By Dr Melodie de Jager
Developing involves learning to connect with people. Developing also means strengthening the muscles to reach motor milestone like rolling, sitting, grasping, self-feeding, crawling, standing, walking and talking.
The brain is at the heart of development, and ‘one size does not fit all’. Each baby is different and develops at a different pace depending on in-utero conditions, maternal lifestyle during pregnancy, birth conditions, and the vital first hours and days following birth. Mother and baby attachment and bonding, healthcare, early feeding etc. are all factors that impact and shape the developing brain.
The first 1000 days mark the time when a baby’s neural circuitry is most adaptable and receptive to interaction and stimulation. The first 1000 days include the 9 months in-utero and roughly the first two years after birth.
Research at Harvard University found that consistently stimulating and nurturing early experiences create robust, efficient pathways throughout regions of the brain that control memory, language, reasoning, impulse control and other competencies.
At the BabyGym Institute baby milestones are viewed as markers that indicate that the baby’s brain is developing. Milestones emerge when neural circuitry has matured sufficiently for the peripheral and central nervous system to dialogue effectively. In mommy-language it means the brain (central nervous system) responds to stimulation from the senses and muscles (peripheral nervous system) to develop the baby.
The sensory stimuli > brain > muscle response can be observed when a newborn baby’s cheek is stroked (sensory stimuli) and the mouth starts to root and suckle (motor response).
These early sensory-motor interactions are the architects of the brain. They design a powerful network of brain activity.
Baby milestones are guides that enable parents and healthcare professionals to plot a baby’s developmental progress. It is helpful to approach milestone charts and their time-frames as a guide rather than a rigid system that every baby must adhere to.
Stimulation always involves the senses. There are two groups of senses:
The more senses engaged in a single interaction, the greater the benefit to the developing brain.
Research at the BabyGym Institute has found that the senses of touch, smell and taste have a profound effect on immunity, feeding, weight gain, and comfort. This also confirms that breastfeeding is not only feeding time, but brain boosting time as baby can touch, smell and taste mom, make eye contact with mom and listen to moms soothing voice as baby suckles. Although feeding is generally a peaceful time, there is loads of sensory information that is fed to baby’s brain.
Although no senses work in isolation the senses of 1) touch, 2) movement & balance, and 3) smell & taste are generally associated with emotional development while the paired senses of 4) hearing and 5) sight are generally associated with cognitive development. Emotional development precedes cognitive development and thus a relaxed, calm and happy baby is necessary before one starts to focus more on the ears and eyes that are associated with the executive functions of the brain.
A baby’s brain is primed to develop with the least possible effort, but it still needs stimulation to develop. Too much stimulation too early may hit the immature brain like a tsunami and may be linked to a fussy baby who fails to thrive. When a baby feels overwhelmed the working of the Vagus nerve may become compromised, which is associated with poor and ineffective feeding and metabolism. Typical signs that indicate that baby is overstimulated includes fidgeting, inconsolable crying, and splayed fingers.
Too little stimulation during the most sensitive time (the first two years) to develop the peripheral and central nervous system can be recognised in the behaviour of neglected institutionalised babies. When babies are left unattended for long periods of time they appear apathetic and disconnected, interspersed with periods of rocking, an attempt to self-soothe.
De Jager, M. 2017. Play learn grow. Johannesbrug: BabyGym Institute.