Wednesday 20 September 2017

Baby Brain

What is happening to your baby cognitively during their first year of life? Here Niamh Hannan reveals a fascinating process of growth and learning and offers tips to aid your baby's mind development

FROM the moment of conception, babies are developing at a fast pace.

Not only are they learning new information, but their brains are also developing physically at an astonishing rate. It can be fascinating for parents to learn about the development phases their new baby goes through - to understand what usually happens when. Every child will develop in a unique way; however, there are norms that help us understand the general pattern of development expected at specific ages and stages. Babies' development is in various areas: physical, emotional, intellectual/cognitive, social, moral, cultural and spiritual. Here, I focus on cognitive development in newborn babies - helping you understand how your baby's mind is developing.

Cognitive development in babies Cognitive or intellectual development is the development of the mind, including language development.

At birth – Think of your newborn as a great little explorer. Although a new baby may appear to do very little, they are actively exploring their new environment using their senses. Already they are learning to cope with a huge amount of new information. After the comfort and safety of the womb, it must be some shock to come out into the bright world with all the noise, smells and constant sources of stimulation – no wonder little babies need lots of sleep!

Newborns can focus on objects less than one metre away, and already they show a distinct preference for human faces. They can recognise their mother's voice ( from hearing it when in the womb) and sometimes their father's too if they've heard it frequently. They become aware of physical sensations such as hunger and respond by crying. They make eye contact and cry to indicate that they need something. Even new babies are often able to imitate, for example copying you if you open your mouth wide or sticking out their tongue if you do.

Helping your newborn develop Babies need a lot of physical holding and touch – cuddling them actually helps promote their development. Talk to your baby lovingly and maintain eye contact while allowing time for baby to respond ( as in a conversation). Don't expect any set routine within the first few weeks – it's a big settling-in period for everyone! At this stage babies enjoy bright, contrasting colours ( not pastels) – you could make some cards with different black and white patterns and stick them to a nearby wall for them to look at. They may be fascinated by light streaming through a window or reflecting on walls and ceilings. Putting a mobile over their cot or stringing rattles and toys over their buggy or pram encourages your baby to focus their gaze and practice co-ordination as they try to reach out and touch. Be very careful, however, that, as your baby grows, these items do not pose a safety risk ( ie choking). Adjust to the age and agility of your baby and ensure that they cannot pull these items down.

1– 4 months – Babies are already beginning to smile in response to your smile. Their cries become more expressive and they make other sounds too such as cooing and gurgling. You can encourage them to vocalise by imitating the sounds they make and waiting for them to repeat. You may notice them moving a lot more – kicking their legs and waving their arms about. At this stage, they are better able to focus and follow moving objects with their eyes, and they may even imitate facial expressions. Infants now start to choose to do things because they have learned to expect a particular outcome. They have begun to understand patterns, such as a bottle meaning it's feeding time, and cause and effect; demonstrated by them deliberately shaking a rattle so that it will make a noise.

During this stage they also discover their hands – you can help by tying a rattler to their wrist. Watch them spend hours looking with fascination at their own fingers and hands!

In this phase they learn to trust the world and feel secure if their needs are met and they are responded to when they cry. If they are frequently left to cry they may learn distrust – that the world is not a safe place. Remember, they are totally dependant on you as they cannot do anything for themselves, so their only means of survival is your response to their cry. Pick them up if they cry, cuddle and reassure them – they will be more secure as a result of this.

4– 8 months – Your baby's exploration moves from being centred around their own body, to external objects in the environment without regard to their physical needs. This is a big baby milestone. They use hand, foot and mouth to discover and experiment with objects. By six months they are able to reach for and grab things with both hands. Most toys are transferred straight to the mouth.

They are now able to understand the meaning of words such as ‘bye-bye’, ‘mama’ or ‘dada’. They turn immediately when they hear your voice at a distance and they show some understanding of the emotional state of their main carer’s voice (so be careful of the moods you’re displaying!). By now too they under¬stand ‘up’ and ‘down’ and will gesture appropriately, such as raising their arms to be picked up.

Language also develops further as your baby begins to babble spontaneously, starting first with monosyl¬lables (‘ga, ga’) and progressing to combining syl¬lables (‘ba-goo-ga-me’). Babies now talk to themselves in a sing-song voice and often squeal with delight. By the end of this period, your baby may start to under¬stand simple words such as ‘bottle’ or ‘banana’ and they may start to use words themselves to represent objects – these could be real words ‘mama’, ‘dada’ or nonsense words ‘buh’ (referring to favourite teddy).

At this stage, to encourage development, you might build a tower of bricks together and watch it topple; look at picture books together and name simple things such as animals and make the noise they make, encouraging baby to point with you and repeat sounds. Cardboard boxes also provide lots of fun – you could make a little treasure chest with a mixture of items for them to examine, with different shapes and textures (plastic, wool, soft & furry item, etc.)

8–12 months – By this stage in their physical develop¬ment babies are able to sit up by themselves and are crawling or shuffling along and some may be begin¬ning to walk. Cognitively they understand their daily routine and like to imitate adult speech and gestures. They can judge the size of an object up to two feet away and look in the correct direction for fallen toys. Their memory is improving all the time.

The significant development at this stage is object permanence – they now know that an object exists even when it is no longer in sight (up until now if they can’t see something, it doesn’t exist in their world). This new skill is demonstrated when they watch a toy being hidden and then look for it; this shows they know it still exists even when they can’t see it. Playing ‘peek-a-boo’ helps them to learn this – even though your face disappears behind a blanket for a moment, they begin to learn that it will reappear.

During this time, they begin to show intentional means-end behaviour, which means that they’ve learned how cause and effect works and now begin to put different activities together to achieve a goal.

By the end of this stage they understand simple instructions associated with a gesture, such as ‘Come to Daddy’, ‘clap hands’ and ‘wave bye-bye’. They will hand objects to an adult when asked, and begin to treat objects in an appropriate way, for example cuddle a teddy but use a hair¬brush to brush hair. It helps to talk constantly to baby, allowing time for response, and continue with rhymes and action songs.

This gives you a general idea of your baby’s development in the specific area of cognitive development. What an in¬teresting year and this is just one facet of your baby’s development!

Niamh Hannan holds an MSc in counselling psychology from Trinity College Dublin. She works with the parenting education company Help Me To Parent, which provides parenting classes, private antenatal classes and more. Visit www.HelpMe2Parent.ie or call 087 689 0582. Hannan also runs a private practice – see www.Mindworks.ie.

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