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16 Jun

20035aJust as the top executive at a busy, successful company keeps everything organized and running smoothly, executive function skills allow us to focus, plan, accomplish tasks, control impulses, and manage emotions. It is a set of cognitive skills with a big job—to help us effectively and efficiently understand, control and use the constant streams of information running through our brains.

Executive function is not present at birth, but babies are born with the potential to acquire it. Although it develops into adulthood, experts agree that ages 0-5 are a critical time for laying its foundation. This time in your baby’s life is fertile ground because her brain is being shaped by her experiences.

Before we explore ways to support your baby’s executive function development, let’s take a closer look at what it is.

The Three Pillars of Executive Function

Executive function includes three types of interrelated brain function:

  • Working Memory — The ability to keep and use information.
  • Mental Flexibility — The ability to sustain attention or shift gears.
  • Self-Control — The ability to prioritize choices, resist temptations, and think before speaking or acting.

These three functions work together to help us:

  • Initiate — Begin tasks and generate ideas.
  • Plan — Map out how to accomplish present and future tasks.
  • Organize — Place objects in our physical space in a functional way.
  • Be Self-Aware & Self-Monitoring — Adjust our behavior to fit a situation, and understand the effects of our behavior.
  • Control Emotions — Use rational thought to manage our emotions.

Supporting Your Baby’s Developing Executive Function

Laying the groundwork for executive function will give your baby the best shot at mental and physical health, healthy relationships, and success in school and the workplace. Research has even shown that executive function is a better predictor of academic success than IQ or knowledge of letters or numbers.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Create and Maintain a Reliable, Supportive Relationship with Your Baby
    Consistent, warm responsiveness and interactions are a hallmark of a healthy childhood and set a baby up for success in every area of her life, including executive function. Your relationship with your baby not only helps shape her brain, it allows you to model executive function skills like how to behave in different situations and cope with stress.
  • Encourage Pretend Play
    Pretend (or symbolic) play gives your baby endless opportunities to practice executive function skills as she organizes objects, plans and completes tasks, and explores behavioral and emotional themes.
  • Support Age-Appropriate Independence
    When your baby is ready, allow her to do things like feed herself, put on her clothes, and help put away toys.
  • Play Games
    The Harvard University Center on the Developing Child suggests these executive function-promoting games for babies ages 6-18 months. You can find other fun activities in the cognitive development section of our BabySparks app.

Lap Games
Peek-a-Boo, Pat-a-Cake and the like support working memory and self-control.

Hiding Games
These exercise working memory. You can start with simple versions, like covering a toy with a blanket and letting your baby find it, and make them more challenging as she matures.

Imitation Games
Showing your baby how to do something and waiting for her to copy you involves attention, working memory, and self-control. This starts simply with actions like waving goodbye, and becomes more complex as she grows and copies actions like placing rings on a stacking pole.

Towards the end of this age range, you can engage your baby in role-play, like sweeping the floor or feeding a stuffed animal. This is the beginning of symbolic play and exercises working memory, self-control, and selective attention.

Fingerplays like Itsy-Bitsy Spider support self-control and working memory.

Before your baby can actually speak, you can “talk” to her by answering her coos or babbling, mirroring her facial expressions, or labeling things she points at. All of this exercises her attention, working memory, and self-control.

By nurturing your baby’s executive function development in these early years and beyond, you will set her up with life and learning skills that will serve her in every area of her life.

11 Jun

20034aAround the time your baby learns to crawl, she will begin experimenting with pulling up to stand. Eventually she will be able to stand up on her own—quite an accomplishment considering how much strength, coordination and balance it takes to get her body into a vertical position and stay there! It’s the foundation she will need to walk, but before we get excited about walking let’s shine a light on this exciting milestone.

When Do Babies Stand?

Generally, between 8-10 months, babies experiment with using furniture or other fixed objects to pull to standing. Between months 11 and 13, most babies are able to stand up on their own and remain standing. All babies are different, so check in with your pediatrician if you’re worried about your baby’s development.

How Does Standing Develop?

As an infant, your baby will “stand” on your lap and you may think you gave birth to a future superhero. In reality, this is called the positive support reflex, which will disappear by 6 months. This reflex allows her to push against things (like a swaddle, car seat or your lap) and begins to strengthen her leg muscles.

By 6 months your baby will be able to use her legs to bear some weight, and will bounce up and down while you hold her on your lap.

Around 8 months, if you place your baby standing next to the couch, she may be able to remain standing—likely leaning her body against it and hanging on tightly.

Between 9-10 months, your baby will feel more comfortable standing while holding onto furniture, and she’ll start experimenting with using it to pull herself up. She will spend many hours practicing lowering herself to sit, which at first involves bending her knees and a diaper-cushioned drop to the floor.

The period between 11-13 months is standing prime time. Your baby will graduate to holding onto the couch with one arm instead of two, switching arms, transferring weight from one side of her body to the other, and eventually letting go and standing by herself. She will also learn to stand up without pulling up on furniture, and she’ll perfect the art of lowering herself to the floor in a controlled way.

Standing and Sensory Motor Development

Pediatric Physical Therapist Andrea Hayward, MSPT, DPT points out that independent standing up and sitting back down requires tremendous motor control, which encompasses strength, coordination and balance. All of your baby’s gross motor development thus far has prepared her for this task by strengthening her muscles and ability to effectively balance her body and use its parts to achieve purposeful movement.

Being in a vertical position is a significant step in the development of your baby’s internal (vestibular and proprioceptive) senses, which are responsible for balance and coordination. During tummy time, rolling, sitting and crawling, her entire body has been close to the ground. Now that she’s standing, her upper body is further from the ground than ever before, and the way she balances and moves her body while upright is vastly different.

Standing and Vision

Researchers from New York University attached cameras to babies’ heads in order to study what they see while crawling compared to walking. The researchers found that when babies crawl, they tend to look down at the floor in front of them. This helps develop the inward movement of both eyes to focus on nearby objects.

In contrast, independent upright positions like sitting and standing help develop visual perception because babies have visual access to distant objects. Standing introduces babies to new visual terrain. When they stand up, the same room they’ve been crawling in looks totally different. “New visual information about the environment, along with the new body position create a dynamic and motivating challenge for babies,” Hayward says. “They must figure out how to get where they want to go in this new world.”

Encouraging Your Baby to Stand

Most babies are intrinsically motivated to stand. It’s a nice view from the top! If you want to help your baby practice, try one of the fun standing activities on our BabySparks app.

Hayward points out that equipment like activity centers, jumpers and others that support your baby in a standing position may actually hinder the development of this milestone, as they restrict the natural strengthening of her muscles and movement of her hips. Hayward stresses that above all, giving her lots of time to move freely is the most important thing you can do for all gross motor development: “Opportunity leads to practice, and practice leads to mastery.”

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.