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03 Aug

20160803 music3

Music is a vital part of human culture. It’s how stories are told, it’s a powerful way to express emotions, and can be how we tell someone we love them. Music can be calming, energizing, spirit lifting and concentration inducing. Studies show that certain types of music can stimulate parts of the brain responsible for expressive language, problem solving, and improved memory. In babies, music has a profound effect on learning and development in a broad range of critical areas, which is why it is important that your child experiences music as young as possible.

Communication Skills
When my daughter was first born, I would sing her to sleep every night and it was one of the only things that would calm her down and soothe her to sleep. 8 months later, I sing her the same lullabies and she tries to sing along. Babies often begin developing language by babbling in long drawn out musical tunes.

When a child sings, key areas of the brain related with output and input of speech engage. As a result, it is not surprising that studies show that babies who engage in music frequently are likely to speak earlier in life. The more she engages with the music, by moving to the rhythm or by playing simple instruments (e.g., drums or maracas) the bigger the benefits on this area.

Cognitive Development
The cognitive benefits of music are multiple. It provides a channel for children to learn basic concepts in an entertaining fashion. Think about songs like “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes,” which teaches children the parts of their body while they are dancing or "Old McDonald," which helps them to learn animal sounds.

Playing with instruments is a great way to introduce the concept of cause and effect while experiencing music. Your baby can play along to the music or create their own, all while developing an understanding of sound, pitch, tone, and rhythm.

Music helps strengthen neural pathways in the brain responsible for learning and memory. Babies as young as 6 months old can recognize a tune they’ve heard two weeks before. It also helps develop problem-solving skills.

Motor Development
Clapping to the beat and dancing to music adds a physical element. It helps children learn rhythm and body awareness while exercising. Songs with sequential dance moves like the Macarena teach children coordination and timing.

Performing the hand gestures for the Itsy Bitsy Spider helps children develop coordination and fine motor skills. When they are older, learning to play an instrument continues to provide similar motor benefits.

Social-Emotional Benefits
Singing, clapping, dancing or simply enjoying music with your baby will likely turn into a fun and bonding experience. In different studies with mice and humans, researchers have discovered that singing and listening to music resulted in higher oxytocin levels in the body. Oxytocin is a neuropeptide released during breastfeeding often called the "bonding" hormone as it serves as a catalyst for increased trust and bonding between people.

Because music is so significant to development, it is important to nurture your baby’s natural curiosity and enthusiasm towards it. Most often, classical music is suggested due to its intricate compositions and the variety of instruments that it incorporates. However, any music will work as long as you experience it together. Remember that babies learn from their environment and take cues from their parents, so play, clap and sing with your baby. And don’t worry, your baby won’t notice if you don’t have a great voice.

Heather Gordon is a certified occupational therapy assistant, mom, and writer. Follow her blog at:

18 Jul

2016-07-24 EmpathyYou’ve seen it for sure. Your baby looks at your concerned face, and the bright smile washes away from hers. Or your toddler looks over at the crying child at the playground, frowns and hands him a toy. Can babies and toddlers be so intuitive about emotions at such a young age? Or are they imitating without actually feeling the same way? Early childhood researchers are getting to the root of such complex questions, thanks to creative experiments and brain imaging techniques. One of the areas under study is the development of empathy, which is defined as the ability to imagine how someone else is feeling in a particular situation and respond with care.

Until quite recently, we thought babies and toddlers were too young for empathy, but it’s not true. For example, the skills needed to be empathetic include understanding how others feel and recognizing that you are a different person than your caregiver. Babies certainly do that in the first two years. As discussed in other BabySparks articles, babies learn to understand the world and the people around them in part by referencing their parents. As early as 6 months, babies show sensitivity to their parents’ emotions, which is one reason parents are encouraged to act upbeat when separating from their infants.

Scientists know that certain areas of the brain ­including the frontal and parietal lobes­ are actively involved in how humans develop ‘social intelligence’. Now they are digging into the specific brain circuitry behind it, and their search has highlighted the role of ‘mirror neurons’. Mirror neurons fire both when we do an action ourselves, and when we watch others do a similar action. This means the infant is learning from her environment and she learns best through loving, responsive interactions with caregivers. For example, when your toddler points at a dog and looks concerned, she looks to you for your response. If you say, “Uh, oh. You look worried. Let me pick you up, so you feel safe around the puppy,” you are helping these pathways develop. And when you smile as you proceed to pet the puppy, your child learns to take her cues from your relaxed response and her stress levels will mirror yours. In this way you are role model for empathy.

Why does empathy matter? How can I support it in my baby?

Empathy is a foundational skill that will help your child understand the emotions and experiences of people around her. This is an important anchor of your child's social development and her ability to build friendships and other important interpersonal relationships with children and adults as she grows. Caring adults who role model and prioritize empathy play a vital role and parents have opportunity to influence empathy at home, as I discuss in my latest book, Advantage, Mom: 20 Lessons from a Parenting Pro. We live in a society where middle and high school aged children often value achievement and individual happiness over caring for others, so it’s never too early to start encouraging empathy.

Think of yourself as your child’s emotion coach. Point out feelings and talk about them throughout your day. Your child may not understand every word, but she’ll cue into the fact that you are paying attention to how she treats others. A few ways to begin:

  • Praise your little one when she acts in a way that shows concern for others, whether it’s waiting her turn going down the slide or hugging her distressed friend. Rather than saying, “What a good girl for helping”, say “Look how happy Vin is that you found his train and gave it to him!”
  • Engage in games like peek-a-boo and itsy-bitsy spider. Remember to exaggerate your facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice. This communicates increased excitement and promotes your child’s focus for learning the sequence and steps of the game. During these activities the baby is able to mirror what’s going on, which is one way to practice the feeling of being in-sync with their partner by matching the partner’s actions.
  • Choose books that talk about feelings or picture books that show different emotions. Ask questions, like “How do you think the little boy felt when he fell down? Look how happy he is when his daddy picked him up.”

Moving along the road to empathy

Development of empathy changes a great deal in the first few years. For instance, when one-year-olds witness another child crying from an injury, they seem to realize that distress is being felt by someone else, yet they're often confused over what to do about it. They will, for instance, look at their own finger if they see another child’s finger is hurt, as if to double-check who is hurt. Beginning in the second year, they will offer active support, like hugs or giving a toy to the other child. Because toddlers are impulsive and still egocentric, this will not always happen; the same toddler who offers a toy today may hit his playmate with the toy tomorrow. But, like most abilities, your child will develop her skills over time. In most children, acts of empathy will eventually become more routine by age 3 or 4. So your patience is needed, along with your coaching, in order for your child’s abilities to blossom.

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

05 Jul

20160707finemotor smallFine motor skills are often thought of as the movements of the fingers and hands, but they also include movements of the toes, mouth, and eyes.

Many important tasks related to fine motor skills, like tying shoes, writing, or eating independently develop after the first or second year of life.  For this reason, it is common for many parents to de-emphasize this area with their infants and young toddlers. But during their first two years of life, children develop the key foundational elements upon which fine motor skills rely for appropriate development.

For example, in order for a child to learn to fasten buttons, among other skills, he first needs to have a good pincer grasp to handle the button, as well as a good hand-eye and bimanual coordination.  All of these are skills that a baby begins to develop during his first year. A similar analysis could be done for other complex fine motor tasks like fastening their pants for independent dressing, scooping food and bringing it to their mouth, or grasping a pencil for writing and coloring

In general, for a child to be able to perform these types of tasks and continue to develop other sophisticated fine motor skills, he will first need to be able to:

Perceive the texture, shape and details of an object in his hand

Try to perform any of the fine motor activities above with gloves. Fastening a button, tying a shoe or any other similar task can be significantly more challenging. The thicker the gloves, the more difficult it will be. Similarly, if a child has any type of sensory issue that results in poor tactile perception, he will struggle with these type of tasks. There are plenty of fun activities to support your baby's sensory development.  You can start as early as his first month of life and babies usually love them.

Adequately manipulate the object with his hand

Even if your child has a good tactile perception, he also needs to be able to manipulate the object accurately with his hand.  In the example of fastening a button, he needs to be able move the button towards the buttonhole and then line the two up properly. It also requires some strength to be able to push the button through to the other side. Strengthening his hand muscles and learning how to use his fingers with accuracy are crucial to this process.

Coordinate the movements of both hands and arms

Often fine motor tasks require some form of bilateral coordination. Take, for example, cutting paper with scissors. Even if you are very skilled managing scissors, try cutting a simple shape with just one hand.  Activities that involve clapping, changing objects from one hand to another or banging two objects in front of their chest can help support the development of your baby's bilateral coordination.  Many of these activities are appropriate when your baby is as young as 6 months old.

Provide the required gross motor stability to comfortably perform the task

Performing most fine motor tasks is very challenging without the development and stabilization of gross motor skills first. Finger movements will be challenging before proper wrist, elbow, and shoulder stabilization and strength is gained. Similarly, wrist, arm, and shoulder coordination will suffer without the strength and stabilization of trunk and core muscles. Supporting your baby's gross motor development can start in his first month of life with simple activities like tummy time while he is awake. These activities become more interesting as he is able to roll over, sit and crawl.

Without the development of fine motor skills, children will not gain independence with self-care tasks like dressing, bathing, and feeding themselves. Fine motor skills are also important for success in school activities such as cutting with scissors, writing with a pencil, and typing on a keyboard. Because the development of fine motor skills is so essential for your child to be happy and successful, it is important that you facilitate activities that contribute to the development of them.

The BabySparks app offers hundreds of activities to support your baby early on in all aspects of this process, including fine motor skills, bilateral coordination, sensory and gross motor development.

Heather Gordon is a certified occupational therapy assistant, mom, and writer. Follow her blog at:

23 Jun

2016-06-24 BilingualHola. Bonjour. Ni hao. Hello. How many of these greetings do you recognize? Do you speak more than one language in your home? Does your child? Increasingly, the answer to that last question is ‘yes’. Dual language learning is on the rise in much of the world, and that’s a great thing. Research has demonstrated conclusively that learning two or more languages concurrently has multiple benefits.

Advantages to bilingual training
Traditionally, people have studied a second language because of cultural, socio-economic and career competitiveness benefits. There are even studies that quantify the increased income potential for those who master a second language. But the positives of bilingualism go much further:

  • Improved "executive function" (EF): Like an air traffic controller, EF helps you to identify, plan and order the steps to reach a specific goal, to focus, and to keep multiple pieces of information in mind simultaneously. Using and switching between multiple languages is like an advanced training course in executive function, which helps with a number of school-related tasks (think: reading, math).
  • Enhanced divergent thinking: The ability to generate multiple ways of solving a problem improves when a person knows multiple languages. Health benefits later in life: Research shows that lifelong bilingualism may contribute to delayed onset of Alzheimer disease.
  • Emotional benefits: For children who leave their native country for a new one with a different language, bilingualism allows them to experience a sense of belonging to both the old community and the new one. Understanding traditions and customs will also be easier if they are able to speak and understand their native language.

When should I start?
A child's ability to become fluent in a language is at its highest when she is exposed to it from the beginning, starting in the first few months of life. In fact, according to Patricia Kuhl, babies at 7 months of age have a remarkable ability to differentiate sounds from any global language. By 12 months their ability to understand their own language has improved, but their ability to identify unique sounds in other languages has decreased significantly.

languagegpahDoes this mean you have only a 5 month window to teach a baby a new language? Absolutely not. But it does mean the earlier you consistently expose your child to a secondlanguage, the better. It’s never too late, of course, though the learning curve does get much steeper after age 7.

Not only is timing important, but the quality of the interactions matters. A baby's ability to learn a second language decreases significantly if the exposure is via a screen (e.g., television or computer) vs. an in-person interaction. Above all, value in-person conversations where your baby can watch your mouth, your tongue, your face while you (or others) communicate. This will help them pick up cues faster.

How can I help my child become bilingual?
If the child is growing up in a home in which at least one of the parents are bilingual there two major lines of thinking:

  • One parent, one language: under this strategy, each parent should stick to one of the languages permanently. Results are best when the approach is consistent (no flip-flopping languages) and the baby is exposed significantly to each language independently.
  • One at home, one outside the home: in this strategy parents stick exclusively to the foreign language at home to provide a solid base. Outside the home, the local language will be learned, usually at school.

If the child is growing up in a home where neither parent is bilingual (yet the parents want their child to achieve full fluency of a second language), parents need to find a way to reinforce the non-native language on a daily basis (or as frequently as possible). The most obvious solution is to enroll their children in an immersion program at school or other rigorous school-based language program. For babies and toddlers, parents that are minimally familiar with another language can also:

  • Read to their child. Reading children’s books in the second language is a simple way to practice together, since the illustrations are often linked to the story and the vocabulary is not too complex. Finding bilingual “first word” books is a great start!
  • Expose their child to native speakers. When you think about babysitters, look for one who is bilingual. Or if you are considering a daycare or pre-school, ask if they support non-native language growth.
  • Look for second language programs in your area: many libraries and other organizations host frequent events like book readings or playgroups to support the exposure of children to a second language.

Regardless of how you introduce another language, know this: Your child’s first language learning will not be harmed. In contrast to the ‘old school’ thinking that learning two languages might somehow delay the progress of a child’s first language learning, we now know that children’s brains are far more capable about balancing both than we used to give them credit for. Sure, there may be an occasional instance when your child has to pause and think about which word she needs, but at the end of the day, her second language learning will be a huge advantage in today’s global world.

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

05 Jun

messyblogMessy play involves children engaging with substances like sand, water, clay, cooked spaghetti, and other things that are gooey or sticky.

It’s no surprise that parents tend to avoid these activities. Let’s face it. After work, running errands, making dinner, and doing laundry, the last thing you want to do is clean up a huge mess. But the benefits of getting dirty far outweigh the cleanup process.

Young children learn about the world by experiencing it through their senses. You’ve likely seen your baby pick up an object and bring it to her mouth. That is her way of learning about it. Because babies lack the verbal skills to communicate and ask questions, they learn through sight, sound, touch, smell and taste. Sensory play encourages children to experience objects, cultivates a better understanding of the way things work, and is important for brain development.

Key benefits of messy play:

  • Stimulates sense of touch: introducing your baby to different textures helps develop their sense of touch, which is a precursor to fine motor skills and object identification.
  • Exposure to a broader set of object attributes: playing with sensory materials that exhibit opposite traits (e.g., wet vs. dry, warm vs. cold, shiny vs. dull, smooth vs. rough, messy vs. clean) introduces children to a broad set of characteristics. Talking to your baby while she interacts with these objects can help expand her vocabulary and improve her ability to sort and classify.
  • Fuels creativity and teaches to enjoy the process: the non-scripted nature of messy play encourages creativity and experimentation. As they grow it will also teach them to enjoy the experience instead of focusing solely on the finished product
  • Increases their appetite for other new sensory experiences: as a child gets used to messy play, she becomes more open to other new sensory experiences, which has multiple benefits. For example, some studies show that allowing fussy eaters to explore and play with their food improves their openness to trying new foods.

Children as young as 1 month old can benefit from messy play activities. As with any activity, use your own discretion before allowing your child to participate, and always
supervise your little one.

A Few Ideas
Here are a few of our fun ideas for sensory and messy activities. You can find nearly 90 others in the sensory section of our BabySparks app:

 Aromatic Sponge (Smell & Tactile)




With a sponge dampened with a scented substance like body lotion, cinnamon, vanilla, breast milk, or formula, softly rub it under her nose, on her forehead, cheeks, chest and the rest of her skin, so that the smell is all over her body. Change the aroma each time you do this exercise.

Noisy wrists (Auditory)




Tie bells or small rattles to the baby's wrists and let him discover the sounds that he can make by moving his hands. Repeat the exercise but tie the objects to his feet.

Sensory Bathtub Play (Tactile)




Let the baby play in the bathtub. Fill it with different baby-safe substances like water, shaving cream, sand, foam blocks, or plastic balls.

Change in Temperature (Tactile)



Dampen a washcloth or sponge with cold water. Gently rub on the baby's body from head to toe. Then dampen the cloth with warm water and repeat the exercise.

Heather Gordon is a certified occupational therapy assistant, mom, and writer. Follow her blog at: