From first words to first steps, there’s so much to look forward to in baby’s first year. But should babies hit these milestones at their own pace, or should parents give their new bundles a helpful nudge? New research from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology shows just how important it is for parents to challenge their babies. “The brains of young children are very malleable—even the smallest babies can be challenged,” says Audrey van der Meer, lead researcher and professor of developmental neuropsychology. Using advanced electroencephalography (EEG) technology, she found that brain, sensory and motor skills development all happen in sync—meaning babies learn more when they can explore different materials and new environments. Giving your baby brain stimulation doesn’t mean that you need to go buy fancy toys, either. What’s most important is that you get them moving and mentally engaged.
There are many ways parents can do this during their baby’s first year. Alyson Shaw, a paediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, offers her tips:
“They don’t really need anything more than a loving caregiver willing to respond to the baby’s needs and interact with them,” says Shaw. Holding them and observing their facial expressions help babies become more familiar with your face. You can also stimulate your newborn’s brain by singing or reading aloud, preferably from picture books with brightly coloured pages. “It’s important to surround babies with language right from the beginning,” says Shaw.
As they become more mobile and begin to reach for objects, it’s important to expose your baby to a variety of textures. Parents can do this by handing them different objects to explore. Playing peekaboo or having the baby look at himself in the mirror helps with facial recognition. Give them plenty of tummy time every day to help them develop their strength.
Shaw is a big fan of a stacking cups, or any sort of toy that will help their fine motor and growth motor skills. “But the most important thing,” she says, “is to have a caregiver that will interact with them face-to-face.”
As your baby starts crawling, have him play with a ball and watch it roll away, says Shaw. This stimulates the baby to chase after it. Push and straddle toys will also help your baby get moving and getting ready to learn to walk. Having back and forth conversations with your baby and asking them questions will help their language development.
Going for walks and exposing them to more of the world is great stimulation, says Shaw. What about electronic devices? “There’s no evidence babies need screen devices for learning at this age,” says Shaw. “In fact, the Canadian Paediatric Society doesn’t recommend screen usage until they’re two years old.” Skype with Grandma is still OK as it provides face to face interactions with a live person. “What really helps is in-person interactions with a caregiver, which they wouldn’t get on a screen,” says Shaw.