Birth to Three: What We Know
There is nothing more endearing than watching an infant smile and laugh. We used to think there wasn’t much going on behind those cute, drooling faces. Now we know the opposite is true—and have come a long way in our understanding of infant learning and development.
Over the last few decades, the medical field has recognized that even in the infant years, the brain is processing and learning at an incredible rate. Even more exciting, we’ve discovered that the brain in the first three years of life is incredibly “plastic,” meaning it can be modified and molded. Practically speaking, this means that a child’s experiences those first years of life can shape her abilities later on. It also means that if a child has a notable delay in development, we can treat her at a young age and prevent some long-term problems, such as learning difficulties.
This realization has prompted us to focus many of our resources on children in this age group. It also directly influenced the formation of the federal government’s Early Intervention Services, a federal program that came to fruition under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Early Intervention provides developmental services for children in need from birth to age three. If you suspect your child has delays, (for example, your 20-month-old is not talking), you can call Early Intervention and arrange for screening and testing in the area of concern. If the screenings and tests reveal a delay, then your child becomes eligible for therapy.
Early Intervention recognizes that children tend to perform better in familiar surroundings. As a result, many of the services take place at home or even at a daycare center. In most cases, the earlier children receive developmental services, the better the outcomes.
The first three years aren’t just a critical intervention period. They’re also the time to build a strong foundation for learning—one that will last an entire life. Yet how do we foster optimal growth? A number of things help—and cost nothing.
We know from research that the young brain is uniquely attuned to human voices and interaction. While babies may look like they’re learning when they watch TV or look at an iPad, repeated studies demonstrate that babies learn faster and better from human interaction. What, exactly, can we do? Simply talk to and interact with them. Hold and caress them. Take them outdoors, and point out new things everywhere we go.
Many parents wonder why talking to infants who can’t yet speak does any good. It’s important to remember that even an infant not yet talking listens intently and learns from the sounds we make. They react to our emotions and gestures—and start connecting meaning with sounds and words. That’s why I encourage parents to talk to infants, even, during routine tasks like folding laundry, cooking dinner, or driving to and from daycare. Those are all prime times to stimulate language development—and form a close parent-child bond.
While many toys claim to promote development, the truth is, any toy—and even many ordinary objects—can potentially stimulate growth and learning. In fact, some of the simpler toys that leave much to the child’s imagination do the best job. Here are some of my favorites for the infancy to toddler phase.
Kids love stacking blocks—and can improve fine motor skills and boost language as they play. Try counting blocks out loud as your child stacks, and say things like “boom” or “uh-oh” when they fall. Also assume the role of a sports commentator, using simple words to describe what your child is doing: “You’re putting the big block on top and moving the circle block to the floor. Now you’re adding more blocks to your tower.” These simple things make your child feel like they have your undivided attention—and promote learning in countless ways.
Who doesn’t like bubbles? They’re fun—and they make an excellent oral motor activity to increase the strength and coordination of the lips, tongue, and jaw, all crucial to language development. Teach your kids to blow a bubble and catch it with a bubble wand. Encourage them to “kiss” the bubble (to work on protruding their lips). And model how to reach up and pop a bubble—or track it drifting through the air.
Reading and looking at books are wonderful ways to spend time together. Encourage your child to repeat some of the words you read, and ask her to point to pictures as you name them. Repetitious, melodic books like Brown Bear, Brown Bear (by B. Martin and E. Carle) are particularly good at helping children imitate sounds.
- Ball Play
The simple act of rolling a ball back and forth teaches your child all kinds of things, from how to take turns and focus to how to use new words. Try sitting across from your child, rolling a ball. Set up opportunities for your child to speak, saying things like “Ready, set, roll!”
Remember that your child’s primary care provider is an invaluable resource. And don’t hesitate to bring up concerns or ask questions during your child’s regular checkups. Some parents worry their pediatrician will judge them or blame any delay on their style of parenting. But the truth is, pediatricians are here to help—and view themselves as vital partners in raising your kids. So go on: the next time you visit your doctor, brag about the new and exciting developmental tasks your child masters, and turn to them for advice about any concerns. Those first few years—and all of childhood, really—are critical. And it’s worth the added time and investment to take a close look when in doubt or concerned.
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“The Importance of Early Intervention with Infants and Toddlers with Disabilities and Their Families,” The National Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill