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24 Apr

Copycat BlogWhat do tongues, clapping and peek-a-boo have in common? Imitation, that’s what. Babies love to imitate and we love to watch. As a newborn, when swaddled and facing you, babies just a few hours old will stick out their tongue when you stick out yours. It may take a few repetitions, but if you do it slowly, it works! What every mom wants to believe when she sees this skill is that she’s birthed a genius. The truth is less dramatic: every infant’s brain is wired to learn from the get-go. Inside that adorable little head, millions of neurons are creating new connections constantly, as babies make sense of their world. In the beginning, of course, their ability to imitate is limited to basic motions. Just because they don’t have the coordination to copy more complicated things in the first few months, however, doesn’t mean that they aren’t still absorbing what they are seeing. Let’s take a peek into what’s going on.

How Do We Know What Baby’s Learning?

Some signs of imitation are obvious to parents, especially as babies get older. For example 9-month-old babies can wave goodbye months before they have the words to say it. Yet many signs of invisible learning go unnoticed by parents. Using a wired bathing cap or mini-MRI machines (both harmless techniques), researchers have found ways to peek inside baby’s brains. While monitoring the children, scientists show them pictures, play music or put on puppet shows. Then they carefully document the babies’ eye movements and other actions and link them to brain activity. The resulting scans have shown incredible results, such as:

  • Seven-month-old infants’ brains light up in different areas, depending on whether their native language is played or sounds of another language.
  • Seven-month-olds imitate facial expressions and are particularly good “lip readers.” They watch adult mouths carefully and make the same shape with their own mouth (i.e., a rounded shape for “oo”).
  • When 14-month-old babies simply watched an adult use her hand to touch a toy, the part of the baby’s brain that controls her own hand movements lit up.
  • Fourteen-month-old toddlers who see an adult perform an action can remember it and imitate the same action perfectly a week later in the laboratory.

These and other results are giving parents a wider window into their youngsters’ inner workings as babies’ thinking, memory and bodies evolve. Physical imitation is easy to see – like clapping, blowing a kiss or playing peek-a-boo. As babies become toddlers, they continue to imitate actions: they pick up a toy phone, push buttons on it and then put it to their ear to listen - just like their parents. When it comes to language development, the imitation is silent. It is as if babies are practicing how to speak during the first year, before they even say a word! (This inborn ability to put together sounds and words is why young children have an easier time learning other languages than their parents do.)

So, while imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery to parents, it is also an important sign of healthy growth and development. When a baby imitates a physical action, her brain is cognitively marking the moment, storing it in memory, retrieving it and attempting to copy that action. This “see one-do one” cognitive feedback loop is certainly brain-building. It is also rewarding to parents and others in a baby’s life and therefore builds social interaction. And the communication-building skills baby reaps from repeating sounds or pointing to letters also serve to boost language development. All of these examples represent how babies are born ready to imitate the world around them, using all their senses.

How Can Parents Help?

Here are some specific things parents can do to reinforce imitation and learning:

  • Encourage your child by showing that you understand your child is trying to copy you
  • Slow down and repeat gestures, words or animal sounds
  • Give your baby plenty of time to respond
  • Smile when you see baby copying you
  • Say, “Look at you trying to do/say what mommy’s doing”
  • Seize the chance to occasionally copy your little one. When she claps, you can clap and say “Yay!”

Watch your child’s response; odds are she’ll light up and feel powerful that she ‘created’ that moment of connection between you. After all, it is the little moments like this that form your child’s view of herself - that she is a capable, loved person who is eager and ready to learn from you and the world around her. And that she has something to offer, too.

Maureen O’Brien, PhD is a developmental psychologist, parenting coach and author of Advantage, Mom: 20 Lessons from a Parenting Pro, available at and Watch Me Grow: I’m One-Two-Three, available at parenting tips and resources can be found on

26 Mar

2016-03-29 Heres looking at you babyAs your little one looked back at you for the first time, you no doubt wondered what she saw and whether she recognized you. Scientists are also curious about what babies understand and when. In the past few decades, infant researchers have been using technological advances and creative methods to figure out how babies see their world. What they have discovered is fascinating, and -not surprisingly- babies put us adults to shame when it comes to how much their vision and undestanding of the world changes in the first few months of life. Let’s take a peek at some of what they’ve uncovered.

0-3 months: Faces win, especially smiling ones

First of all, babies see with their brain, not merely with their eyes, and this neurological development begins even before they are born. A few facts:

  • A fetus responds to light through the uterine wall and even blinks in the womb.
  • Just hours after birth, a baby will respond to lights, although vision is the weakest of the newborn’s senses.
  • Newborn vision is black-and-white; red is the first color they see weeks later.
  • Babies are fascinated with faces (especially up close) and they prefer happy to sad faces.

Many scientists think this preference for faces is a gift of evolution. Good survival skills would dictate that babies who are drawn to their caregivers from the get-go would do the best.

3-6 months: The world gets clearer and more colorful

Your baby’s vision will continue to be fuzzy and unfocused for a few months. Color vision doesn’t truly kick in until the 3rd month, which is why objects with high contrast (such as black and white) are so intriguing to them at first. Watch them as they:

  • Stare at faces and objects intently for seconds at a time. By six months, their vision is often about 20/40. Not perfect, but strong.
  • Scan their environment with purpose. Babies learn early on to focus on critical features rather than randomly scanning around the edges of objects.
  • Shift their attention often. This is a good sign of growth, signalling that they are purposefully seeking information in their surroundings.

You may notice that your baby gets bored after a short while; this is perfectly normal before 6 months. You may also see that she starts to ‘lock in’ when she prefers certain objects or toys. If you have a pet, watch how baby searches for it and notice how her face beams when she finds what she was looking for. These are all signs her vision and brain are both growing and changing.

6-9 months: Baby’s body and vision work in sync

Around 8-9 months, your baby’s vision will reach adult clarity. Her vision and her thinking combine to create a new understanding of how the world works. She’s learning that objects and people exist even when she cannot directly see them. You’ll notice, for instance, that baby reacts differently when you move out of sight, or go into another room. She’ll often cry or even stretch toward you in anticipation of your departure. As she starts to roll over, reach for toys and eventually crawl, this improved vision also makes her a better judge of distances and depth. By 9 months, she’ll start to approach the edges of a cushion, then peer over and decide if it’s safe to go on. When she wants to grasp a toy (or Nana’s eyeglasses), she is no longer clumsy, but increasingly coordinated. These hand-eye and eye-brain advances are signs of her growing skills and will help her achieve upcoming gross motor milestones like crawling and climbing.

In just 9 months, your baby has grown from a newborn who is totally reliant on her caregivers to a curious, clear-eyed scientist who is viewing her environment with thoughtfulness and purpose. So, it’s important to note that one thing baby should not be spending time looking at is electronic screens. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for infants, because a baby’s brain is wired to learn best through personal interaction with people and three-dimensional objects. So, despite the educational claims of videos or baby apps, you can help your baby see the world best by providing her with a safe, visually diverse environment. Her rapidly developing brain will thank you.

Maureen O’Brien, PhD is a developmental psychologist, parenting coach and author of Advantage, Mom: 20 Lessons from a Parenting Pro, available at and Watch Me Grow: I’m One-Two-Three, available at parenting tips and resources can be found on

26 Feb

OverStimulationBabies give us cues all the time, but we need to look carefully to see them. Especially to a newborn, the world can be very stimulating, with so many new sights, sounds and textures to adjust to. And while some stimulation is exactly what is needed for baby to learn, too much can overwhelm her growing brain and make her cranky. And nobody wants that.

How is a parent to know how much to engage and when to pull back? The answer is: be responsive to what your baby is telling you.

Think of your little one as giving you signals, not unlike a stoplight. In the beginning, when babies are limited to basic reflexes (crying and startling), the reason for their responses may be harder to sort out. But like a detective, you can become better at reading these cues as the months go on. Here are a few tips of how to spot (and maintain) a green light and how to read yellow lights before they turn to red in the first few months!

GREEN LIGHT – “I am ready to be engaged.”

  • Look for Signs of Alertness and Focus. Wide open eyes and a still body signal that your baby is ready to take in what you have to offer.
  • Well-Rested Babies Learn Best: You know whether you have a baby who is more awake and alert at certain times of the day.
  • Keep Your Face Close (12 – 18 inches): Not only does this help you read the signs, but a closely held newborn is less likely to startle.
  • Keep Other Stimulation to a Minimum. Try to keep outside sounds and lights from being distracting. Soft music is OK in the background, but it’s best that nothing else is competing for her attention. This includes cell phones and other screen devices.
  • Move Slowly and Repeat. In the first few months, transitions take a lot of mental energy from your baby. So, the pace at which you engage her -- for instance, moving a rattle from left to right in front of her, so that she can visually follow the motion and sound-- matters a lot. Abrupt movements or sounds will cause her brain to ‘reboot’ and that takes energy away from concentrating on the task at hand.

YELLOW LIGHT – “I am at risk for overstimulation.”

  • Baby Looks Away from You: If the baby looks down or away, she may have reached a point where she needs to take a break, during both play and feeding. That’s a perfectly clear cue to wait, watch and see what baby does next. The baby may return for more playful interaction, which is a great way to practice self-regulation.
  • Some Babies Demonstrate an “I’m Processing” Sign: Some babies show that they are processing information that may just take a little time. They are focused, but need to absorb a bit. One such indication is holding their hands together in front of them, demonstrating their interest.
  • A Look of Concentration or Worry: Babies may look as if they are frowning or pouting or even looking a little concerned. This could be a sign of concentration, but it is also a clue that you might want to slow down your interaction a bit, before the baby gets too tense.

RED LIGHT – “I am overwhelmed; please stop.”

Usually, you know when you’ve hit a Red light, because the baby is giving you some clear body or facial signals. Or screaming her head off! But let’s review a few signals that are in the baby’s toolbox early on.

  • Physically turning away: Turning and holding her head away strongly or arching her back are a couple of very clear signs your baby is asking you to stop. Disengaging at this point allows the baby to focus on resetting her brain for future stimulation. Pushing interaction past that point will only irritate her more.
  • Using hands to block or rub eyes: Rubbing her eyes or putting her hands in front of her eyes may also be an indicator that baby has had enough. Don’t take this as rejection; see it merely as a sign she needs to rest.

Recent brain research has shown that babies learn while wide awake, resting and even sleeping. Their neurons are busy absorbing what the world has to offer. As adults we have had years to perfect our signals and our words. Babies need practice adjusting to stimulation. So try not to feel like an activity is a failure if your child ends up fussing or crying. See it instead as your baby learning to let you know when she needs a break. Just like the rest of us.

Maureen O’Brien, PhD is a developmental psychologist, parenting coach and author of Watch Me Grow: I’m One-Two-Three, available at and Advantage, Mom: 20 Lessons from a Parenting Pro, available at More parenting tips and resources can be found on

04 Dec


Try this test: ask 5 parents when their children took their first steps. My guess is that 4 of them will be able to tell you the exact month it happened. Do the same with crawling – I’m guessing maybe 1 or 2 will recall. Walking is important (and fun to get on video), but crawling is also an incredibly important milestone and creates significant long-term benefits. Obviously we all need to learn to walk, but learning to crawl is a critical first step.

As a parent of an almost walker (our little one turns 1 next week), I am doing the opposite of what most parents do. I am trying to delay walking a bit longer, hoping my son keeps crawling for at least another month. Keeping him on his belly a bit longer has a ton of benefits. More are being discovered all the time, but here are 5 of the most important:

1. Strengthens trunk, shoulders, arm and hand muscles. Crawling is incredibly hard work (try it for yourself – it’s not easy!) All of the core muscles work together to maintain an upright position, while the arms and shoulders help propel the baby forward. There are few things that a baby can do to work all of those muscles more efficiently. These months of crawling form the foundation for his or her future core strength. Once your child is vertical and walking, this natural workout for core and upper body muscles will stop.

2. Helps develop binocular vision. Switching between looking down and looking ahead forces the baby’s eyes to continuously focus at different distances. This skill is what your child will use to easily switch between notebook and blackboard when taking notes at school.

3. Improves hand-eye coordination. Crawling will allow a baby to first identify a "target" with his eyes and then use his hands while crawling to guide his body to "acquire the target."

4. Cross communication between both sides of the brain. Bi-lateral movement strengthens both the left and right side of the brain, enhancing communication across the 2 sides. Since each side of the brain has a different function (i.e. the left side sorts & organizes, the right side stores in memory), good cross brain communication can improve your child's ability to learn. It also improves balance and coordination.

5. Helps integrate the Symmetric Tonic Neck Reflex (STNR). This reflex allows us to operate our upper and lower body independently. Children that fail to integrate the STNR are often clumsy and have poor balance & coordination, among other issues. Furthermore, there is interesting research by Dr. Miriam Bender that links the lack of integration of this reflex with learning disabilities and ADHD

The list goes on, but just with the benefits above, you can understand why at BabySparks we are big believers in crawling. Under the Browse by Milestones section of the BabySparks app, there are 20+ activities specifically designed to help your little one master crawling.



25 Nov

baby crawling

It’s probably the most common question a parent gets when their baby passes 6 months of age. Personally, I dreaded the question. The thought that my son Javi might not be keeping up with the Joneses (or Baby Jones) was the cause of much anxiety for me. Looking back on it now, of course, the whole thing seems silly but that’s only because I have bigger things to worry about; like how I’ll get Javi into the right college (never mind how to pay for it).

The worry was all mine. Javi never gave crawling a second thought. When my son had had enough practice raising his head and scooching around on all his other body parts, he eventually got around to pulling his knees up under his tummy and off he went. What’s the big deal, dad?

And so I had worried for nothing.

I learned that constant worrying about milestones did nothing but add another level of anxiety to that of any first-time parent. I spent more time concerned about crawling than I did watching my little boy experience the world around him. And I did nothing to help him crawl - because, quite honestly, I didn't know how to support him.

The only help I really could have given him would have been to assist him with age-appropriate activities to prepare him for crawling. I could have put him on his tummy more, helped strengthen his limbs, put toys in front of him to help him understand that he could move himself forward. Instead I just stared at him, silently willing him to crawl so I could check that off of his list of things to accomplish and we could move on to stressing out about walking.

Parenthood is stressful enough without adding some unreasonable set of expectations about hitting every milestone at the beginning of the range. Babies are unique and they do things at their own pace. Some will go faster, some slower. The best thing we can do as parents is to just do the next right thing in supporting their development. If you are worried about crawling, check out the Activities by Milestone (and then choose Crawling) on the BabySparks app. We have 20+ activities that are designed to help prepare your baby for this particular milestone (and 7 others).  

While we are firm believers in not micromanaging milestone progression, we also know that there are some babies for whom missing milestones merits further consideration. So pay attention, track progress, and keep an open dialogue with your pediatrician. But be confident that the vast majority of babies crawl (and stand and walk) when they are ready.

Once you do have your baby crawling - keep them there for as long as possible. Beyond tummy time, it is one of the best things you can do for your baby - their fundamental core strength comes from that critical time on the floor. But we'll write more about that on another day.