Stimulating your baby in the right way can help to improve their curiosity, attention span, memory, and the development of their nervous system. By stimulating your infant’s senses, they are more likely to reach their developmental milestones faster, have improved muscle co-ordination and motor skills and show a greater self-esteem. The benefits of stimulation extend further than simply academic development, but have been proven to be paramount in the development of social and emotional interaction and language.
During the first year of their life, a baby’s brain is growing faster than it ever will and infant-development experts believe that the first years of a child’s life are the optimum time for learning. It is now widely known that early experiences, particularly those during these first years set the foundations for ongoing development.
Babies learn and develop through being part of activities that arouse or stimulate their sense of smell, sight, touch and hearing, but this does not necessarily mean the need for expensive toys or technologies. Playing with your baby and interacting with them to involve them in social contact and their immediate surroundings will have the greatest impact on their development. The best way for a child to learn is not to leave them in a playpen with toys, but to hold them and play with them. In fact, the stimulation a child needs occurs during typically-occurring everyday experiences.
There are a multitude of baby classes out there now, such as aqua swim, baby sing and sign, baby yoga…the list is endless. All are designed to help with child development through stimulation of their movement and senses. Whilst these classes are excellent in providing a varied and fun approach to learning and interacting with others, parents are a child’s first teachers and it is the course of everyday interactions with them that helps to develop their individual capability and forms their own imagination as they take their cues from their parents and from their experiences with you playing with them.
So, what kind of stimulation is best? What toys or games work well, and can a child be over-stimulated?
A baby’s immediate surroundings will have the greatest impact on their development, as they explore by using their ears, eyes, nose, mouth and hands.
Sensory stimulation can incorporate a range of experiences, including touching different food textures and introducing new tastes, being held and cuddled or rocked gently, hearing different noises and sounds…all of which occur naturally in the environment. There is little scientific evidence to support the need for specialist tools or equipment beyond the normal experiences that are typical of most home or nursery environments.
In order for a baby to be receptive to stimulation, they need to be alert and ready for it, not sleepy or irritable. When a baby is more attentive, learning is natural and easy and they make a conscious effort to explore and learn more about the world surrounding them. Babies are born with natural ability to engage with their new environment, but also the capacity to protect themselves from over-stimulation, illustrated by their limited vision when newly born, long sleep periods and restricted motor skills. Constant stimulation can actually be detrimental to their learning and development, so it is important to read your baby’s cues to recognise their capacities and limits.
Babies differ in their needs and tolerance of stimulation and therefore will respond individually to the level of support and interaction offered to them. Their varying temperaments will mean that some may be more curious, and others appear sleepier.
Babies and very young children benefit more from repetition of activities or events, as they learn better this way, but this needs to stop or be varied when their attention appears to wane or if you feel their mind is no longer challenged or excited by that stimulation. When this happens, change a toy or activity, play some different music, or stimulate a different sense.
At birth, a baby can only see 8-13 inches in front of their face and can distinguish between black and white, some patterns, and light and dark, whereas older infants love brighter colours.
Hang toys above their pram /crib / carry cot.
Try to look at your baby when feeding them.
Change your facial expression whilst looking at them or stick out your tongue…studies show that newborn babies can spot facial movements and even imitate them illustrating early problem solving.
Let a baby stare at themselves in the mirror.
Playing peekaboo can not only stimulate your child visually, but also teaches them that things can disappear and then come back
Talk to your baby…explain what you are doing and ask questions, changing the tone and pitch of your voice appropriately. Your voice is both reassuring and stimulating to them and can help them catch on to the rhythm of conversation.
Singing a song and playing music can both stimulate and relax a baby and there is evidence to suggest that the rhythms and changes of beat in music can help with learning things such as maths later on.
Shake a rattle, squeak a toy…but don’t make loud noises that may damage their hearing or over-stimulate them
Reading to infants even as young as 8 months can help them to understand sequencing of words and ultimately language development later when stories are read to them 2-3 times in a row.
Touch provides reassurance, hands-on interaction, and relaxation, and your baby feels more secure when they can feel blankets or soft boundaries around them. Babies like contact to be firm but gentle, and love being massaged.
Bathtime is a great way of stimulating a baby’s senses with water trickling over them, and the ability to splash about and move their limbs in a relaxing and supportive medium. For this reason, baby aqua classes are extremely popular, stimulating their senses whilst allowing their limbs to move freely and develop co-ordination and strength.
Let a baby play with its food to feel different textures such as pieces of chopped fruit, cooked pasta, peas and bread…this also helps to develop their finger muscles and hand-mouth co-ordination. In addition, it also allows them to be part of choosing what they pick up to eat rather than simply being spoon-fed the whole time.
Taste and smell:
Stimulate their senses with different tastes and smells. Recognising a smell can feel comforting to a baby and help them to relax and link them to specific events such as bedtime or feeding.
Introduce contrasting tastes to vary their experience at meal times and widen their exposure to different ranges of food groups, combining taste with texture, temperature, sweet versus savoury etc.
What do I do if my baby seems to have low energy levels?
This is likely to be nothing to worry about and simply tends to be a characteristic of their particular temperament as a baby. Some babies can seem to need a lot of sleep and may not be overly-interested in participating in all the stimulating activities you offer them. They will need support to stay engaged during interaction, but if you start slowly, and gradually increase the periods of alert time to introduce this to them, this should prevent under-stimulation, without risking over-stimulation. It may be useful to start with simple stimulation such as face-to-face interaction while being held after a feed, to build their tolerance steadily. Gentle stroking, massaging or rocking can help to alert a baby to remain attentive to stimulation.
My baby is constantly eager to explore and interact but can become suddenly overwhelmed and then irritable…
This example can be illustrated by the often confusing picture of laughter and interaction from a baby quickly followed by tears and frustration, which can make it difficult to know how and when to stimulate them or when to back off. With babies who struggle to settle to sleep and always seem to want to be watching everything that’s happening around them, whilst their natural interest in the world needs to be supported , this does need to be balanced, to ensure that play / stimulation does not go on too long so as not to over-stimulate them. It is important to ensure that periods of play do not interfere with, or extend into regular rest periods. Playing music to them may not necessarily relax them to sleep, but may stimulate them further! Encourage quiet time to help dampen down their eager senses.
Stimulation needs to be supportive but also challenging to help them to consolidate and progress their development, and repetition is important because this is the way they learn the best.
There are also times when stimulation means simply getting on the floor with your baby and letting them explore in their own way to see where they choose to go, without the need for sounds, toys or cues.
So what happens to all of this information that a baby is exposed to? Sensory processing is the natural and automatic ability for an individual to take in, organise and then assign meaning to the information taken in by their senses. It is part of a baby’s normal development and an essential component in reaching their social, emotional and behavioural milestones.
Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a recognised neuro-developmental disorder which affects the way in which a child can take in information provided by their environment, sort it out and produce an appropriate reaction. Those with difficulties in processing sensations usually demonstrate problems producing appropriate reactions, which can interfere with learning and behaviour and affect their development as a child. SPD may exist alongside other disorders such as Cerebral Palsy, Autistic Spectrum Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Developmental Co-ordination Disorder and some learning difficulties. This disorder does not simply disappear over time without intervention.
Sensory Integration Therapies work with children with this disorder to help them learn how to manage external stimuli and support their development through specific strategies, play and activities that can promote learning and normal behaviour. Often programmes are individualised as each child may have different difficulties to the next.
Visit our website to find out more about Sensory Processing Disorders and how they can be helped http://www.yorkshirechildrensphysiotherapy.co.uk/conditions-treated/sensory-processing-disorder.html
Sensory stimulation can come from many sources and needs to be a combination of exploration, exposure to new things, recognition of habitual activities or sounds and interactive play, in order to provide a varied developmental experience for a child. We are slipping further and further into a technological world where television, dvds, tablets and i-phones are seen as ideal means of distraction for a child. Whilst these can provide entertainment and in some cases a level of interaction from the child, it is important to make sure that these do not replace the natural stimulation and interaction between a child, their parents and their immediate world around them, nor dampens their desire to explore and use their own imagination.
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