."
Between 6 and 9 months of age, a baby will begin to use sounds and gestures to communicate what she wants. Parents need to become an interpreter, and when she points at an object like her bottle, ask, "Do you want some juice?" Parents can also encourage a link between communication and motor skills by describing what she is doing. If she throws a toy down, talk about it. Make note of what she is looking at or pointing to.
Between 9 and 12 months, a child's sounds will start to have specific meanings (juju for "juice," etc.), and parents can encourage them to show what they mean. Hold two toys and ask, "Which do you want?" Build comprehension by asking, "Where are your shoes?" as you point at them.
After one year, a toddler's communication skills grow rapidly. Parents can help children connect gestures with words through reading. Other things that help communication growth are labeling a child's feelings for her ("You're mad because I took the ball away") and by narrating what's happening ("Let's roll the ball"). When a child uses part of a word for something, like "juju" for "juice," use the actual word when you reply.
Sources: Dr. Elise Eliot, Chicago Medical School; The Magic of Everyday Moments; BrainWonders; ZERO TO THREE. (Tim Skillern contributed to this story.)