STIMULATION – The Goldilocks principle

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By Dr Melodie de Jager and Cozette Laubser

A baby’s brain is vulnerable. At birth a baby is used to the same environment where the in-utero conditions are more or less the same every day and every night. It is warm and dark, the amniotic fluid smells and tastes similar every day and movement is familiar as mom moves relatively predictably throughout her day. Mom’s heartbeat and the sound of her blood rushing through her arteries and veins has a ‘shhhh effect’ on baby, and now and then baby hears the gurgling sounds of mom’s digestive system, and her calming voice. This is heaven, because the sensory environment is stable, and sameness soothes.

It is the sameness of the natural in-utero conditions surrounding a developing brain and baby that sprouts a peaceful heart, a budding brain, and makes it easy for an adjusting little one to settle into a peaceful feeding and sleeping rhythm.

For many the word STIMULATION has become a focus point and a measure of good parenting. Some parents are so afraid that their babies may ‘miss out’ that they ‘hot-house’ their babies and whilst their intentions are always positive, they start to ‘force-feed’ stimulation.

When is stimulation too little, too much, or just right?

Scientists call this the Goldilocks principle. Not too hot. Not too cold. Just right.

When you think about what a baby is used to in utero, and you think of the tsunami of brand new sensory stimulation that floods a baby’s brain when they enter this world: bright lights, varying room temperatures, air instead of amniotic fluid, space instead of the cosy womb, noise, and the myriad of smells… it is no wonder that babies cry when they are born. Goldilocks would have said: “This is too much!”

An overstimulated baby asks: “Listen to my cries. Watch my erratic movements and splayed fingers. It is telling you to STOP. It is T-O-O M-U-C-H!” Please do not automatically assume your baby needs medication to settle down.

Limit the sensory stimulation first and see if this has the desired effect.

Is there a right kind of stimulation?

When you Google ‘sensory board’ or ‘baby stimulation ideas’, lovely creative images pop up, but please use these images as an ‘inspiration board’ and break it down into a series of simpler activities. Introduce one thing at a time. The younger the baby, the less ‘things’ and the longer time they need to really discover the object. Once baby has ‘discovered’ the item, you can remove it (packing something away is also a developmental skill!), and then introduce the next item. Lead your baby in the discovery process by saying things like “Wow, look at this juicy green apple. Let’s feel it, ooh that’s nice and smooth. Let’s smell it with our… that’s right, nose!” When you find yourself propping your baby in front of a ‘stimulation board’ with a tsunami of colours, textures, shapes and sizes… you might find that your baby loses interest quickly. But in actual fact your baby may not be losing interest because he is bored, your baby’s maturing sensory system might actually just not able to isolate one item at a time, and then it is easy to lose interest all together.

So we as parents and caregivers need to get down on the floor with them, and lead the discovery process.

Rest assured, they will get the hang of it sooner than you think.

Please also remember that everyday items such as your bath products, clothes, kitchen utensils etc. are all wonderful ‘stimulation toys’. When you pick up an item, ask yourself: ‘Does it have a shape? Does it have a colour? Does it have a temperature (i.e. dads deodorant bottle is cold while mom’s hairdryer is hot)? Does it have a texture?’ You will soon discover that absolutely everything around you is a conversation piece and developmental toy. We do not always need to rush to the shops to help our little ones to develop. Let your baby touch dad’s bearded face and say ‘rough’ and then mom’s smooth cheek and say ‘smooth’, or let baby smell the lotion before you apply it to her body and massage her in a warm and quiet place.

Baby’s brain is hard at work

Baby’s senses, brain and muscles need time to process what has been experienced. So remember to allow time between introducing a texture or smell, and always wait for the response. The younger the baby, the longer it may take for baby to respond. Be patient.

Also remember that context is extremely important, for instance: grass is a green textured surface we see outside. A sample piece of fake grass might interest baby but it does not tell baby what it is, where it is found or what it looks like in a natural setting. The ‘real life’ natural experience is always preferable to a sample. The same goes for smells. Oils, essences and bottled herbs are wonderful smell sensations, but always opt for the original natural form as far as possible e.g. a lavender twig instead of lavender oil, or a vanilla pod instead of vanilla essence. The more senses are involved the greater the value of the sensory experience (multi-sensory experiences).

Repeating the same stimulation (or experience) helps the brain to make sense of the experience and store it to memory. Repeat the same soothing experiences until baby is ready for something new and different.

Mom and dad, baby needs different items and experiences he can touch, smell, taste, hear and see to develop his nervous system, which includes his brain!

Baby’s networks shut down when you stimulate him all the time with lots of different toys and games. It is too much. It creates a traffic jam in his developing brain, as well as a racing heart, a dry mouth and butterflies in his tummy.

Please mommy, understand that this why your baby sometimes battles with cramps and wind and even reflux. It is your little ones way of saying: “Please go for Goldilocks principle: Not too much, not too little, just right”.