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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:


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