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07 Aug

20043aBaby shoes are a big business these days! A miniature version of Dad’s favorite sneakers may be adorable, but research shows that it’s best for babies (and older kids, too) to be barefoot as much as possible.

Kids need shoes, of course. City sidewalks and snowy grounds aren’t barefoot-friendly, but warm homes, playgrounds and mud puddles are!

Why are Bare Feet Good for My Baby?

Unless you notice problems with your child’s foot development (more on this below), being barefoot is ideal. Here are some of the reasons why:

It allows for optimal foot development. At birth, the bones in your baby’s feet are soft. As he grows, the bones harden and the joints, ligaments and muscles in his feet develop. Studies suggest that children’s shoes (especially if they’re stiff, narrow, tight, or have an inflexible sole) can interfere with foot development because the foot conforms to the shoe instead of forming naturally.

It improves agility. When toddlers walk barefoot they tend to look up because the information they receive through their feet orients them and makes them feel secure. Shoes block that intake of information, so toddlers wearing them tend to look down and are more apt to topple over. Shoes can also restrict toe spread, which helps tots stay balanced.

Barefoot steps also boost coordination because they send messages to a child’s brain about how to organize his movement patterns and effectively navigate his body through space.

It promotes awareness. Being barefoot not only frees children to look up and around rather than at the floor, but also helps them learn to safely traverse different surfaces. Walking and running barefoot on hard floors, sand, grass, mud and the like gives children confidence to maneuver their bodies in different settings. Research has even suggested that being barefoot correlates with being less prone to injury.

It optimizes sensory motor development. There are as many as 200,000 nerve endings in the sole of one foot! Even before learning to stand and walk, being barefoot teaches babies about their bodies and their surroundings. Bare feet against swaddles, laps, beds, carseats, strollers and the ground exposes babies to different textures, temperatures, and opportunities to push with their feet and toes. Barefoot tummy time and crawling allows full freedom to use feet and toes for movement.

When You Need Shoes, Choose Wisely

Now that we’ve pointed out benefits of being barefoot, let’s talk about those city sidewalks and snowy grounds. When you need to put shoes on your child, keep these points in mind:

  • Strong ankle support at the back of the shoe
  • Flexibility in the front of the shoe to allow the foot to move
  • Wide at the front of the shoe to allow toes to spread and move
  • Level sole that matches the floor
  • Avoid high-tops, as they restrict ankle movement

Exceptions to the Barefoot Rule

While being barefoot as much as possible is ideal for the majority of babies, some children, and even adults, may benefit from wearing shoes due to abnormal foot development. Pediatric Physical Therapist Dr. Andrea Hayward, PT, DPT explains that if you notice any of these red flags during the first few years of walking, consult with your pediatrician or a pediatric physical therapist:

  • Feet are rolling in
  • Feet have blisters or callouses
  • When standing, toes are turning outward rather than pointing straight
  • Knees knock together
  • Persistent toe-walking

Those cute shoes on the shelves these days can be hard to resist. Try using them for photo ops, and then set your barefoot baby free to explore and learn about his surroundings, his body, and movement through his feet!

07 Aug

20042aPulling up to stand was exciting for your little one. Suddenly he could see his surroundings like never before. To explore in this new, upright position, he starts shuffling his feet side-to-side while holding on to furniture or other large, fixed “support” objects. This is cruising, and it prepares him to move in an upright position for the rest of his life.

When Do Babies Cruise?

Babies generally start cruising within weeks of learning to pull to stand, usually between 10-12 months.

How Does Cruising Evolve?

Cruising starts with tentative side-to-side steps. As your baby gets used to bearing weight on his feet, he will gradually rely less and less on his hands for support. Eventually he’ll cruise with confidence, taking wider steps and using his hands only to steady himself. When he’s comfortable, he’ll experiment with holding on with one hand, switching to the other hand, rotating his trunk to turn and look around, and even letting go for a split second to cruise from one support object to another.

Cruising and Gross Motor Development

Cruising is prime time for your baby’s hips. The act of stepping side-to-side develops his hip abductors—the muscles on the outside of the hips that allow one leg to remain stable while the other swings through space. Strong hip abductors are crucial for walking, so cruising is an important prerequisite.

Cruising also strengthens his leg muscles and core, which gives him the power and postural stability required to move while holding himself upright.

Cruising and Fine Motor Development

Pediatric Physical Therapist Dr. Andrea Hayward, PT, DPT explains that just as crawling helps develop the hands for hand-related fine motor skills, cruising does the same for the feet. As your baby cruises he shifts his weight from one part of his foot to another, shaping and preparing his feet for the fine-motor movements involved in future milestones like walking, running, jumping and climbing.

Cruising and Motor Planning

Cruising promotes motor planning, which allows us to safely and efficiently navigate our environment. Being able to do things like turn corners while walking through a building, swerve while driving to avoid a pothole, or maneuver a cart through a crowded supermarket are a result of motor planning. Hayward explains that cruising supports this because your baby must figure out how to turn the corner when he reaches the edge of the coffee table, for example, or get around a toy on the floor.

How to Encourage Cruising

  • Set up a safe environment for cruising. Hayward says that babies are more likely to practice cruising when they feel safe, so be sure yours has plenty of stable support objects, like furniture, or sturdy play tables or toy kitchens. You can also put bumpers on table corners and other hard edges to ensure that his inevitable tumbles are as padded as possible.
  • Entice him! Place his favorite toys on different support objects to encourage him to cruise to get them. Place play tables, toy kitchens and the like close enough to other support objects that he can cruise from one to the other. You are one of his favorite toys, so sit on the opposite end of the couch and encourage him to cruise to you!
  • Keep his feet bare. Wearing shoes can both restrict the precise foot movements that happen during cruising, as well as dull the rich sensory information your baby receives through his feet. Being barefoot as much as possible is important throughout your baby’s development.

Above all, set your baby free to cruise as much as possible! As with every stage of his development, cruising is a difficult new skill that takes a lot of practice to master. The better he masters cruising, the more prepared he’ll be for the next stage: Walking!

24 Jul

20041aLife with a toddler is busy. Getting out of the house, mealtimes and bedtimes are each a full production involving several steps. Does it make your head spin to imagine these productions getting even longer because your toddler wants to do things like put on his shoes, feed himself, and pre-brush his teeth before you do the actual job?

Encouraging age-appropriate self-care tasks can test your patience, but it’s essential for your toddler’s emerging sense of independence. Independence gives us a sense that we are not helpless, but rather in control and responsible for ourselves and our actions. Even the simple act of putting a dirty shirt in the hamper helps your little one feel capable, builds his self-esteem, fuels his desire to learn and grow, encourages self-reliance, and let’s him feel like a contributing member of the family.

Self-care tasks also benefit other areas of development, like executive function and fine motor skills.

Tips for Encouraging Self-Care Independence

Depending on his personality and changing moods, your toddler may be motivated to do self-care tasks on his own, or he may need a little push. Here are some tips for supporting his burgeoning sense of do-it-himself:

Learn about age-appropriate self-care tasks. Chances are your toddler will let you know when he wants to do something by himself. As long as it doesn’t involve kitchen knives or another perilous activity, follow his lead and offer help if he needs it.

This article is a great resource for self-care activities through age 2. You can also scroll through our BabySparks app for self-care tasks by month, as well as independence-promoting activities you can do with your toddler.

Offer choices. Part of a child’s drive to do things on his own is a desire to feel in control. If he wants to wear shorts outside on a cold day, you may be able to avoid or diffuse a meltdown by offering him reasonable choices: “Do you want to wear these blue pants or these green pants?” That way he can still take ownership of the final decision.

Make self-care accessible. Put your toddler’s pajamas in a low drawer in his room so he can pull them out himself at bedtime. Or put some of his plates and cups in a low cupboard in the kitchen so he can retrieve them himself at mealtimes.

Allow extra time. If your toddler’s bedtime routine usually takes 30 minutes, try starting a little earlier. This is a win-win for both of you: He’ll have time to successfully complete a task and you’ll have room for patience while he does it. This goes for mealtimes, picking up toys, and any other daily routine in which your toddler can play a role.

Balance stepping away and stepping in. You may have to sit on your hands to keep from grabbing your little one’s fork as he tries again and again to stab a piece of banana, but give him a chance (or several). Tasks like these involve fine-motor skills that take a lot of practice to master.

There will also be times when you want him to do something by himself and he fights it. Try compromising: “I’ll take off this sock and you can take off the other one.” Sometimes he will flat out refuse and you’ll have to choose your battles. He may be tired, or simply having a bad day. Like so many other areas of parenting, overall consistency is what matters.

Be supportive. Learning to do things by himself will involve frustration, messes, spills and mistakes. As he tackles increasingly difficult tasks, you want him to persevere. Support and praise send the message that mistakes are part of learning and can be overcome.

The self-care learning process can feel long and tedious, but remember that little everyday tasks teach your toddler big lessons about self-reliance, helpfulness, and responsibility.

24 Jul

20040aEncouraging your toddler’s burgeoning independence sets her on a path towards self-reliance, builds her ability to plan and accomplish sequential tasks, and strengthens her fine motor skills.

Here’s a guide of age-appropriate self-care tasks to help you support your little one during this important phase of her toddlerhood.


Getting Dressed

  • 11 months: Your toddler can remove her socks, and she moves her body and limbs to help you while you dress her.
  • 14 months: If you start undressing her, she can finish by pulling out her arms and legs.
  • 17-20 months: She fully participates in getting dressed and undressed with your help, and may be able to pull on pants with an elastic waistband.
  • 24 months: Get ready to chase your naked toddler! She can take off her clothes by herself now (shirts with sleeves may take more time to master). She may be able to put on slip-on shoes or ones with easy closures, like velcro straps.

Mealtimes

  • 6 months: If she’s sitting independently, she’s ready for solid foods and interested in feeding herself. At this stage she’s eating purees, so this is fun for her and messy for you!
  • 13 months: Her improving fine motor skills allow her to experiment with using a spoon. Get your camera ready so you can capture her with yogurt all over her face! She’ll get better and better at using a spoon, and will get most of the food into her mouth by about 20 months.
  • 15 months: You can start teaching her to drink from a cup with no lid. She’ll need your help at first, and will do it solo by 17-20 months.
  • 17 months: She can start experimenting with a fork, although it will take until close to her second birthday to get better at using it.
  • 22 months: She can use a napkin to wipe her own face, and she can peel a banana or other easy-to-peel fruit.

Chores

  • 16 months: She can work alongside you to pick up toys, but needs reminding about where things go.
  • 17 months: She can put her dirty clothes in the hamper, and her shoes away.
  • 20 months: She can help clean up a spill, and bring her dirty dishes to the kitchen after a meal.
  • 21 months: She has a better understanding of where things belong, and can more independently pick up toys or help put away clothes.

Grooming

  • 16 months: She can practice brushing her own teeth before you do the actual job. She’ll get the hang of this when she’s 3 or 4 years old, but your pediatric dentist may recommend you help her until she’s even older.
  • 18 months: She can participate in hand washing, but still needs help. By her second birthday she’ll be able to wash her hands alone.
  • 22 months: At bath time, she can help lather the soap, wash herself, and dry off.

Encouraging your toddler’s self-care independence adds time to your already busy day, but when you step back from doing for her what she can do for herself, you send the message that she is capable and provide her first opportunities to feel like a contributing member of the family.

03 Jul

20039aYou’ll have your first conversation with your baby long before her first word. Babbling starts around 5 months, and research shows that responding to your baby’s babbling in a meaningful way can boost her language development.

Language is So Much More Than Words

When we think of language development, babies saying first words comes to mind. Speech, though, is just one aspect of language, which encompasses three main areas:

Receptive Language: Understanding language that communicates thoughts, feelings, ideas or concepts.

Expressive Language: Using language to communicate thoughts, feelings, ideas or concepts.

Pragmatic Language: Using language to navigate social situations, including nonverbal cues.

When you respond to your baby’s babbling (whether with babbling or actual words) in a meaningful way, you expose her to all three areas of language. You can have full conversations—complete with varying tones of voice, facial expressions, and gestures—long before she says her first word!

What is a ‘Meaningful’ Response?

Researchers at The University of Iowa found that in order to reap the language-boosting benefits of responding to your baby’s babbles, your responses must be thoughtful: Listening, trying to figure out what she’s communicating, labeling, elaborating and using nonverbal cues like eye contact, facial expressions and gestures.

Here are some of the ways meaningful responses to your baby’s babbling can maximize her language learning:

Encourages Back-and-Forth Communication

Speech-language pathologist, Mandy Alvarez, highlights that responding to your baby’s babbling reinforces the reciprocal nature of communication.

“When your baby says ba and you say ba back, she thinks, I did that! I made her say ba!” says Alvarez. “She learns that she has the power to initiate communication and elicit a response.” This is motivating for her, and she’ll likely keep going as long as you keep responding. Keeping her talking is great for her speech development, because she gets a lot of practice experimenting with new speech sounds.

An additional benefit of back-and-forth communication is that it introduces your baby to pragmatic language skills like eye contact, turn-taking and listening.

Gives Meaning to Words

If your baby looks at her cup and babbles, a meaningful response might be: That’s your cup. Are you thirsty? Here you go! You can drink. Mmm.” Figuring out what she’s “talking” about and building on that teaches her that words have meaning and can be used together to express something.

Labeling and elaborating in this way helps build your baby’s vocabulary. Because receptive language develops before expressive language, she will understand many words before she is able to say one. 

Builds Nonverbal Language Skills

Nonverbal language is an enormous part of human interaction. Tone of voice, facial expression, body position, and gestures all communicate much more than the words we say. For instance, the word hello means something completely different if you say it with a smile while leaning in than if you say it with a straight face and stiff body.

Engaging responses to babbling teach your baby that non-verbal cues have meaning (Mom’s making eye contact, that means she’s listening; Mom’s smiling, that means I should keep going). You will notice her mimic and eventually use nonverbal language herself. 

Alvarez emphasizes that learning how to read and use nonverbal language is one of the key elements of social communication, or being able to relate to others and navigate the complex nuances of social interactions.

In addition to teaching your baby invaluable language skills, your responsiveness to her babbling also helps optimize her brain development. Repeating ba or going on and on about the cat she sees out the window are powerful tools in your parent toolbox!