Stimulation and Development During Infancy: Tuning into Your Baby's Cues

Formative years
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So, now the moment has arrived. In the crib lies your sleeping child and the most exciting adventure of life is about to begin. Kathleen Kiely Gouley, PhD helps you on your journey.

The moment that you have been waiting for has finally arrived: the day you brought your newborn baby home from the hospital. Like all other expectant parents you have spent the last nine months preparing for this day. You have already prepared a baby room full of everything a newborn could possibly want. You have read book after book on a wide multitude of baby topics from what to name your baby to when you can expect those first words. How many parents have walked and paced the length of their babies' rooms, imagining their little bundle of joy sleeping peacefully in the crib. So, now the moment has arrived. In the crib lies your sleeping child and the most exciting adventure of life is about to begin.


It is now widely known that early experiences, particularly those during the first several years of life, set the stage for ongoing development (for complete review, see National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 2000). An explosion of media attention, books, and "must-have" products aimed at enhancing early child development, particularly during infancy, has raised a number of questions for parents of young children: What can I do during infancy to enhance my child's long-term development? How much, and what type of stimulation, is best? What products or toys provide the right stimulation? What do I need to do during the early months to ensure that I don't miss an opportunity for learning? On the other hand, can a child be over-stimulated? How can I tell?

These questions arise naturally from parents' desire to do what is best for their young children. While parents recognize the tremendous opportunity to be an active participant in their child's development, it can be easy to forget that the stimulation your child really needs occurs during typically-occurring everyday experiences, so long as those occur in the context of a relationship with sensitive caregivers (see Thompson, 2001). Parents are the child's first teachers, and it is in the course of everyday interactions with them - not with special toys or Mozart CDs - that children get what they need for healthy development.

In addition, it is important to remember that the benefits of "stimulation" extend well beyond what may be considered academic in nature (for example, to enhance later language development) to the key areas of social and emotional development (including, for example, the formation of the parent-child relationship, and the development of self-soothing and self-regulatory abilities later in childhood, to name just a few). At the same time, the line between satisfying stimulation and overstimulation can be thin, more so for some children than others, requiring parents to be particularly sensitive to their child's characteristics and cues. Issues to consider involve the baby's age, temperament, and response to different types of stimulation as well as parental goals of stimulation and parenting style. What is most important is for parents to be sensitive to a child's individual needs, to match not only the type and amount of stimulation, but the pace and timing.

Real Life Stories

Kelsey, age 6 months, is described by her parents as "easy" and "engaging". Soon after birth, she was "wide-eyed" and "interested in the world". She seemed "curious" and excited to experience new things. Her parents say that they "know when she is ready to learn" when she looks intently at new objects and is able to pay attention to new things for long periods of time. At the same time, Kelsey can "get tired" of playing and learning, when she is ready for her naps and downtime, and she can "easily turn off" to "settle down".

Matthew, age 8 months, is described by his mother as "eager" and "intense". He too is "engaging" and "excited about the world". While he has always been very interested in new objects and people, he has difficulty "turning off" his interest for periods of rest and sleep. His mother is concerned that he can become easily overwhelmed, to the point of exhaustion. This is particularly evident midday when he has difficulty going down for naps.

Caleb, age 4 months, is described by his parents as "easy" but "sleepy". Almost since birth, he is a baby who has "needed a lot of sleep" and "prefers quiet time". When his parents read or play with him during the day, he appears "drowsy and disinterested". His parents notice that Caleb is not as alert during the day as their previous child, and worry he sleeps more than normal for his age.

Stimulation: A closer look

Clinical experience and developmental research reveal the importance of environmental stimulation on children's social, emotional, physical and cognitive development (see National Research Council, 2000). There are examples of extremes of environmental care (e.g., children raised in orphanages) that provide clear evidence of the profound impact of a lack of stimulation on development. The poor developmental outcomes of children who experience extreme early sensory deprivation reveal that the need for novel, stimulating experiences is not 'biologically extravagant', but required for survival and successful development (Murphy & Small, 1989).

Specifically, sensory stimuli can include a range of experiences, including being physically held, swaddled, exploring a textured object (touch), tasting breast milk or a new vegetable (taste), smelling mother's breast or a rose petal (smell), looking at objects or people (seeing), listening to a parent's voice singing (hearing), or rocking in a swing (motion). All of these experiences occur naturally in the environment, and no special toys, tools, or technology are required to provide the range and variety of experiences a baby naturally seeks out for healthy development. In fact, "there is little scientific evidence that 'special stimulation activities' beyond normal growth-promoting experiences that are typical of most environments lead to 'advanced' brain development" (National Research Council, 2000). Therefore, what children need to grow and develop adequately is typically provided for during everyday experiences in the context of a relationship with sensitive caregivers in the child's natural environment.

The first months and years of a child's life are filled with sensory delight and numerous opportunities for discovery and learning. And nature provides the tools the baby needs to experience everything the new environment has to offer. Babies are born with a natural capacity for engaging the new world around them, as well as with tools to protect themselves from over-stimulation. Furthermore, sensory experience and stimulation are not new to the newborn, since babies have already experienced stimulation prenatally, from hearing sounds inside (heartbeat) and outside the mother's body (music, talking), and even smelling and tasting (amniotic fluid)!

As early as birth, nature provides the baby with tools to be responsive to stimulation and to be an active participant in eliciting stimulation from the world around (especially caregivers). Amazingly, nature also provides the child with the tools she needs to protect her from being overwhelmed by all of the available stimuli in the environment - even as a newborn! For example, during the first weeks of life, infants' limited vision offers protection from "overexposure" to what would be a dizzying array of visual stimulation. The limited visual field of the newborn (approximately 8 inches from the face) and qualities of that vision (fuzzy and in black-and-white) serve several very important functions - including protection from over-stimulation - and primary attention to the caregiver. In addition to limiting exposure to stimulation, infants' limited visual field of 8 inches places the newborn's focus on the caregiver as he or she is held, fed, and cared for. Other similar "protections" are provided for by nature in the form of infants' limited motor abilities and long periods of sleep(see Murphy & Small, 1989 for further discussion).

Together, aspects of development during the first year ensure that typical experiences of daily life during the early months (including the baby's introduction to a very busy, bright world) are more likely to be growth-promoting rather than overwhelming. It is helpful to keep in mind these "protections" are afforded by nature as it reminds us that babies come to the world ready to be active participants in eliciting, maintaining, and seeking opportunities for stimulation and learning.

As exciting as the new environment may be for the baby, and as much as nature provides some protections, he cannot survive in it without the caregiver. As the world gradually expands to the baby, especially during the first year (with increases in the distance of the visual field and clarity, advances in motor development, longer periods of alert states), the role of the caregiver in supporting early experience and stimulation is of most importance. Stimulating experiences that are growth-promoting are those characterized by a balance between challenge and support. The role of the caregiver, especially during infancy, is to provide that balance by recognizing the baby's capacities and limits, as well as interests and needs, and changing parenting behavior to match the baby. The sensitive parent recognizes that baby comes to the world with skills for organizing, and sees his or her role as a supportive one.

What to do?

As any parent of an older child will tell you, the best way to keep a child interested in learning - or any other activity for that matter - is to meet the child where she's at, and then to support the next level of learning or achievement. This is true also for interactions during infancy, when it is up to the parent to read the baby's cues - to be able to recognize when she is interested and engaged - and when she is overstimulated and has had enough - thus supporting the baby's interest while protecting her from overstimulation. It is during periods of quiet alertness when the infant will be most available for social interaction and learning, and these are the periods that parents will want to help the child extend. Remember that the baby comes with skills to organize - it is the baby who quiets himself - but adults can support these independent skills with environmental supports.

However, babies differ in their interest in stimulation, and in their individual skill at tolerating different levels and types of stimulation. As a result, different babies will need different degrees and types of parent support for stimulation. Typically, babies whose temperament is characterized as "easy" and who are inherently curious and interested in the world demonstrate most clearly the innate skills of the infant to self-organize. These babies typically provide clear signals and the parents' job is to read those cues and to respond to these requests. . For example, from the vignettes above, Kelsey may be an easy baby to "read", what with her almost inherent "curiosity" and attention to new objects for long periods of time. Kelsey's signals, such as wide eyes, intense looking at new objects, and observed interest and curiosity, communicate, "I am ready to learn! I am comfortable and available for interaction!" At the same time, Kelsey also has good skills for telling her parents when she has had too much - as clear as her cues are for interest and readiness for interaction, Kelsey's cues for "turn down the volume" or "I need to rest" are also clear. In addition, she can smoothly transition between periods during the day when she is available for learning and interaction to settle down for periods of rest.

Other babies - like Matthew - are also inherently eager and oriented to mastery and exploration (meaning they are interested in everything from day one!) but tend towards being overwhelmed frequently and have much more difficulty transitioning between active interest and periods of quiet rest. Babies like this are often observed laughing one moment while being tossed or tumbled in play, but the next moment their interest and excitement becomes unmanageable, ending in irritability and tears. Often parents are confused by this combination - they are delighted that their infant is so interested in the world, but are often upset and frustrated by his difficulty in "turning off" that interest. These babies often have difficulties getting down to sleep, because, as parents presume, they just "don't want to miss anything". Parents of babies like Matthew are delighted to hear that there are ways they can provide the support baby needs to enjoy the stimulation they crave without becoming overwhelmed. The goal for parents of babies like Matthew is to support the baby's natural interest in exploration and learning, but to provide significant support to ensure that play does not extend too long and that baby can use skills to soothe and calm for periods of needed rest between periods of alertness - to prevent overstimulation.

For babies like Matthew, timing is important - reading those subtle cues that the excitement may be too much to handle - as well as timing of play periods so that they do not interfere with much needed periods of rest. These babies will need supports to limit stimulation during periods when they need to rest. For example, parents of these children will tell you that music or mobiles in the cribs of babies like Matthew will be counterproductive - while they may be soothing for other children, for intense babies, these items will be activating since they offer more opportunities to see! hear! and learn! - not sleep.

Finally, other babies tend to be low energy and naturally less available for interaction. While these characteristics may be aspects of a child's temperament, parents can help their baby tolerate more stimulation to ensure that she is available for interaction and learning. Babies like Caleb tend to be easy but sleepy, less oriented to exploration and mastery, and need support to stay engaged during interactions. The goal for parents is to help baby increase periods of alert time to ensure successful exploration and prevent understimulation. Again, timing and matching the capacities of the baby is key. For babies like Caleb, parents will want to start slow and follow their infant's lead. They may want to take advantage of daytime periods of alertness (when they know baby is clearly well rested) to extend periods of interaction and engagement. For example, this may include supporting the baby to tolerate periods of gazing and face-to-face interaction while being held after feeds. These babies may tend to be sleepy and heavy-lidded, but gentle stroking or bouncing to alert baby may provide the support she needs to remain available to your stimulating attempts.

Remember with all babies - timing and match are important! The job of sensitive parents is to recognize their baby's natural tendencies, meet her where she is at, and then provide the external support she needs to handle the stimulation that is naturally at the heart of everyday interactions with her caregivers and the world around her.

For some children, the line between satisfying stimulation and overstimulation can be thin, requiring parents to be particularly sensitive to their child's temperamental characteristics and cues. Issues to consider involve the baby's age, temperament, and response to different types of stimulation. Sensitive parenting requires matching not only the type and amount of stimulation you provide, but the pace and timing of that stimulation as well.

More in this category: « Getting a Good Start: Expectations, Challenges and Fostering Growth in the Child's First Year of Life Part 3: Fostering Growth in the Child's First Year of Life The ABC's of Baby Brain Development »


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