1. Respond to crying and offer cuddles when needed
Human infants are born neurologically immature. By the end of the first year of life, their brain has tripled in weight. Nerve cells exist from birth, but it is the abundance and quality of environmental stimuli that leads to synaptogenesis, i.e. the connections between the cells to form neural circuits, which mature the functioning of the brain. These stimuli are related to the baby’s senses, with smell, touch, and hearing predominant since birth, and later on, vision. Responsive touching and holding help children grow, nurturing their brains and their souls. The normal psychomotor development of infants depends on the efforts of their parents and their basic care-givers to provide a safe environment, and to respond to their needs and expressions promptly. A baby doesn’t exist by himself, but rather in relation to his mother, or the person taking care of him. Parents should be guided by, and tune into their babies from the beginning, disregarding the imposed impressions and frequently wrong ideas of their immediate environment, and the cultural requirements rooted in obsolete scientific theories, established for parents a century ago. Their attention and affection should not, of course, be constant and overwhelming, just consistent with their babies’ needs. There is no need to pick up a baby, who is quite content to be left sitting, but by all means respond, when he indicates that he wants human contact. Every child is unique, and has his own temperament; do not compare him to how he “should be”. There is no average for the complicated beings that humans are.
2. Don’t dissuade normal behaviour
The baby’s psychomotor development progresses in pulses, in stages. After the first two months of life, the baby starts to gain control of the movements of his hands, and his favorite occupation is the exploration of his mouth with his hands. Nothing is more normal at this time, than the baby putting his hands into his mouth, something that offers him a variety of touching, tasting, and smelling stimuli, helping him to get to know himself, and the world around him. During this period, the kinetic region of the brain, that controls the mouth and the hands, is so extensive, that it exceeds all the other regions that control the movements of the rest of the body, of the feet etc. put together. Advice to discourage the baby from putting his hands in his mouth at this stage is irrational, and comparable to not allowing the baby to walk or stand up at the age of 12 months and after. The same applies to the normal exploration of toys and objects with his hands and mouth, which follows. This, as well as providing the infant with essential and invigorating sensory exploration of the environment, also offers him balanced and normal exposure to environmental substances and germs. This is a necessary process for the establishment of the infant’s immune system, through gradual exposure to the world, which, if absent or discouraged through excessive abstinence or sterilisation, will only cause health problems (theory of hygiene).
Over the centuries, and through cultural means, humanity has unfortunately applied many practices to the care of infants that harm their development. For example, in the past, it was common to swaddle the infant from morning to night to “calm” him down. This, if done excessively, naturally leads to delayed psychomotor development, and sensory deprivation. An old Chinese tradition imposed binding of girls’ feet, thus preventing them from walking at the age of around a year, when they were supposed to.
The rules for raising children are very simple: when a child shows an interest in doing something, and wants to do it repeatedly, he knows what he is doing, and he is letting you know that he is ready to do it, so you should provide the environment that encourages that particular behaviour. If he shows you that he wants to put things in his mouth, then buy him appropriate toys, so he can do just that. If he seems ready to sit up, help him to do so by supporting his back, and don’t force him to lie down because you were told he is not old enough to be sitting up. The psychomotor development of every child is different, the scope of normal is wide, and the age at which certain developmental milestones are achieved cannot be estimated in days or months. All babies that sit up on their own between the ages of 5 to 8 months are normal. All babies that walk on their own at the age of at 9 months, or even at 18 months, are normal. Only extreme deviations are of interest and concern.
3. Have a routine, but don’t be obsessive about it
Depending on the child’s temperament, having a daily routine for basic things, like mealtimes, walks, bath time, sleep, etc., may help with family harmony and balance. However, having a routine for infants – and for older people – is just as useful as not having one. It’s fine for infants to have a break from their daily routine now and then, and to come into contact with different people and within different, new situations. As long as the infant is with his mother, he will fit into family life very well. He doesn’t need a strict routine, and doing something different one day, seeing more people, or taking the baby out on a trip shouldn’t frighten you.
4. Encourage the child to participate in family and community life
A common mistake made by some parents, is that they completely adjust their life according to the life of their infant or young child. Infants need to learn gradually about the outside world, by seeing it through the eyes and the activities of their parents. Infants in non-western societies, whose mothers take them to their work and social gatherings from an early age (just months old), grow up calm and happy, and their behaviour matures. Of course, parents will have moments when they themselves will behave like children again, or integrate themselves into their child’s world, but the opposite is also necessary. Small children need to be exposed to daytrips, journeys, people, and wider experiences in general, participating with their parents. They shouldn’t be excluded from adult activities “because they are children”. Children behave like babies, when we treat them like babies, but flourish when we expose them to wider experiences.
5. Be careful not to use toys, tools and activities that are inappropriate or excessive for the young child’s age.
In an attempt to boost the child’s psychomotor development, parents often resort to means and ways, which are either not appropriate for the child’s developmental age, or which the specific child is not yet ready to accept. There are parents who read whole fairy tales and textbooks to their infants who are just a few months old. This is aimless and disorienting, since at this age, they should be enhancing expression, non-verbal reciprocal communication, as well as the sound and the frame of language. Unfortunately, there are also toys and aids for parents available on the market, and which parents buy, even though they have been proven to harm, and not benefit, children’s psychomotor development. Parents are attracted to some of these, because they make life easy, for example, baby-walkers, in which infants spend hours on end, increasing the risk of accidents, and preventing them from doing what they should be doing kinetically for their age.
Television can also be classed as a non-appropriate stimulus at young age. Scientific associations recommend that children should not watch television at all until the age of 2 years. Another example is the audio-visual material that is available on DVDs, intended for infants just a few months old (baby Einstein etc.). Frequent use of such materials not only offers nothing as far as the intelligence of the child is concerned, but has also been connected with attention deficit and behavioural problems later on.
In order to avoid bombarding children with inappropriate stimuli, parents should bear in mind some basic principles: listen to your child and his needs, correspond with his initiatives and his interests at all times, and not with what he “should” be occupied with at this age according to your preoccupations and prejudices.
6. Introduce the infant to the language early on
Even newborns have the ability to communicate. Human infants learn intensively, and they are interested in new stimuli, get used to, and become bored with old and familiar stimuli, they distinguish human faces, study expressions, movements, and sounds. Talk to your infant from the beginning, from a distance that he can see you, initially at about 30 cm. Interact when he is quiet and alert, choose moments when he is receptive, calmly alert, with his radar attuned to the world, and offer a variety of stimuli. This is not a monologue, but a simple, sweet, first conversation that a mother instinctively has with her infant, with interaction, questions and answers, allowing the stimulus to be followed by a pause for the baby to answer. First of all, the baby learns non-verbal communication, about sounds, eye contact, facial expression, the rite of dialogue, and the low and high pitches of the voice. Acknowledge the baby’s attempt to speak by repeating his sounds. The baby understands non-verbal communication before understanding the words themselves.
Later, after his first birthday, the child starts expressing himself with words, and his understanding is much more advanced. At this stage, it is important to enhance the child’s exposure to verbal communication and conversation as much as possible. Like a good football commentator, focus on the action that has captured the child’s attention and gaze, and enrich the moment with the appropriate response. Again, non-verbal expression has huge significance, gestures, exclamations, eye contact on the same level as the child.
7. Encourage the child to take the initiative
A frequent mistake parents make, in an attempt to offer their young child as much as possible, is to bombard the child with premeditated, set experiences. Right from the beginning, respect and encourage the young child’s self-acting initiative. It is not the parents’ job to tell the child what to do, think, or see all the time. On the contrary, parents should act as an invisible safety net, picking up on what has attracted their child’s attention and interest, and enriching and expanding each of his experiences. Don’t ask forceful questions; just follow what he is doing. Don’t instruct him how to play, let the child decide himself how he will play without limitations. It is very important to let the young child play without an obvious ultimate goal, or specific meaning, to let him drift from one thing to another, experiment, learn according to his own needs and motives, without obligations and without your external organisation. Your role is to create an invisible safety net around your young child, encouraging his initiative taking in experiences. For me, this is the definition of childhood, and significantly accounts for why we end up weary and irresolute adults. It is essential to let small children live the infinite, to open up to the infinity of the world, to drift through all capabilities and possibilities, to determine their own course, and not be restricted by the forced requirements of adults from an early stage. Carefree play in the fields has become restricted to organized play in playgrounds. Odd bits of plastic or newspaper and soil with endless possibilities for creative play have become limited to cheap, restrictive plastic toys for specific use only. The child’s life support mechanism is to think and act outside this framework, outside the box, and this is what most healthy children are desperately trying to do within the limits of their cage-like homes, frequently causing their parents despair: “Why doesn’t he play with the toys I buy for him? Why does he prefer the shoes in the cupboard, or the pans in the kitchen cabinets?” Think back to one of the many days of your childhood, the older the generation the richer the experience, when you wandered aimlessly through neighbourhoods with friends in an endless day, without a beginning and an end. How many pre-school or primary school children experience this nowadays? That experience has been replaced by coercive learning activities, restrictive games on the computer, television, and board games.
8. During the early years, focus more on emotional wealth and mental development, rather than on cognitive learning
“He needs to go to nursery school in order to become more socialized and to learn things”…is often heard at the age of 18 months, sometimes even 12 months old. This is a complete disorientation from the real needs of this age group. Infants and small children don’t need companions, friendships with children of the same age, participation in groups, impersonal or multifaceted chaotic care, and eventually neglect. What they do need is one-to-one reciprocal care, to learn to recognize and understand the emotions of closed people they are familiar with, to learn to express their own emotions. During the infant and preschool age, focus more on unconditional love, building of strong bonds with important people for the child, protection of the psyche with emotional security, emotional wealth, and psychological development, rather than cognitive learning or early independence. Small children need parents, not classes, and teachers. Let’s protect these crucial, full, free, really happy first years, before the years of – excessive, and even coercive – learning begin, “burning” out many of the child’s capabilities, shrinking his world into the structure of the poor adult world. Before schooling begins, play and family are of fundamental significance.
Stelios Papaventsis MRCPCH DCH IBCLC 2013