A newborn's first year is one big milestone after another. While crawling and rolling over often get the most attention, there are countless developments running behind the scenes that can have a profound effect on a child's entire life. Along with these physical advancements, a newborn's brain develops at an even faster rate, generating 700 neural connections every second — each one key to early development.
What does this mean for parents? Every moment parents engage, communicate, or connect with their offspring is an opportunity to help the child develop into the adult he or she will become. Exposing babies to a variety of sensory interactions is crucial to their growth.
While it can feel daunting to have such a strong impact on children's development from such an early age, there are a few steps parents can take to ensure they're helping in just the right ways:
1. Have a chat.
Healthy social-emotional development occurs when there are positive interactions with parents and caregivers. Parents can encourage this by talking directly to their infants — and not just exchanging "goo-goos" and "gah-gahs."
Parents should have adult conversations around their newborns and encourage any siblings to engage as well. It's important to make eye contact, allowing infants to respond as if it's an actual conversation. Infants won't answer immediately with words, but those pauses and facial or physical responses are good training for soon-to-be social butterflies.
2. Touch, tickle, and hug.
Varied touches allow for a close connection and fully developed senses. Parents can give their children a slow massage, stroking feet, back, and tummy after a bath. They can also offer deep hugs and squeezes, being careful not to hold on too tight — and remembering to tickle those bellies!
Parents can even add different textures — like a warm wash cloth or feather — to offer new stimuli. Some babies will take to these differing sensory experiences right away while others need a little more time, but this variety can be highly valuable later on.
3. Keep their eyes on the ball.
As early as six weeks old, infants may start swatting at or reaching for objects. Parents can encourage this behavior by moving the object from side to side and allowing them to track it. It's important to work at their level, slowing down if necessary so that their eyes continue to follow. These skills help advance hand-eye coordination and dexterity.
4. Schedule some “tummy time.”
Everyone talks about the importance of tummy time, but it truly is vital to development. Humans literally develop from head to toe, and the impact of gravity encourages our muscles to figure things out.
Tummy time helps the muscles work to get ready for all the exciting challenges ahead. Moving against gravity is important for crawling, and hip and core strengthening is key for walking and supporting the back. Pushing up helps build arms and shoulders, which is a key component of posture, as well as writing for when that first day of school finally comes along.
5. Explore different (safe) movements.
Playtime doesn't always have to be the same movements on repeat. Everything from tummy time to lifting and lowering your baby can provide unusual stimuli. This activity helps engage infants' core and neck muscles and provide them with a sensory movement experience.
Of course, parents should still play it safe and provide support as needed, but infants can handle more than they might expect. Parents should always keep good eye contact and let their little ones know that they're there for safety and security.
6. Encourage self-soothing and exploring.
While social interaction is important, it is also vital that babies learn to self-soothe and self-engage. They can't always depend on others for stimulation. Parents can spread a mat on the floor in a secure, padded area, and place some favorite toys nearby while they watch from a safe distance. If the child favors one side, direction, or toy over others, the parent can change up the placement to get a well-rounded playtime experience.
All of these factors are extremely important, but it's important not to race past the milestones. The body and brain have specific windows of opportunity when they are optimized and ready to acquire new skills. If parents push their children to a new physical advancement too soon, it could place too much stress or strain on muscles and bones. This caution, along with a caring hand and heart, will ensure children progress to become the best little people they can be.
Marwa Abdelbary is a physical therapist and co-founder of Tiny Tots Therapy LLC. Tiny Tots Therapy's multidisciplinary and multilingual team consists of dedicated and talented occupational, physical, and speech therapists. With the collaboration of various pediatricians, counselors, and psychologists, they meet the growing needs for individualized quality therapeutic services for your child. Connect with Tiny Tots Therapy on Twitter.