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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.

31 Mar

0027aStop and think about the complex wrist, hand and finger movements involved in things like zipping a sweatshirt, tying shoes, or using a can opener. Amazing, right? Long before these fine motor tasks became automatic, our hands went through developmental stages. Below we take a look at hand development from birth through your baby’s first year.

This timeline is based on averages. If you’re worried about your baby’s hand development, check in with your pediatrician for guidance.

Birth to 1 Month: “Little Fighter” Fists

At this stage, your new baby clenches her fists most of the time. This is due to the palmer grasp reflex. This reflex is also why, if you place your finger on her palm, she grasps and squeezes it. Around 6 weeks she begins to notice her hands. She studies them and touches one with the other, but she still has no idea they’re part of her body.

2-3 Months: Hello, Hands!

The palmer grasp reflex disappears and your baby starts to keep her hands open. She swats at nearby dangling toys, and if you put a toy like a rattle in her hand she grasps and shakes it briefly. When she hears the noise, she looks to see where it came from. This type of play teaches her that her hands are part of her body, and that she can use them to achieve a goal. It also begins to develop hand-eye coordination. At this stage she touches her face with her hands, exploring her features. Bringing her hands to her mouth helps her develop a sense of midline (understanding that her body has two sides, and where the middle is).

4 Months: Touching Everything

Now that your baby is well-acquainted with her hands, she tries to touch and grab everything! She swats at things with increased precision. Although she still can’t pick anything up, she clumsily tries to gather up a toy with both hands. She holds and drops objects that you place in her hand, and develops an initial understanding of cause and effect as she plays.

5 Months: Finally, I Can Pick it Up!

Although she still can’t use her fingers, your baby now begins to pick up toys by grasping them in her palm. She transfers toys from one hand to the other.

6-7 Months: Banging and Clapping

Your baby practices using her fingers by raking toys across the floor and picking them up. She now uses her palm, thumb, index and middle fingers to grasp. The real fun starts as she holds an object in each hand and bangs them together. She manipulates objects, and explores them from different angles. She wants to put everything in her mouth, which is a normal way for babies to learn about the world. The most endearing fine-motor skill at this stage? Clapping!

8 Months: Look Mom, I Can (Sort Of) Feed Myself!

Your baby develops a new, more precise way to pick things up: Using her thumb, index finger and middle finger. You can try allowing her to feed herself, which she will do clumsily (and messily!). This is one of the best ways for her to practice her fine-motor skills. She may also be able to hold a cup, although actually bringing it to her mouth to drink comes later.

9-10 Months: The Great Pincer Grasp

One of the most important fine-motor skills—the pincer grasp—emerges as your baby begins to pick up small objects with her thumb and index finger. Again, mealtimes are a great time to practice this. Foods like cooked peas work well. She will have a blast picking them up and squishing them, and may even eat a few! At this stage she also uses her hands for more complicated play like opening drawers and putting things into and taking them out of containers.

11-12 Months: Increased Precision

Play becomes increasingly more precise and complex as your baby uses her hands for activities like making a 2-block tower. A more mastered pincer grasp allows her to play with thin objects, like strings. She can also hold a crayon and drink from a cup on her own.

It isn’t always obvious that these first-year stages of hand development are fine motor skills. It’s later, when toddlers learn to dress themselves or eat with a spoon that hand development takes the stage. But that same pincer grasp she uses to pick up and squish peas leads to holding a pencil, writing, zipping a sweatshirt, and endless other tasks! Her early, clumsy attempts to use her hands and fingers are the foundation for fine motor skills she will use throughout her life.

30 Mar

0026aNow that your baby has gained head control and learned to roll over, she is ready to pull herself up to sit! This exciting milestone offers her a new way to move and a new view of her surroundings.

Like other gross-motor milestones before it, sitting up continues to prepare your baby for future movement (next up: crawling!). It nurtures her sensory-motor development and broadens her language acquisition, both of which we’ll talk about below.

When Do Babies Sit Up?

Around 6 months, you will be able to place your baby in a seated position and she will use her arms to support herself and stay there for limited periods of time. Around 7 months, she will have good balance while seated without using her arms as support, and may bend forward or backward to reach for things. Around 8 months, she will begin to pull herself up to sitting on her own.

Some babies reach these stages of sitting sooner, some later. If you’re worried about your baby’s development, your pediatrician can help determine if she’s on track.

Sitting and Other Gross-Motor Milestones

Pediatric Physical Therapist Dr. Andrea Hayward, MSPT, DPT explains that pulling up to sit on her own is an extraordinary feat for your baby. It requires a lot of pelvic, truck and arm strength to sit up, and a lot of balance and coordination to be able to twist, bend, lean, and play using both hands. All of this prepares her for her biggest gross-motor challenge yet: Crawling!

Sitting and Sensory-Motor Integration

Sitting is a big milestone for your baby’s “internal” senses—vestibular and proprioceptive, both of which are crucial for balanced, coordinated movement. The vestibular sense is an understanding of our bodies in space. It allows us to know how our body is positioned in relation to the ground and to objects around us. The proprioceptive sense is an understanding of the relative position of our body parts.

Pediatric Occupational Therapist Natasha Bravo, M.S., OTR/L explains that sitting refines these senses in important ways: It teaches your baby to understand that her body is vertical rather than horizontal, and that her head is further from the ground than when she is lying down. She learns how to use her body to transition from one position to another, shift weight from side to side, and catch herself from falling if she starts to topple over.

Language Development

Throughout our articles on gross-motor milestones we highlight how each offers new opportunities for your baby to have meaningful interactions with you during play. These interactions, according to Pediatric Speech-Language Pathologist Mandy Alvarez, M.S., CCC-SLP, are what drive her language development.

Sitting up brings a new, dynamic element to play. When your baby can pull to sit on her own and both of her hands are free, she can manipulate objects in a new way. She may hold an object in each hand and bang them together, or use her fingers to move objects across the floor. This creates new opportunities for you to label things and actions, narrate what’s happening, and engage in back-and-forth “conversation” with her. All of this teaches her about expressing herself, listening, cause and effect, and understanding non-verbal language.

Our BabySparks app has plenty of activities you can do with your baby to support her as she learns to get into and out of a seated position. Soon she will be on the move crawling, and you will be on the move keeping up with her!

30 Mar

0025aOther gross motor milestones may seem more worthy of celebration, but head control is a developmental powerhouse! It’s the precursor to moving the entire body, which starts with rolling over and goes on to sitting up, crawling, cruising, and walking. It’s the gateway to the world of food, because it prepares your baby to handle purees. And, it gets your baby ready to speak and introduces her to the wide world of language.

At birth and for the first month, your baby’s neck muscles are weak so it’s important to fully support her head at all times. The amount of support she needs will lessen as her neck muscles grow stronger.

When do Babies Gain Head Control?

Babies can typically lift their heads during tummy time at about a month old. Head control continues strengthening until it’s well-established, around 6 months.

Below are average stages of head control. Some babies move through them more quickly than others, so don’t worry if yours seems to be taking her time. You can always ask your pediatrician if you’re worried about her development.

  • Around 1-2 months: Your baby will lift her head while on her tummy, and may turn it from side to side.
  • Around 3-4 months: When she’s in her carseat she will hold her head in the middle, and when you carry her upright she will hold her head up for varying amounts of time. She will lift her head 45 degrees while on her tummy, and hold it steady.
  • Around 5-6 months: She will lift her head when she’s on her back and hold her head steady in any position.

Head Control and Movement

Head control is an important step towards moving the entire body. Lifting her head strengthens your baby’s neck, shoulder, and back muscles, which helps her use her arms to push up from the floor or against you while you’re holding her. All of this strengthening and pushing will increase until one day she will roll over.

Pediatric Occupational Therapist Natasha Bravo explains that head control allows your baby to look around, which strengthens her vision. At the same time, moving her head to look at something strengthens her neck muscles. In this way, head control and vision reinforce each other and prepare her to use her eyes and body together for purposeful body movement.

Head Control and Feeding

Around 6 months, when your baby has strong head control and sits up on her own, she is ready for the exciting world of solid food! According to Pediatric Speech Language Pathologist Chris Rowlee, this is because as her neck and trunk gain strength, her larynx (voice box) lowers and her cheeks thin out—all of which prepare her to handle her first solids (purees). For more on this, see our article about introducing solid foods.

Head Control and Speech & Language Development

Head control improves respiratory control, which is what powers speech. Around 5 months, when your baby has decent head and respiratory control, she will graduate from cooing to babbling (lip sounds like “ba-ba” and “ma-ma”, and tongue sounds like “da-da”).

Being able to move her head up and down and side to side also introduces your baby to a whole new world! Language begins to develop as she takes in more information from her environment. She will turn towards noises and watch activity around her.

Mandy Alvarez, a pediatric speech language pathologist, sees head control as a gateway to play: “When babies can lift and move their heads they can interact more easily with others, which is the basis of social communication—a fundamental aspect of language.” Additionally, head control coincides with reaching for toys (around 4-6 months). “When babies reach for toys, caregivers label them,” Alvarez says. “As you label these things, your baby begins to understand vocabulary.”

What’s the number one thing you can do to help your baby gain head control? Tummy time! Our BabySparks app has several fun activities you can do to help strengthen this skill and get her ready for her next exciting milestones.