Building blocks to your child's future
IT’S SO easy to spend time with your baby without properly engaging. Hanging them on your hip while stirring the cheese sauce doesn’t really count as quality time, I’m afraid.
Often I can spend an entire morning answering random questions, brushing hair, doing the washing and preparing food before I realise I haven’t actually stopped to take a moment to interact with them.
But research (and common sense) tells us that apart from feeding and caring for our babies, playing with them is the most important thing you can do as a parent.
Not just because it’s fun for them, and a return to childhood for you; it is only through play and engaged communication that babies and young toddlers learn the essential lessons of life, as Einstein confirmed when he said, “Play is the highest form of research.”
Babies and toddlers learn more in their first three years than in any other time of their lives, and the skills they develop – spacial awareness, cognitive knowledge, socialisation, fine and gross motor skills, visual understanding, cause and effect, and listening and language – form the building blocks for the rest of their lives.
Babies are born ready to learn, and from the earliest hours are already figuring out the smell of their mother who will feed them. Proper stimulation and development of key abilities will determine a child’s competence to learn basic skills and maximise intellectual growth.
Newborns have billions of brain cells, almost double that of adults, and early sensory stimulations such as touch, smell and sound dictate which brain cells will develop and grow and which will die away.
There is evidence that children who are not exposed to reasonable levels of playful touch, communication and attention develop brains 20 per cent smaller than normal, and experiments have shown that impoverished children who receive physical and mental enrichment for the first three years of life develop an IQ 20 points above those who have none.
Yet, many parents are self-conscious when it comes to releasing their own inner child. Child play expert and founder of ClapHandies, Liza Crotty, says, “Many parents are awkward at first. They feel silly singing a nursery rhyme, but it’s just about engaging.
“Talking constantly to your baby, and as they grow, getting into ‘conversations’ even if nothing they say makes sense, all helps that baby develop key skills.”
Importantly, playing with your child does not necessarily involve an investment in toys or expensive games.
Nowadays when we think of play, we think of toys, but before the mid-20th century children’s play meant imaginary improvisation. Crotty explains: “Getting on the floor with your baby and using household items like scarves, spoons and water in cups is as effective as any educational toy.”
In the early days with your baby, it might look like most of their day is spent chewing and drooling over any object within reach, but from day one your baby is learning, and before they go to school, the majority of this learning comes from play.
“Through play, little ones learn how to do things and complete tasks independent of you,” Crotty says.
“This is so important as they learn self-reliance and the ability to figure out what makes them happy and interested. They learn about themselves through play. Simple tickle games on the hand and foot are teaching them body awareness, playing telephones helps them act out like the adults around them. Play teaches them about concepts, relationships, sizes, colours, textures, emotions and sounds among other things.”
For most parents, this should come naturally enough, and Dr Eleanor Molloy, consultant neonatalist at the National Maternity Hospital, explains how important it is.
“During your baby’s first year, he or she will experience rapid emotional, social, physical and cognitive development. How much depends to some extent on the parents.
“I do feel some parents need support in this area, but unfortunately this is not readily available in Ireland,” she says.
“In some other countries, a primary-care paediatrician would see and advise parents on nine or 10 occasions in the first year.”
So what exactly does early and appropriate stimulation mean? Communication is key.
From the earliest days with your newborn, simple face time and eye contact is vital. By watching your face intently, following movement and recognising familiar faces, their cognitive and language skills develop and gradually they will start using hands and eyes in co-ordination, and smile at the sound of your voice.
As you chat to them about what you are doing, they will soon begin to imitate and babble.
The sense of touch is crucial for strong brain development as appropriate human contact releases vital human growth hormones which promote brain-controlled functions such as weight gain, motor skills and restful sleep, while reducing stress and hyperactivity.
Baby massage, for example, has been proved to stimulate weight gain and growth in premature infants.
Parents can also help with physical development by simply playing with their baby’s body, tickling toes, giving them objects to grasp, and playing peekaboo.
“Play allows babies and toddlers to develop self-esteem, to be in charge, to learn about their environment, to act out what they see in the world around them, to build social skills, to develop speech as they talk to their teddy uninhibited,” says Crotty.
“Acting out and imaginative play allows them to be inspirational, ambitious, courageous, important, bossy, adventurous, and king or queen of the castle. And the earlier it starts the better. Luckily for parents, it’s as easy as child’s play.”
For play ideas see tips.claphandies.ie/wordpress
FUN AND GAMES: FIVE IDEAS FOR PLAYTIME
1.Make your own rattle – fill a small empty water bottle with rice or pasta, and get shaking.
2.To distract an upset baby, gently blow on, or fan your baby’s face – they love the feeling of breeze.
3.Teach them that there is noise without sight – show them a rattle then hide it behind your back and keep rattling, hide it behind theirs, to the side of the pram.
4.Make a “Feeling Fun” bag – filled with a variety of safe objects with varying textures, and let your exploring baby play with them.
5.To help with co-ordination and movement, lie them on their back and give them your fingers to grasp. Gently pull them to sitting. This can progress to “Row the Boat” as they develop.