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24 May

sepration2It’s drop off time at day care. As several moms and dads prepare to leave some of the children appear concerned, some edge closer to the door, others might fuss and cling to their parent’s leg. Others look up and smile or wave, then return to playing. Still others seem unconcerned that their parents are leaving for the day. What’s going on here? In part, children are displaying their natural inborn temperamental differences. For instance, your little one might have a shy or outgoing personality; she may be easily distracted or very focused. When you couple this with the brain changes that are going on in the first 2 years of life, separations can vary from non-events to a trying time for families.

What’s Going On?

When temperament researchers study babies, they typically divide them into three categories: easy, difficult and slow-to-warm up (with nearly a third of babies showing a mix of traits.) These categories are based on how active they are, how well they deal with change, how intense their reactions are, and other dimensions. Regardless of which temperament they display, separation anxiety is a universal phase of child development. It usually begins around ages 7-8 months, peaks around 14 months and declines after that. Suddenly, or so it seems, a child reacts negatively to others’ outstretched arms or panics when mom or dad leaves her sight. Children who have been previously content in others’ care will protest and cling to their parents in a way that can be baffling. Tears flow, and separation becomes a difficult experience for all.

The first thing that it is important to mention about separation anxiety is that not only it is normal, but it is a sign that your baby's emotional and cognitive development are advancing. So what are the developmental changes and dynamics that trigger separation anxiety? Let's take a look at some key ones:

  1. As newborns, babies believe that they are one and the same as their mothers. At around 7 months babies begin to understand that they are a separate person. This, in turn, leads to the realization that moms can leave them without yet understanding that they will return, generating stress at the moment of separation. This will also often result in babies showing a strong preference for their primary caregivers versus other adults.
  2. When they are born, babies are so ‘in the moment’ that they are only aware of their immediate needs (e.g., food, sleep, attention). Separation anxiety is, therefore, evidence that their level of awareness is expanding to include their surroundings and the people close to them.
  3. For months, babies have been getting used to a familiar routine with their parents. At some point the development of their memory allows them not only to learn their schedule, but to expect it; separations, transitions, and the presence of strangers disrupt that routine.
  4. In parallel with this process, babies are also developing object permanence, which means that they now know that you exist even when they can't see you and, therefore, they want to seek you out.

One other factor to consider during this year is that babies start to become very good ‘readers’ of others’ emotions. They pick up and imitate (or ‘mirror’) emotions they see in others. One reason to keep your own emotions in check if you are anxious about separating from your child is that you don’t want to “feed the anxiety”. The more nonchalant you can be, the better for your little one.

What Parents Can Do

If you are blessed with an ‘easy’ child, you may be thrown off by the sudden tears that accompany separation anxiety. But know that it’s a normal phase that’ll pass. If you have a ‘difficult’ or a ‘slow-to-warm up’ child, there are several ways to make separations easier:


  • Keep goodbyes brief and make sure separations are reassuring and consistent. Prolonged goodbyes or repeated separations/reunions in short bursts of time keep a child in a heightened state of alert.
  • Leave behind a familiar lovey or a picture of you; some children use items like a parent’s purse as a “substitute” security object when a parent is absent.
  • Build in time at home to introduce new people. If a babysitter is present, don’t rush out the door, but give your child some time to adjust to her presence.


  • Expect “I’ll be back in an hour” to be reassuring. Toddlers have no sense of time, so they can’t fathom the difference between a short and a long absence.
  • Be alarmed if your child cries (this is actually a good sign that you are a secure base of attachment for her). Know that she will recover and move on in your absence.
  • ‘Sneak out’ to avoid toddler upset. While seeing you go out the door may instill (temporary) tears, it is more distressing for the child to search for you and not know what happened.

Separation anxiety is a phase that your toddler will cope with and move on from. As a parent, it is reassuring to hear what child care providers say: “They usually stop crying very quickly after the parent leaves.”

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

10 May

reflexs3As you play and interact with your baby during his first months of life, you may notice that he already has a wide range of movements from the first days. Things like sucking on a finger that touches his lips or turning his head toward the direction of a touch on the cheek. Those may seem like planned actions, but they are automatic responses called primitive reflexes. These reflexes are present in utero and at birth and they can be triggered by changes in the baby’s environment or body. Primitive reflexes exist to help a newborn move, develop, and survive, but they should integrate or disappear within the first year of life. In most cases this happens, but when they don't, they may have negative implications in areas as broad as physical coordination, bedwetting, muscle tone and learning abilities.

The more that infants interact with their environment and participate in daily activities, the more likely that those reflexes will be incorporated or integrated into their basic repertoire of movements. The good news is that the vast majority of babies will have no issues incorporating these movements – and parents can help them by engaging in focused play.

Babies have 70 known primitive reflexes present in utero and at birth, but we are going to concentrate on five that are among the ones with the biggest impact on early development: The Moro Reflex, Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex, Galant Spinal Reflex, Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex, and Symmetric Tonic Neck Reflex.

The Moro Reflex



What is it?  
The Moro Reflex is also known as the startle response because it is triggered by a sudden noise, bright light, or an unexpected change in body position. You have probably seen your baby startle and spread their arms and open their hands, suggesting that they feel that they are falling. They will then bring their arms back to their body with the elbows bent. This is the Moro Reflex. It is the primitive form of an adult’s Fight or Flight response and is your baby’s innate attempt at self-protection.

Why do I care?  Integration of the Moro reflex is essential to develop balance, coordination, and impulse control. A retained Moro reflex could result in over sensitivity to noises and lights, anxiety, and social immaturity.

When should it disappear?  4-6 months of age.

Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex (TLR)



What is it?
  TLR is triggered by your infant’s head movements and can be seen when your little one is on his belly or his back. When your baby lifts his head, his arms and legs will straighten and his toes will point. When he looks down his arms and legs will bend.

Why do I care?  This reflex is crucial to help babies strengthen their necks and core muscles. It helps prepare them for key milestones like rolling over, crawling, standing and walking. Retaining this reflex often results in children with issues in posture, muscle tone, balance and spatial awareness.

When should it disappear?  Around 6 months of age.

Spinal Galant Reflex



What is it?
  The Spinal Galant Reflex can be elicited by running a finger down your baby’s back, parallel to the spine from the neck to the base of the back. Your baby will automatically move their hips toward the direction of the stimulus, in this case, toward your finger.

Why do I care?  This automatic movement assists to develop a range of motion in the hips of the baby that will help them with crawling and walking. Retaining it may result in issues like fidgeting and inability to sit still. Some studies also show links to bedwetting and attention problems.

When should it disappear?  3-9 months of age.

Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (ATNR)

What is it?
  When your baby turns their head to the side, their arm and leg of the same side extend, creating a “fencing” position. The arm and leg on the other side flex or bend.

Why do I care?  ATNR is an important reflex for the development of hand-eye coordination. If retained, it may also create problems in the learning process of the child, specifically in areas like handwriting and reading.

When Should it disappear?  Around 3-6 months of age.

Symmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (STNR)

What is it?
  When your baby looks up his arms straighten while his rear moves down and his legs bend. When your baby looks down, the opposite happens, his arms bend while his rear goes up and his legs extend. It’s easiest to see this reflex if your baby is on all fours.

Why do I care?  Retaining STNR may lead to issues with posture, left to right visual tracking and hand-eye coordination among others.

When should it disappear?  STNR is not present at birth. It appears when your baby is 4-6 months old and disappears by 12 months old.

It is important that reflexes disappear or integrate within the first year of life so that more controlled and refined movements can develop. Tummy time (while your baby is awake) and frequent interaction in a multitude of positions are essential in promoting development, strengthening muscles, increasing coordination and integrating reflexes. Babies learn through play and experiencing the world around them, so time spent in a supported seat, car seat, or bouncer should be limited.

In some cases, the persistence of primitive reflexes past the first year of life may indicate a neurological or developmental issue. If you are concerned that your 1+ year old is still demonstrating these actions, please contact your pediatrician or a developmental specialist.

To find age-appropriate activities for your little one, visit the BabySparks App and browse the suggested daily ideas. Each activity's objective and the milestone section of the app can also help you continue increasing your understanding of your child’s development.

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


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