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The Truth About Early Stimulation

"All a baby has with which to take in the world are her five senses. Hold her, sing to her, show her the night sky or a quivering leaf, or a bug. Those are the ways—the only ways—she learns about the world—whether it is a safe and loving place, or a harsh one. What she will register, at least, will be the fact that she is not alone. And it has been my experience that when you do this—slow down, pay attention, follow the simple instincts of love—a person is likely to respond favorably." - Joyce Maynard

Babies in our modern world risk being overstimulated.

Somewhere down the line, we have understood that babies need stimulation for healthy brain development, that being under stimulated was a cause for concern, and boy have we run with it. With a different baby group for every day of the week at least, all claiming to benefit your baby, parents are understandably under pressure, perhaps even unconsciously, to 'get it right' and offer the very best for their children. But how much is too much?

The wealth of scientific evidence* shows us that the early years are the prime window to connect an infant or child's neural pathways and build cognitive (brain) maps as well as shaping their thoughts, opinions and interpretations of the world. We know that the biggest negative impacts on a developing brain are neglect and abuse however we can also see that being rushed, stressed or overstimulated will also raise stress levels and impact on those cognitive maps.

Parenting author and educator Maggie Dent warns us, "As parenting and education trends change and move further away from what children really need especially in the early years, our children become wired to be hypersensitive to the world around them. Heightened levels of cortisol, which is the stress hormone and which often comes with adrenaline, makes children feel threatened, unsafe, uncomfortable, frightened, worried and unable to cope. Some children become upset really easily when their nervous system is overloaded and display highly anxious behaviours and can be very clingy. Others can become very defensive and over-reactive and this can create aggression, shouting or yelling, meltdowns and tantrums. Essentially, both expressions of distress are signs of heightened stress in the children – not a sign of bad children or poor parenting. It is rather a sign of an inability to cope."

So what do babies really need? Well firstly, babies need to be babies. Sadly the myths of spoiling a baby, despite the level of neuroscience now available, are still responsible for many parents working hard to educate their babies not to be babies and this is the first step towards over stimulation. There is a saying that the only thing that needs to change about a baby's behaviour is our expectation of it. Truly understanding a baby's physiological needs is to understand the normality of the very things we are often trying to change.

In terms of stimulation, babies need human connection. human voices, human faces and human touch. The company of their parents in a calm environment and protection from over stimulation which can send their nervous systems in to overdrive, causing high cortisol and adrenaline responses. Babies can receive adequate stimulation simply from being held, loved, spoken and sung to and from receiving positive nurturing touch.

Many classes promoting stimulation for babies target babies from birth, but lets take a moment to consider the development of their senses.

Our first sense to develop is touch. After birth, touch can have powerful effects. Experiments show that skin-to-skin contact can soothe newborns in pain, and help babies grow and thrive (Johnston et al 2017; Conde-Agudelo and Díaz-Rossello 2016).

Affectionate touch can also protect at-risk infants from developing abnormal stress response systems. It may change the way certain genes get expressed during development, making newborns less prone to emotional problems later in life (Murgatroyd et al 2015).

Newborns use their sense of touch to help them interpret visual information. When a baby touches your face, he's learning how to recognise it visually. Babies seem to find touch more reassuring if it comes as part of a package - one that includes affectionate cuddles, friendly eye contact, talking, and rocking. Babies can also get stressed when we're too pushy - when we ignore their desire for downtime, touching and stimulating them in ways they don't want (Feldman et al 2010).

In terms of sight, babies can't see very well. Their vision is blurry and their colour vision is very limited, babies are born without true depth perception. Stereoscopic depth perception doesn't appear until approximately 16 weeks postpartum (Streri et al 2012; Held et al 1980). Colour discrimination is very poor immediately after birth, and develops gradually over a period of months (Johnson 2010). In experiments, new infants have shown a preference for looking at faces and face-like stimuli (e.g., Batki et al 2000; Turati et al 2002). Despite their poor vision, babies learn to identify faces within the first few hours of life.

Now for sound. Your voice is unique to your baby and there's no other quite like it. Baby's learn to recognise your voice and those around them in the womb and it's a soothing tool not to be underestimated. Sylvie Hetu in 'Too Much, Too Soon?' suggests that we are the first generation not to routinely sing lullabies to our babies, rather that we have been socialised to believe that there are better choices and voices than our own with many choosing convenient electronic alternatives. Scientists from the University of Washington concluded that the world apparently sounds very different to infants than it does to adults. Sometimes it's filled with a cacophony of sounds that makes it difficult for babies to distinguish a single sound from all the surrounding noise, so perhaps singing alone to your baby will benefit them far more than a sound system or a few shakers?

I can foresee the comments now... "but you run baby classes!" Yes, I do. But IAIM classes are special. By training with the International Association of Infant Massage we learn how to create a calm, quiet and supportive environment in our classes which is conducive to nurturing parent and baby communication. Our classes are totally baby-led and parents are taught how to recognise their babies verbal and non-verbal cues in order to respond respectfully and effectively. We always seek permission from babies. We always listen to them. We teach parents a skill to enjoy and interact with their babies at home. A great deal of thought goes in to our surroundings to limit any external stimulation and we focus purely on massage so that your baby can focus purely on you. You are all the stimulation that your baby needs.

There’s no ‘right’ answer to how much stimulation is too much, because every child is different and will cope differently. Some children cope with stimulating environments better than others. I do understand that often baby groups are as much for the parent as the baby and there are many meetings and groups that won't overstimulate babies. For babies and young children, try to ensure that you do not overload them with too many activities and allow them to spend time each day just to rest or play or simply be with you during their awake time. Don't under estimate how much they are learning from simple interactions with you and take care to choose appropriate activities for your babies.

*Further References

D A Christakis et al (2012) Over stimulation of newborn mice leads to behavioural differences and deficits in cognitive performance. Sci Rep. 2: 546

V. Dunckley (2012) Gray Matters: Too Much Screen Time Damages the Brain. Psychology Today

Anderson, J.R., & Doherty, W.J. (2005). Democratic community initiatives: The case of overscheduling. Family Relations, 54, 654-665

Slutsky, R., & DeShetler, L.M. (2016). How technology is transforming the ways in which children play. Early Child Development and Care

Richard House et al (2011) Too Much Too Soon

ScienceDaily (30th May 2001) University Of Washington. "Babies Have A Different Way Of Hearing The World By Listening To All Frequencies Simultaneously"

Margot Sunderland, (2007) The Science of Parenting

Maggie Dent (2003) Saving our children from Our Chaotic World: Teaching Children the Magic of Silence and Stillness

Self-Reg: How to Help Your Child (and You) Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage with Life (2018) Dr Stuart Shanker

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