Optimizing your child’s potential — Tips from Research

Infant Playing --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

It’s hard these days to go to a restaurant to not find a toddler having his/her meal without a smart device in front of them. Even though there are parents who say they don’t allow their babies any television at all (yes, they exist!), the trend is in the other direction.

We’re not making it up. A US study reported at the 2015 Pediatric Academic Societies Annual Meeting, which surveyed 370 parents of children aged 6 months to 4 years, reported that 1 in 3 had already used a smart device before their first birthday. By their first birthday, 1 in 7 infants in the study were using a smart device for at least an hour a day. Being left to play with smart devices on their own was an experience common to the majority (70%) of the children in the study. And the data from a larger poll by Common Sense Media with 1,463 parents doesn’t really tell a different story. Along the same trends are the findings by a Childwise survey comprising 2,000 children aged 5 to 16 years that children spend more time online (on average 3 hours) than watching traditional TV.

We’re still in the process of accumulating compelling data on the long-term effects of smart devices on young children. Research suggests that children who receive more screen-time are more likely to be at risk for attention problems. But it’s not difficult to understand why one might be concerned about the impact giving infants free rein to play with a smart device. Social interactions are seen as key for children’s development whether it’s about growing their vocabulary, fostering their social skills, developing their narrative abilities, helping to structure their memory of past events, or acquiring new concepts and knowledge. As the American Academy of Pediatrics says, “a child’s brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.” So more time spent on non-age-appropriate television programmes and games on a smart device means less time developing these core skills.

Which is why the expert recommendation is no screen-time at all for those who haven’t reached their 2nd birthday, and why other experts argue that children should watch videos only when they’re in their preschool years. And why Taiwan passed a law last year which curbs parent-enabled smart device usage by children under 2 years of age.

So if not mobile devices and screen-time, what then? Here are a few other ideas to help boost the development of your little one…

1. Traditional toys are better
Remember those toys? The wooden puzzle, the shape-sorter, and wood blocks with pictures. They might seem out-dated but they could be the key to boosting your baby’s cognitive development. A recent study documented how much words parents spoke when they and their 1-year-old played with electronic toys (e.g., talking phone, talking farm, baby laptop), with traditional toys, and with picture books. The researchers found that parents spoke the most with traditional toys, followed by picture books, and finally, least with the noisy toys. The reasons for this pattern aren’t clear but it might be because noisy toys which light up are exceptionally good at keeping babies occupied so in contrast, parents talk more to help keep their babies play with the quiet toys!

2. Speak more not less
Earlier studies have long established that school-readiness at the kindergarten-age predicts later school performance and academic achievements. But a new study also shows that 2-year-olds with better oral language are also more likely to learn better and have fewer behavioural problems while at kindergarten. So it pays to foster language development from a young age.

But parents often worry that introducing two languages to their child hinders their progress. The experts on bilingual research suggest that speaking in 2 languages doesn’t confuse babies nor is a one-parent-one-language policy necessary. Put simply, more speech by parents in both or either language is always a good thing.

3. Try interactive picture-book-reading
There’s plenty of research evidence to support the idea parents can boost their toddlers’ language development by reading books with them. What’s new however is the finding that it’s what parents say when they’re reading picture books that matters. Parents appear to provide more speech sounds which are helpful to their toddlers’ spoken language development during a book-reading activity than when playing with toys or puppets. So pay attention to the sounds that your baby says and respond to them!

4. Surprise your baby!
So it’s not a coincidence that babies really enjoy playing peek-a-boo with you. Previous research has already shown that babies not only pay more attention to something which surprises them than to something which is more predictable. But a recent study shows that babies pay attention to things which surprise them in order to try and “figure something out about their world“. So, showing your baby something unexpected is likely a good way to get and keep their attention!

5. Let your hair down and have fun
It turns out that babies under 2 years can judge whether we’re joking around or not. For a silly moment, we might wear a rubber chicken on our head as a joke. Or we could be pretending to wear the chicken as a hat. How babies tell which is which depends on what we say and whether there’s disbelief on our faces (which we show when we’re joking). It might seem silly, but previous studies have established a number of benefits from being funny with your kids. A 2015 study also demonstrates that 18-month-olds were more likely to remember new information from a funny situation compared to an unfunny one.

6. Avoid distracted caregiving
Responsive caregiving is another cornerstone for healthy development during infancy. This includes responding to your baby’s smiles, cooing and other vocalisations. Earlier studies have shown that not recognising signs of distress by babies and inconsistent responses by mothers towards their babies, negatively impacts their children’s later cognitive and social skills. But recent research also suggests that distracted caregiving arising from using mobile phones (e.g., whatsap) could also affect brain development in young infants.