Your Newborn's Development
In a world obsessed with faster, better and stronger, it is no surprise that the "do more" philosophy has moved to include our children. Toys abound that promise to make your child smarter in the womb and flashcards for babies are commonplace. But do these gimmicks really work? Just how much can babies younger than a year old learn beyond the basics of sitting up, chewing and, in some cases, walking?
Ann Friedrick, a mother of two from Portland, Ore., wasn't sure just how much her children would learn before they were a year old, but she figured enrichment couldn't hurt. "At that time I didn't know if the activities I was doing would have any effect on my child, but I figured it was a mother's job to try," she says. "I played classical music, offered visually stimulating toys and did a lot of face-to-face verbal engagement."
Friedrick, like most mothers, wasn't trying to create a genius; she just wanted to enrich her child's life in any way she could. But just how much enriching sticks to an infant before age 1?
The Magical Brain of a Newborn
Janet Doman is a specialist in child brain development and infant stimulation In her 35 years of experience, she has noted just how much the infant brain is capable of.
"At birth, a newborn baby is functionally blind, deaf and insensate," Doman says. "These sensory pathways grow and develop based upon stimulation."
As an example, Doman says a newborn baby usually has a less than perfect light reflex. "The light reflex is seen when the baby is exposed to light and the pupil constricts in response to that light," she says. "The sooner this reflex matures and becomes consistent, the sooner that baby will develop the ability to see outline and then detail. This is very easy to do and takes very little time, but it means that the baby gains the ability to see detail weeks or months earlier than he would have done if we had relied upon accidental stimulation. This is purposeful stimulation rather than accidental stimulation."
Doman says this is one example of sensory stimulation for infants. A full sensory stimulation program at the newborn level or in the first few months of life involves very brief stimulation in all five sensory pathways (seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting and smelling). These brief stimulations help each pathway mature. As these pathways grow and become more mature, they are more useful for the Baby. Mom and Dad can learn how to evaluate these pathways so they can easily determine what Baby needs next and what he or she no longer needs in each area.
The Brain Grows by Using It
It remains largely a mystery as to why the brain grows by use, but the fact remains that it does. The brain grows explosively between conception and age 6.
"The younger the baby is, the faster he will learn. If the baby is provided with visual, auditory and touch stimulation with increased frequency, intensity and duration and given greater opportunity to move, talk and feel, he will develop more rapidly in all areas. This will increase his overall understanding of the world around him and greatly increase his interaction with his family. His happiness, health and general well-being are also significantly improved by stimulation and opportunity."
The Language Connection
Doman says when you grow one area of the brain, all areas will be enhanced to some degree. An overall program of stimulation and opportunity will enhance language development.
"Newborns have very poor respiration at first," Doman says. "This makes it hard to make sounds at will. As the baby sees better he wants to move more. If he is given the opportunity to move on the floor, he will move. When he is given the chance to move more often, his respiration is improved. As he is able to breathe better, he makes more sounds. The more sounds he makes the more the Mother responds to these sounds. The more the Mother and Baby talk to each other the sooner the Mother breaks the sound barrier and understands what the baby is actually saying."
Doman believes that babies are desperate to be understood. Most babies will not be understood until they are 12 to 14 months old. She claims this process could occur by 3 to 4 months instead.
Babies begin clearly articulating their first words between 8 and 20 months because they have been absorbing and retaining the sounds of a language and associating meanings to those sounds. "Before that time they start uttering 'proto-words,' otherwise known as babbling, as young as 5 months," Thibaut says. "Although their babbling sounds insensible to us, the babies are beginning to talk to us, are trying to convey meaning and attempting to repeat what adults around them are saying."
Thibaut says babies are highly sensitive and receptive to everything they hear and see. Their brains are programmed to store and later recall every sound and every word pattern. "A baby's brain forms a separate brain cell with which to store each different sound they hear.”
"Before 8 and 20 months, babies simply listen and store what they hear. This is the prime of their critical period - the time of their greatest neurological capacity to absorb and store language."
Obviously, very young babies can learn. With stimulation and attention, your child may learn to do what they were born to do - communicate with their parents. And even if they don't become the next boy wonder, you may have given them a lifelong gift - a love of learning and communication.
Language Stimulation Do's and Don'ts
Janet Doman, the author of How Smart Is Your Baby? Develop and Nurture Your Newborn's Full Potential (Square One Publishing, 2006), offers these tips:
Always listen to the Baby
Look as if you are listening
Be willing to wait for a response
Accept the fact that the Baby decides whether to respond or not; it is his choice
Respond to what he says
Welcome enthusiastically every effort the Baby makes to talk
Assign meanings to the specific sounds that the Baby says repeatedly
Use real words when talking to the Baby
Use "baby talk" with the Baby
Ignore the Baby
Ask a question and leave no time for the Baby to answer
Neglect to answer him
Imitate or make fun of the sounds he makes
Correct his pronunciation
Try to force him to answer or respond
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