Baby development

Watch me think

Mental notes on your baby's cognitive development

By Jacqueline Kovacs
Watch me think

Valerie Ellis is mooning over her baby daughter’s first smiles when her two-year-old son, Tiernan, suddenly appears with lipstick smeared over the lower half of his face. The Aurora, Ont., mother of six sighs. “Have you been into Mommy’s makeup?” she asks him. The toddler looks at her wide-eyed. “Nooooo,” he says, deadly serious.

Though her baby’s behaviour is completely charming and her toddler’s, well, less so, both of Ellis’s children are actually demonstrating that their cognitive development is right on track.

From their earliest months right on up through the toddler years, children do things that reflect not only their growing physical skills, but also their cognitive development — their ability to think, reason and remember. But when you’re busy with a baby and wiping your toddler’s face clean, revelling in your child’s expanding mind is probably not foremost in your head.

To help you make a mental note of your child’s burgeoning brain skills, here’s a look at typical baby and toddler behaviour and what it can tell you about where your child’s head is at.

The social smile

By around the six-week mark, babies reward their exhausted parents by smiling back at them when they are smiled at. It’s a heart-melting moment, for sure. But there’s another “mental milestone smile” to watch for about six weeks later. “Mom or dad comes into the room and baby smiles that glorious, full-blown smile without any prompting,” says Claire B. Kopp, the California author of the child development book Baby Steps: A Guide to Your Child’s Social, Physical, Mental and Emotional Development in the First Two Years. “That smile indicates an awareness, interest and desire to interact.”

It also shows your baby is:
• learning to express joy about things that happen around her
• improving her memory skills
• figuring out how to socialize with a favoured adult

Brain boost: Every time you smile back and pay attention to your little grinner, you encourage her. So keep smiling!
Baby babble

“Babbling is a terrific pre-language stage,” enthuses Chris Cadieux, professor of Early Childhood Education at Centennial College in Toronto. “The baby is playing with language sounds.” Cadieux adds that even deaf babies babble initially, but because they don’t hear a response, they tend to stop at around nine months.

These early vocalizations also show:
• the beginning of two-way communication
• your baby is finding a new way to initiate contact with adults, since parents tend to respond to babbling
• he’s learning the sounds and patterns of the language he’ll eventually speak as his babbling begins to imitate his parents’ speech (at around the eight-month mark). Prior to this stage, all babies babble in the sounds of all languages.

Brain boost: By babbling back, saying, “Is that so?” and generally responding to your child’s early attempts at language, you reinforce these fledgling cognitive skills.

Junior Houdinis

Used to be that a few strategically placed couch cushions could keep your newly mobile baby contained in one part of the house, but no more. Now such barriers just seem to encourage your crawler to find a way out to explore forbidden territory. “Before six or seven months, out of sight is out of mind,” says Sarah Landy, developmental and clinical psychologist retired from the Hincks-Dellcrest Centre in Toronto. “At about seven months, kids remember things...and they will persist in trying to reach something they now have in mind.” This shows that your baby has developed some notion of person and object permanence: the idea that things continue to exist, even when she can’t see them.

Plus, as Kopp points out, getting around barriers is a strong indicator that your child is developing goal-related behaviour skills. “Actually figuring out how to accomplish this,” she says, “is really kind of huge!”

Cadieux adds that your young explorer is also developing:
• problem-solving skills
• an understanding of the concepts in, on, over and under

Brain boost: Encourage your child to move and explore safely by babyproofing and thus limiting the need for a lot of barriers, says Cadieux.

Don’t change!

After months of tying your hair into an out-of-the-way ponytail, you went out and got a whole new do. You love your new look — too bad your baby doesn’t. Your 51/2-month-old looked genuinely distressed and wanted Daddy when he saw you. What’s up with that?

“Baby now has a memory of how his parent should look, holds this in mind and is aware of a difference when that appearance changes,” says Landy. This development, which the pros call “object constancy,” means that your baby is starting to recognize and remember differences between people and objects. So when you make a change — like a totally different hairstyle — you don’t fit in properly with your baby’s memory of how things look in his world.

This means, says Cadieux, that your baby is also:
• developing the ability to remember what an object or person looks like and recognize it when it appears again
• starting to use variables such as colour or shape (and hair) to identify people and objects

Brain boost: Help your child process this new information about you by being gentle and soothing. Take the time to talk to him so that he recognizes your voice and realizes that you’re still the same person.

Drop it

Since when did mealtime become a game of pickup? No sooner do you put your baby’s favourite finger foods on his high-chair tray than he starts to drop them on the floor. He seems to enjoy this almost as much as dropping toys over the baby gate! What’s a parent to do? Be pleased, according to Cadieux. “The ability to drop things shows a lot of great developmental stuff — including control over grasping and letting go, which is really big in terms of learning.”

Your child has reached what cognitive development research pioneer Jean Piaget called “the little scientist stage,” and is constantly experimenting and learning about his world. Expect a lot of dropping, dumping and messy play from a thoroughly engrossed toddler figuring out how things work — and how parents respond.

Speaking of which, be careful not to turn unwanted behaviour — like throwing food — into a game. Instead, calmly remove the food if your child is clearly more interested in gravity experiments than in eating, and give him something appropriate to throw.

Remember that your little professor is also learning:
• concepts like distance, cause and effect
• that different objects act differently (“A red ball dropped from a high chair has a different effect than a red tomato,” explains Cadieux.)

Brain boost: Give your child lots of opportunity to safely practise grasping, manipulating and letting go of objects with non-breakable items. Childproof your TV, VCR, DVD, computer, toilet and so on. And opt for plastic ware at mealtime.
The real thing

Hey! Who took the remote? Before accusing your spouse, try checking your child’s toy box. Isn’t that where you found your car keys the other day? Why is it that you can buy your baby a play phone, big plastic chewy keys and even a toy remote, but she still wants to use yours?

“Sometimes this can be a desire to be like mom and dad, and to feel grown-up,” says Landy. “At other times, the real things are just more appealing because they actually work better than toys.” Another big reason, says Cadieux, is that at this stage children haven’t developed the imaginative capacity for pretend play. Instead, they are interested in what their parents do and want to imitate real life, so they tend to prefer real objects.

Wanting mom and dad’s stuff also shows they are developing the ability to:
• imitate adult actions, technically called “deferred imitation” (This will eventually lead to make-believe play.)

Brain boost: Give your child her own real remote, but make it safe by ditching the battery and all its associated parts. Or put together two old keys on a colourful key chain. “Just make it all safe,” says Cadieux, “because why fight that battle?”

It’s mine!

Wasn’t it just the other day that your toddler seemed to love handing over all his stuff to you, even trying to feed you? So why now when his cousin comes for a visit does he grab every toy in sight while bossily announcing, “Mine!”?

“As annoying as it can be, it’s a great indication that your child is developing a strong sense of self, as separate from his caregivers,” says Cadieux. With that comes a sense of possession and ownership, as well as an attachment to certain items — toys, blankets, books and so on. So toddlers know what they want and know they can lose it, unlike babies from whom you can take a toy if you replace it with something else.

It also shows your toddler:
• is getting attached to certain objects
• is developing a sense of possession — which, ironically enough, is actually the first step in developing the ability to share, Cadieux says. After all, you need to understand the notion of ownership before you can understand the notion of giving.

Brain boost: Don’t fight this one too much, advises Cadieux. “Kids do need to have stuff that is theirs.” And at this age, young children don’t really understand that they can lend someone a toy without losing it altogether. Instead, have duplicates of favourite toys, and tuck the really special ones away, when pint-sized guests are coming.
It wasn’t me!

You told your 2½-year-old, “No cookies until after lunch.” And yet, there she is, standing in front of you with crumbs all around her mouth. You look at her sternly: “Didn’t I tell you, ‘No cookies’?”

“I didn’t!” she protests. Why is your child so blatantly lying to you?

For one, kids this age have a very short memory span. If she ate that cookie half an hour ago, she may actually have forgotten all about it. But if it was mere minutes ago, yes, she’s trying to hide her misdeed. But don’t worry that you’re raising a child you can’t trust. “At this age, kids don’t fully understand what a lie is; they’re not lying at the level of an eight-year-old,” says Kopp. “It’s more a kind of ‘Can I get away with it?’”

It also shows, says Cadieux, that your child is starting to understand that there is a right and wrong. “That’s a big first step in moral development.”

Your little fibber is also figuring out that:
• there are consequences to her actions
• there are social rules

Brain boost: If your child’s face is covered with crumbs, then you know she has eaten cookies, so don’t force her to lie by asking questions you already know the answer to. Instead, be fair and consistent with the consequences (maybe no cookies after lunch because she already had some).

No! I won’t!

Some days you feel like you’re battling with your 2½-year-old from dawn to dusk. In the morning, he doesn’t want you to dress him. Then, it’s a struggle to get out the door to daycare on time. Later in the day, he doesn’t want to help tidy up his toys. Then, he doesn’t like the dinner you made. Why does he have to argue about every little thing?

Because it’s an important part of his developing sense of self, says Cadieux. “He’s getting an understanding of his own mind and now, because he can use language better and better, he can express himself.”

Your child is also showing that:
• he can speak about what he wants
• he wants some control over some aspects of his day

Brain boost: Avoid power struggles and help your child feel empowered by giving him real choices, whenever possible. Let him pick his favourite cup at mealtime or choose his pyjamas at bedtime. Help satisfy his craving for independence in small ways, like placing a stool by the bathroom sink so he can wash his own hands. And be sure to acknowledge and praise him for his good behaviour.

What’s next? Bad dreams

Just when you thought you’d returned to the land of uninterrupted sleep, your three-year-old arrives at your bedside. “I had a bad dream!” she wails. It’s the one about the big, scary dog that chases her — the same dream she had two nights ago. She never seemed bothered by dreams before. What’s going on?

“Experts disagree about the reasons for bad dreams,” says developmental psychologist Sarah Landy. “Developmentalists see them as occurring as a result of the child’s new ability to create mental images of the world, which can be scary. Some believe they are a reworking of the happenings of the day or of emotional issues the child is dealing with, such as normal separations, anger and fears.”

Whatever the root cause, bad dreams show that your child is also:
• developing an imagination
• increasing her ability to remember (but may still have trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality)
• getting more sophisticated language skills as she is able to retell her dream

Brain boost: During the daytime, try to explain to your child the difference between fantasy and reality. Play games where you pretend you’re different characters and point out that this is “make-believe.” Plus, try to limit your little one’s exposure to scary stuff, whether it’s TV shows, books or movies. When your child does have a nightmare, always comfort her. Let her know it’s not real and that you are always there to keep her safe.

This article was originally published on Sep 20, 2006

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