This article covers three areas of child development where parents can do a lot to help their baby, but it isn’t always clear to them just how this can be done. Health professionals such as health visitors and nurses, who have a good understanding of parenting and child development, are well-placed to help parents support their baby effectively.
Parents’ views on their baby’s sleep vary greatly. A minority may want to have their babies with them at night and breastfeed on demand right through their early years. For most parents, however, having undisturbed nights themselves will be a top priority, and this is where problems can commonly arise if particular sleep habits are not set in place for the baby quite early on. This is usually because the baby has developed a pattern of finding it difficult to settle to sleep without their parent, or other carer, being actively involved, both when they first go to sleep in the evening, and following the normal periodic surfacing from sleep during the night. Once this pattern is firmly established, it can be tricky and sometimes very distressing for both babies and for parents to try to break the cycle.
The most effective input, therefore, that health professionals can give is to help the parent early on to understand how babies’ sleep patterns get established, so that they can avoid getting into a situation that is then hard for them to change. The basic principles involved are fairly simple; the most important point being that, even in the first few weeks, babies quickly learn about how they are cared for, and what the links are between their own experiences and what is happening around them. It is important to try to set in place something to help the baby to learn a link between falling asleep and some experience that does not involve their parent having to be actively involved - for example, by rocking them, or feeding them to sleep. In the very first few weeks it is hard to set up these alternative experiences, as babies almost always fall asleep when they are being fed or held. But as soon as babies are able to stay awake for a little while after a feed, it is worthwhile starting to set up good habits. This can best be done if the parent starts to settle the baby only when he is beginning to tire. It is also helpful if a quiet routine can be developed that the baby enjoys, before the settling itself begins.
Finally, the parent can help the process by observing, and then supporting, what the baby is naturally inclined to do to calm himself. For example, if a baby seems to find sucking his fist soothing, but he finds it hard to find his fist, then wrapping a thin sheet around him so that his fist is tucked up near his chin (making sure, of course, that he will not get too hot), might enable him to settle himself to sleep without his parent being actively involved. Similarly, if the baby seems to become drowsy when gazing at a patterned surface, then placing something that he can gaze at in the place where he is placed to sleep is also likely to help him.
While the details of day-to-day sleep settling will vary somewhat according to the baby’s state at the time (eg. he may need more support when feeling ill, or when staying in an unfamiliar place), if parents can establish these general patterns of managing their baby’s sleep in the first six months, the development of sleep problems is unlikely.
The way parents play with their baby changes over the first two years as the baby develops, and for many parents these changes are completely natural and easy. Some parents, however, may be less certain of how best to support their baby through play, and even if they feel confident, they may still benefit from knowing that what they do is helping their baby’s development.
At all phases of development, parents can help their baby best through play when they follow and respond to their baby’s cues, and pace their responses so that they are neither overwhelming for the baby (eg. not too fast), nor so delayed that the connections to the baby’s own behavior are unclear.
In the very first weeks, babies are not really socially playful, but by two months they will often enjoy face-to-face games. At these times, the baby can really become a conversational partner, making movements with his mouth, perhaps shaping it wide open or using his tongue actively, and vocalizing with cooing sounds. He will enjoy these contacts more when a parent, or other social partner, picks up on his expressions and either imitates them back, or responds positively to them as though the baby is really saying something interesting. These games can help the baby feel a sense of real connection with his parents, and lay the foundations for later communication.
By four months, babies take more interest in what is happening around them, and as they become able to reach out and grab things, the nature of play changes. It becomes harder to entertain the baby in simple face-to-face games, and parents find they can engage the baby more effectively by playing games such as ‘round and round the garden’, or ‘row, row, row the boat’. These have musical, repetitive elements that the baby quickly becomes familiar with, and a climax that he can anticipate and enjoy sharing with his parent. Parents can also play with their baby by showing them, and letting them explore, simple objects or toys, helping the baby to enjoy them by placing them within the baby’s reach, and moving them if the baby’s attention starts to flag. These activities can provide useful building blocks for more complex cognitive skills.
From around the same time, parents can also help their baby to enjoy slightly boisterous physical play, and this often develops over the next few months in ways that can help babies manage strong emotions, like excitement. Again, if parents take the cue from their baby, they will be able to judge the level of input that is comfortable, and can gently help the baby manage potentially challenging feelings. This kind of play usually becomes more complex as the baby’s imagination develops, and can extend to play fighting. Where this is managed sensitively by parents, with affectionate control, it can be helpful to the baby in learning to manage strong feelings in a safe way that is not harmful.
From around 15 months, pretend play becomes more common. This is something babies can do on their own, but it tends to be richer when someone else is involved, and can help the baby imagine what someone else’s experience is like. Indeed, when parents share this kind of play with their babies (eg. pretending to feed hungry teddy), children have better social understanding in their pre-school years.
The baby’s skills to manipulate and understand the physical world can also be supported by play. The kind of parental support that is most helpful is called ‘scaffolding’; this is when the parent helps the baby to do something that he could not manage on his own, not by doing it for him, but by setting things up so that he can achieve things himself. This might mean steadying the base of a tower of stacking cups, or turning a shape sorter so that the shape can be placed more easily in its hole. What is most helpful is giving support just at the level of the baby’s ability and, as with other kinds of play, this is why it is important for parents to get into the habit of noticing their baby’s signals and behavior, as this is what will guide them best.
Book sharing is one of the most helpful things parents can do for their baby’s language and general cognitive development. Even small babies, eg. five-month-olds, can enjoy looking at books - how they do so will of course be very different from the way a one-year-old would. A small baby will probably want to put the book in their mouth, and scratch at it. Older babies will focus on the pictures, and will often want to go backwards and forwards, perhaps looking at the same one over and over again.
There is no ‘correct’ way for a baby to enjoy a book - the main principle, as with play generally, is to follow the baby’s interests. The benefit to baby’s language development from book sharing is probably because books for babies generally have very simple clear illustrations of everyday things that parents typically repeatedly name for the baby.
Book sharing can also help a baby develop his wider understanding through parents making links between what is on the page and the baby’s own experience. So valuable is the experience of book sharing that the American Academy of Pediatrics now advises that parents do this every day, right from the start of the child’s life.
Young L. The Psychology of Babies. London: Constable & Robinson; 2014.
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