Getting the most out of those infant years

Don't forget to play!

Much focus has been given in the media to the new and wonderous abilities that have been discovered in young infants. A news feature by the Guardian not so long ago, “Newborn babies may be more developed than we think” (8 December 2013), describes a few surprising things which infants have been found capable of, while others explain how infants develop (e.g., “Infant memory works from very early“, Psyblog). Other newsworthy recent research puts the spotlight on the origins of obesity: “New research: Infant nutrition and obesity”, UCL; “A brain reward gene rewards food choices”, McGill University).

But as 2014 heralds a whole new year of opportunities to learn more (and study more) for the little ones here in Singapore, it may be useful to look backwards to find some treasures in the literature about child development. Here’s 3 ways to help your child learn:

1. Talk to your child often

Toddlers with larger vocabularies tend to have higher verbal and nonverbal cognitive abilities and better school grades, and more advanced preschool literacy skills. Given that early vocabulary plays an important role in young children’s problem solving and language abilities, parents can play an active role in encouraging their baby in his or her journey of word learning.

2. Follow your child’s focus of attention

Studies show that toddlers tend to have larger vocabularies if their parents talk to them more. That’s common sense, you say. But it’s also been shown that toddlers learn new words more easily if their parents follow their toddler’s attention and talk about the object that their toddler is looking at or is interested in. So it’s not just talking more, but talking at the right time and about the right thing that counts.

3. Understand your infants’ signals

A 1997 study by Baumwell, Tamis-Lemonda, and Bornstein showed that infants whose mothers were better at reading and attending to their baby’s signs of distress, understood relatively more words. In fact, being insensitive not only induces stress among young infants, but is associated with toddlers being less securely attached to their main caregiver (e.g., mum). So it’s important to be sensitive about your child’s emotions.

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Television for babies

TV for babies

Recent reports and forum letters question the promotion of an ipad baby seat (e.g., “Infant iPad seats raise concerns about screen time for babies“, Washington Post, 11 Dec 2013; “Some unanswered questions“, Straits Times, 17 Dec 2013; see Psychology Today for some answers). These highlight a growing concern about using ipad games and youtube video programming as babysitters.

Research findings are clear about the benefits of real human interactions for language development. As this TED talk demonstrates, learning from a human being is different from listening to the same words overheard from an audio-video source, such as TV (here’s the science behind it all).

Numerous studies show that precocious language development in infancy is associated with parents who speak often to their babies. In contrast, there appears to be only moderate benefits for language acquisition from watching an educational programme like Dora the explorer. In fact, TV is strongly discouraged for toddlers and infants (AAP).

It has been suggested that longterm exposure to TV programming at an early age is associated with shorter attention spans (“Limit your child’s TV time“, Straits Times, 29 Dec 2013; NY Times, 9 May 2011). But that evidence is correlational in nature. Children who have shorter attention spans tend to watch more television. It may not be the case that TV shortens their attention span. Instead, attention deficits are recognised to have other causes (The US CDC has this useful factsheet).

Social interactions are also opportunities for learning. Which is what makes play an important element for children’s learning, as this commentary in The Independent (12 Jan 2014), “Give childhood back to children: if we want our offspring to have happy, productive and moral lives, we must allow more time for play, not less” explains. And time spent watching TV is not time spent playing.

On the other hand, playing together with young children on the iPad provides similar benefits to that gained with a picture book, as others have suggested (“Parenting in the age of apps: Is that iPad help or harm?“). iPads aren’t all that bad as long as they’re not the babysitter.