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04 Jun

20033aYour baby smiles at you and you smile back. Or you make a scene enthusiastically babbling back and forth with her in the supermarket line. Aside from generating warmth and connection (and maybe a few amused stares), these “serve and return” interactions are crucial because they literally shape her brain!

How Serve and Return Affects Brain Development

According to the Harvard University Center on the Developing Child, every time your baby “serves” you a cue and you “return” it with an engaging response, new neural connections form. These neural connections build her “brain architecture” and are the foundation for all future development.

Serve and return is one aspect of the overall attachment between a baby and her parents or caregivers. A lack of consistent, loving responsiveness can result in important neural pathways never forming, or fading away from lack of stimulation. Research also shows that babies feel distress when their attempts to connect with a parent or caregiver are persistently ignored.

Benefits of Serve and Return

Serve and return affects all aspects of a baby’s development, including intellectual, social, emotional, physical, behavioral and moral. Regularly interacting with parents and caregivers in rich and meaningful ways is correlated with self-confidence, stable mental health, motivation to learn, educational and workplace achievement, impulse control, conflict resolution skills, ethical behavior, developing and maintaining relationships, and children eventually becoming successful parents themselves.

Examples of Serve and Return

Serve and return interactions will be important throughout your baby’s life, and will evolve as she matures and her brain functioning becomes more complex.

Like every aspect of development, serve and return progresses in stages with each stage building on the one before. Some of the first things your baby will “serve” you are eye-contact, smiles, and coos. Your “return” may be a smile, sweet word, or loving touch. When she starts babbling, your responses become more complex as you babble back while making different facial expressions. When she starts to point, you label the objects she points at. When she learns to draw, you ask about her drawing. Before you know it she’s a teenager, and although serve and return has become much more complicated than returning a coo, it continues to positively affect her still-developing brain.

Maximizing Opportunities for Serve and Return

Babies naturally seek interaction by making sounds, expressions and movements. Responding to these actions is the best way to engage in serve and return with your baby. You won’t be able to do this 100 percent of the time, but overall responsiveness is the key.

If other adults help care for your baby, you can explain the importance of these interactions and request that they engage with your baby as much as possible.

Limiting screen time promotes serve and return. The Harvard University Center on the Developing Child points out that there is no scientific support for claims that certain electronic games and videos positively affect development. In fact, screen time takes away from the individualized aspect of serve and return, which is tailored to a baby’s unique personality, interests, needs and capabilities.

Speaking of electronics, our BabySparks app doesn’t involve any screen time for your baby but does offer hundreds of instructional videos for activities you can do with your baby—every one of which involves serve and return. These activities are designed to nurture different areas of your baby’s development while encouraging brain-boosting back-and-forth between you!

07 May

0032aWhat do brushing your teeth, shaking someone’s hand, and reading this article have in common? A skill called “crossing the midline”. The midline is an invisible line from head to feet, separating the two sides of the body. We cross that line any time we move a foot, hand or eye into the space of the other foot, hand or eye. We also cross the midline with our tongue when we use it to move food from one side of our mouth to the other.

Why is Crossing the Midline Important?

If you recorded all the times you crossed the midline in a day, you’d fill several pages of a notebook. Even the act of writing them down would involve crossing the midline! Here are a few reasons this skill is necessary for daily life:

It allows us to smoothly perform practical life, self-care, and recreational tasks. Driving a car, sweeping a floor, cooking a meal, taking a shower, putting on socks, playing sports, and similar activities all require crossing the midline.

It’s necessary for visual tracking. Aside from activities like watching movies or scanning the field during a soccer game, we rely on visual tracking for reading because our eyes must continually cross the midline as they move across a page.

It develops a dominant hand. Developing a dominant hand is important for refined fine motor skills like cutting, writing, and throwing a ball. A child must be able to cross the midline to strengthen one hand for mastery of these tasks.

How Does Crossing the Midline Develop?

Around 3 months, babies can cross the midline with their eyes as they visually track an object moved in an arc in front of them. By 6 months they begin reaching across the body with one hand, and around 8 months they cross the midline with both hands by transferring objects from one hand to the other. By age 4, children generally cross the midline with ease.

Development of midline crossing is integrally connected to these sensory and gross motor skills:

Body Awareness
In order to cross the midline, your baby must first develop a sense of his body. Every physical interaction with his environment activates receptors in his skin, muscles and joints, which develops his proprioceptive sense. Proprioception includes an understanding of the relative position of our body parts, and it goes hand-in-hand with midline crossing. When you absentmindedly scratch an elbow, for example, you don’t have to look at your body to know where your elbow is and how to reach it with you opposite hand.

Bilateral Integration
Bilateral integration, or the two sides of the brain communicating seamlessly, is not present at birth. Midline crossing and bilateral integration reinforce each other: The more your baby crosses the midline, the stronger the brain communication—and the stronger the brain communication, the better the ability to cross the midline. One of the most important tasks for this mutual reinforcement is crawling. When your baby crawls, he continually crosses the midline with his hands and eyes, sparking constant “conversation” between the right and left hemispheres of the brain.

Core Stability
A strong base and good postural control allow for controlled movement across the midline. You will see this when your baby can sit up on his own (around 6 months) and has both hands free to reach across his body during play.

Trunk Rotation
Many crossing the midline activities involve coordinated twisting of the body.Transitional movements (shifting from lying down to sitting up, for example) help develop your baby’s ability to effectively rotate his trunk.

How You Can Help

Midline crossing won’t become a standout skill until your baby is 3 or 4 years old. But, because its foundation is directly linked to gross motor and sensory development, fostering movement and exploration is one of the best ways you can help your baby learn this skill. Give him plenty of tummy time and freedom to move and play. Because crawling is so important for effective midline crossing (and many other areas of development), try to keep your baby crawling as much and for as long as possible. If you are worried about your baby not crossing the midline, your pediatrician can offer guidance.

01 May

0031During your baby’s first year, he discovered his hands and learned he could use them. He started crawling and you were probably two steps ahead of him, making sure the dog food was out of reach and closing the bathroom door to keep him from unraveling the toilet paper.

Now that he is a year old, his play will become more focused as his hand-related fine motor skills blossom and he can better manipulate objects. This play helps secure the foundation for life skills in his not-so-distant future, like using utensils, getting dressed, and writing his first letters.

Below we’ll take a look at this development from months 12-24 through the lens of three favorite activities: Play, drawing, and looking at books.

Months 12-14:

Your baby builds his first towers. They’re only 2 blocks high, but it’s no small feat. It reflects his improving hand-eye coordination and ability to pick up objects and release them gently and precisely. If you give him a circular container with a lid that’s not too tight, he can pull the lid off. This shows he is perfecting his grasping skills and learning how much force is required for different tasks. He won’t be able to put the lid back on yet, so get ready for his new favorite game: Taking the lid off and asking you to put it back on, endlessly!

Your baby can hold a crayon and use it to make a few marks on a piece of paper. This artwork may not be framable, but it demonstrates hand-eye coordination and learning how hard he has to press the crayon on the paper to create a mark.

If you give your baby a book with thin pages, he turns 4-5 pages at a time. Even though he’s missing half the story, he’s practicing the difficult tasks of grasping and manipulating a page—one of the thinnest objects in everyday life.

Months 15-17:

Increased hand-eye coordination, precision and strength mean your baby can finally put those lids back on the circular containers and play the pull-off, put-on game all by himself! Your new role is cheering when he successfully inserts a circle into a shape puzzle and looks at you proudly (the other shapes come later).

Your baby begins to scribble and use his entire arm to draw lines on a large pad of paper. Keep an eye on your little Picasso—the wall is a tempting surface for this type of art! A bonus move at this stage is that he can rip a piece of paper in half after he scribbles on it.

Months 18-20:

After months of perfecting the 2-block tower, your baby can now stack 3-4 blocks. This is a big step, considering the care and accuracy involved in building higher and higher towers. He can also string beads with medium sized holes onto a firm cable, and remove and replace lids on different shaped containers. Something he will love to do at this stage is unwrap small packages, which shows different fine motor skills working together as he grasps, pulls and rips.

Your baby will try to imitate vertical lines, although they will be shaky.

Your baby can now grasp 2-3 thin pages.

Months 21-24:

During this stage your baby graduates to towers of up to 6 blocks, and he can complete a basic shape puzzle (circle, triangle, square). A game he loves is rolling a ball back and forth with you. This game not only displays his fine motor skills, it also shows how he is learning to use his body and hands together. Oh, and he can turn round doorknobs now, so closing the bathroom door won’t keep him away from the toilet paper anymore.

Your budding artist now tries to imitate horizontal circular, and semi-circular lines—the building blocks of writing letters. Although the “dog” he draws still looks more like a blob, his scribbles become more defined. Towards the end of this stage he may be able to fold one of his drawings in half if you show him how to do it.

At last, your baby can grasp one thin page at a time, finally getting the full story!

There are many changes during these months of your baby’s life that fill you with wonder. We hope that shining a light on this fine motor development helps you appreciate the truly incredible (and important!) things he is doing with his hands.

28 Apr

0030Symbolic play (or pretend play) is a highlight of childhood. Remember when toy food and plates set the stage for an elaborate lunch served to stuffed animals? Or when picnic tables at the park were pirate ships, and long sticks from the ground were swords?

Symbolic play is the ability to use objects, actions or ideas to represent other objects, actions, or ideas during play. Before symbolic play, a block is a block. After, a block can be a car, a phone, or anything your little one imagines it to be.

Engaging in this play is one of the most important tasks of childhood. It lays the foundation for several other areas of development, which we’ll explore below.

When Does Symbolic Play Develop?

Symbolic play develops between 18-20 months. Here we’ll look at stages of play from birth to 24 months:

Before 18 months: Play is based on exploration and imitation. Towards the end of this stage your child may imitate actions she has observed, like bringing a toy cup to her mouth, but for the most part objects are still used for their intended purposes.

18-24 months: Towards the beginning of this stage, a cognitive shift occurs as your child begins to understand that one thing can represent another thing. A stone in the yard becomes a car that she pushes on the ground.

She starts to play with stuffed animals or dolls as if they are real. She puts a stuffed giraffe to bed on the couch, or feeds a doll with a spoon from her toy kitchen.

Around 24 months: Symbolic play enters a new phase as your child begins to act out sequences. Before putting her stuffed giraffe to bed, she feeds him dinner and washes his face. These sequences become more sophisticated as she moves towards age 3.

Symbolic play continues to evolve and become increasingly complex throughout childhood.

Why is Symbolic Play Important?

Symbolic play is integral to your child’s development in several ways, including:

  • Helping her develop language, which includes speech, vocabulary, and expressing and understanding thoughts, feelings, ideas and concepts.
  • Building executive function, which encompasses planning, organizing, and completing tasks.
  • Laying the groundwork for later acquisition of reading, writing, and math skills. Letters, numbers, words and equations are all symbols. This play is her first experience using symbols to represent things and solve problems.
  • Nurturing her social-emotional skills. A tea party where dolls converse and share food supports her understanding of social interaction. A stuffed animal being mean to another stuffed animal may represent something she has observed and is trying to make sense of. Comforting a crying doll reinforces empathy.
  • Encouraging creativity. This play offers her endless opportunities to be creative as she uses objects to represent other things and acts out increasingly complex scenarios.

How Can You Encourage Symbolic Play?

  • Play! Being an actor in your child’s imaginary world is one of the best ways to encourage and motivate her to engage in this important play.
  • Be mindful of the toys you offer her. Toys like play kitchens, doctor kits, and costumes, as well as toys without batteries that can be used in multiple ways (blocks, balls, dolls, cars) are all great for encouraging imagination and creativity.
  • Give your child plenty of time to play unrestricted by equipment like seats, swings, and activity centers. Screen time can also interfere with symbolic play. Our article on screen time has great information about how to manage this part of modern life.

One of the best things about symbolic play is the opportunity to connect with your child. Even after a long day when mustering up the energy to play is hard, pretending to thoroughly enjoy the soup she makes you by putting a plastic orange and felt broccoli into a toy bowl will delight her. And, it will probably be the best thing you tasted all day.

27 Apr

0029aYour baby is on the move! Welcome to the days of following him from room to room as he explores his world. This can be exhausting for you, but it’s one of the most complex and valuable stages of his development.

In another article, we talk about 5 important benefits of this gross motor milestone. Here, we’ll take a closer look at crawling and how it relates to sensory-motor integration, fine motor skills, feeding, and speech.

When do Babies Crawl?

Babies generally start crawling between 8-10 months. In the weeks leading up to it, you may notice your baby making “pre-crawling” moves, like getting on his hands and knees and rocking back and forth, side to side, and diagonally. He may also use his arms and legs to scoot forward on his tummy. His first attempts at crawling may be awkward, but soon he’ll get the hang of it and be off!

Remember that babies meet milestones at different times. Your pediatrician can offer guidance if you’re worried about your baby’s development.

Crawling and Sensory-Motor Integration

Crawling shows how a child’s sensory and motor systems work together. In order to crawl, a baby needs a sense of his body in space (vestibular sense), a sense of his body parts and how they work (proprioceptive sense), and muscle strength to propel movement—all of which have been developing during months of tummy time, rolling and sitting up.

Crawling takes this learning to a truly dynamic level. Your baby is now able to move 360 degrees. This, along with transitional movements (lying to sitting to crawling and back again), allows him to practice rotating and bending his body parts. He is also gaining new understanding about gravity as he experiments with how hard to push against the ground to achieve the movement he wants.

A fascinating aspect of crawling and sensory-motor development is “motor planning”, or the process in which we learn how to do something automatically. Anything we do without thinking about it (getting dressed, riding a bike) is the result of motor planning. It requires that the sensory and motor systems work together to create a “body map” of different movements. Research shows that when a baby learns to crawl, there is an uptick of activity in parts of the brain that are related to motor planning.

Crawling and Fine Motor Skills

Fine motor skills, or using the wrists, hands and fingers, require body stability and postural control. Pediatric Occupational Therapist Natasha Bravo, M.S., OTR/L explains that crawling helps create a stable body and good posture because your baby is loading his wrists, shoulders and back. She adds that crawling is the only gross-motor activity that does this, which is why it’s so important to give him the freedom to crawl as much as possible!

Another fascinating thing about crawling is that it supports changes in your baby’s hands, including lengthening the long finger muscles, developing hand arches, and separating the hand into a skill side (thumb and first two fingers) and a stabilizing side (ring finger and pinky). These changes prepare him to use his hands and fingers for endless fine-motor tasks like manipulating toys, writing, and tying shoes.

Crawling and Oral Motor Development

When your baby crawls, the left-right movements are also happening inside his mouth. Pediatric Speech-Language Pathologist Chris Rowlee, M.S., CCC-SLP explains that because he can now move his jaw, tongue and lips left to right, he is ready to graduate from purees to soft foods he can bite and chew.

Similarly, these oral motor changes allow him to make more complicated speech sounds. When he babbles, he will now make different combinations of sounds (da-gee-da).

As you can see, the crawling stage is an especially rich time of learning for your baby. Allowing him to crawl as much as possible will help him reap the benefits of this milestone before he starts walking. Our BabySparks app offers more than 20 activities designed to encourage crawling.