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21 Aug

20045aWhen we think of language, we tend to think of using and understanding words. Language, though, is full of social nuances that surpass words. Imagine you arrive home and see a neighbor. You greet him by smiling and waving, and initiate a conversation by commenting on the weather. You know how far to stand from him, and how to maintain eye contact while taking turns speaking and listening to each other. You use facial expressions and gestures to communicate different feelings.

All of these nuances fall under the umbrella of pragmatic language, one of three areas of language along with expressive language and receptive language. A person can have an exceptional vocabulary and ability to form sophisticated sentences and still struggle to relate to others because of poor pragmatic language skills.

Along with receptive language, your baby begins acquiring pragmatic language long before his first word. Every time you interact with him he learns about the social norms of language from the way you speak to him and use your face and body to communicate.

What Are Pragmatic Language Skills?

Pragmatic language skills can be divided into three main areas:

Knowing How to Use Language

Using words for different purposes, such as:

  • Greeting someone: Hello! How are you?
  • Asking for something Could I please have a piece of paper?
  • Persisting when not heard or understood: I’m not sure you heard me, could I have a piece of paper? Or: No, that’s not what I meant. Let me explain.
  • Informing someone: I’m going to get a piece of paper.

Knowing How to Change Language

Different situations require different types of language. For example:

  • The language we use at a sporting event may be loud and boisterous, while at a library it’s quiet and subdued.
  • Speaking to a close friend requires less background information than if we’re talking to a person we’ve just met.
  • When we talk to a baby, we use different words and tones of voice than if we are speaking to an adult.

Knowing How to Follow the Social Rules of Language

Social interactions are a complex dance involving:

  • Making eye contact.
  • Gauging a comfortable distance between ourselves and others.
  • Taking turns.
  • Knowing how to give just enough information to portray something without going on and on.
  • Being able to listen and offer appropriate responses.
  • Using and understanding implied meaning.
  • Staying on topic.
  • Seeing something from another’s perspective.
  • Using and reading nonverbal cues like tones of voice, posture, gestures and facial expressions.

How to Nurture Pragmatic Language Skills

Pragmatic skills may seem obvious to many of us—we use them every day without even thinking about it! Like all skills, though, they are learned, and the primary way we learn and practice them is by interacting with others.

Miami-based Speech-Language Pathologist Mandy Alvarez, says that she has seen a rise in language and social challenges. “We’re seeing a lot of kids who struggle socially,” she says. “They have a hard time making friends and playing with other kids.” Although it’s hard to pin down a reason for this uptick, Alvarez believes it may be related to a rise in screen time, which takes away from human interaction.

One of the areas kids miss out on when they’re in front of a screen, or bogged down with organized activities, is free play. Free play and pretend play are drivers of pragmatic language (as well as many other areas of development) because they involve cooperative back-and-forth and acting out of social situations.

The key is to interact with your child in meaningful ways as often as possible. If you’re doing daily BabySparks activities with him, you’re boosting his pragmatic language skills. Whether encouraging him to crawl or showing him how to stack blocks, the engaging back-and-forth between you during these activities helps prepare him to navigate the complex social world.

21 Aug

20044aNever has anything lived up to its name quite like the pacifier! It can pacify an upset baby in seconds, and can help the entire family get some much-needed sleep during the early days of sleep deprivation. Still, parents wonder about the drawbacks of pacifier use.

As specialists in speech, language and feeding, we’ve seen that prolonged pacifier use can cause problems with oral motor development, which is crucial for feeding and speech. We’ll take a look at the good, the bad, and how you can use a pacifier wisely to reap its benefits and avoid its downsides.

What’s Good About Pacifiers?

Full-term, typical developing babies are born with a strong suckling reflex. In fact, that reflex began in the womb. That’s why you may have seen your baby sucking her thumb in ultrasound pictures. Because babies must suck to eat, this reflex is nature’s way of ensuring that they receive nutrition. Using a pacifier in-between feedings can satisfy your baby’s urge to suck, and it also supports early development of her tongue.

Pacifier use has other upsides as well. It has shown to reduce the risk of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) until the age of 6 months, when the risk of SIDS drops. It’s helpful during air travel, because sucking during take-off and landing can reduce ear pressure. Pacifiers can also help babies fall asleep. You may find yourself doing the “pacifier shuffle” as you make your way, half-asleep, to your baby’s crib to reinsert a pacifier. Sometimes this is all it takes to help her (and everyone else in the house) fall back asleep.

Okay, So What’s Bad About Pacifiers?

Research has shown that after 6 months of age, the negatives of pacifier use may begin to outweigh the positives. Prolonged pacifier use has been correlated with an increased risk of ear infections, as well as problems with oral motor development.

For optimal oral motor development, your baby needs to be able to freely move her jaw, tongue and lips. This is especially important during gross motor movement, because gross motor milestones correspond with oral motor milestones. When she is crawling, for instance, the side-to-side movements of her body are also happening inside her mouth. Having a pacifier in her mouth while she is crawling can take away from strengthening those mouth movements, which allow her to bite and chew food, and make more complex speech sounds.

Prolonged pacifier use can also cause problems with proper growth of the mouth and may lead to misaligned teeth, a poorly-shaped roof of the mouth, tongue protrusion, and reduced lip and cheek strength. All of this can interfere with feeding and speech development.

Finally, pacifiers can take away from the benefits of play. Babies naturally use their mouths to explore objects, which helps them understand concepts like shape, temperature, and texture. Play also drives development through meaningful interactions with a caregiver. You will notice that if you play with your baby without a pacifier in her mouth, she will make more sounds and facial expressions.

All of that said, we believe pacifiers have their place. The key is using them wisely by being mindful about how, why, and for how long you use them.

How to Use A Pacifier Wisely

Try other ways to calm your baby first. When she is about 5 months old, her suckling reflex will fade, and that’s a good time to start trying other ways to calm her when she’s upset. Try holding, feeding, rocking, walking, or playing.

Engage in pacifier-free play. As we mentioned above, pacifiers can inhibit the rich learning that happens during play. Take advantage of playtime to encourage your baby to make sounds and facial expressions.

Shelf the pacifier when your baby is moving. Also as mentioned above, allowing your baby to move during tummy time, rolling over, sitting up, crawling, etc. without a pacifier in her mouth will optimize the oral motor development that happens alongside those gross motor milestones.

Give your baby a chance to self-soothe. If she gets upset when she is awake, alert and fed, give her a minute to see if she can calm down on her own. Sometimes a hug, a few reassuring words, or a simple distraction can cut tears short without having to use a pacifier.

Determine whether your baby wants the pacifier or needs it. There will be times during her first year when she simply needs the comfort of a pacifier to feel calm, and that’s okay.

Follow a timeline for taking it away. We recommend that when your baby turns 6 months old, you gradually decrease pacifier use so that when she turns 1 she only uses it for sleeping. Around 18 months, either stop pacifier use altogether or decrease the time she uses it for sleeping so that by her 2nd birthday she is totally pacifier free.

Pacifier use has clear positives and negatives, and we hope this information helps you use them wisely!

07 Aug

20043aBaby shoes are a big business these days! A miniature version of Dad’s favorite sneakers may be adorable, but research shows that it’s best for babies (and older kids, too) to be barefoot as much as possible.

Kids need shoes, of course. City sidewalks and snowy grounds aren’t barefoot-friendly, but warm homes, playgrounds and mud puddles are!

Why are Bare Feet Good for My Baby?

Unless you notice problems with your child’s foot development (more on this below), being barefoot is ideal. Here are some of the reasons why:

It allows for optimal foot development. At birth, the bones in your baby’s feet are soft. As he grows, the bones harden and the joints, ligaments and muscles in his feet develop. Studies suggest that children’s shoes (especially if they’re stiff, narrow, tight, or have an inflexible sole) can interfere with foot development because the foot conforms to the shoe instead of forming naturally.

It improves agility. When toddlers walk barefoot they tend to look up because the information they receive through their feet orients them and makes them feel secure. Shoes block that intake of information, so toddlers wearing them tend to look down and are more apt to topple over. Shoes can also restrict toe spread, which helps tots stay balanced.

Barefoot steps also boost coordination because they send messages to a child’s brain about how to organize his movement patterns and effectively navigate his body through space.

It promotes awareness. Being barefoot not only frees children to look up and around rather than at the floor, but also helps them learn to safely traverse different surfaces. Walking and running barefoot on hard floors, sand, grass, mud and the like gives children confidence to maneuver their bodies in different settings. Research has even suggested that being barefoot correlates with being less prone to injury.

It optimizes sensory motor development. There are as many as 200,000 nerve endings in the sole of one foot! Even before learning to stand and walk, being barefoot teaches babies about their bodies and their surroundings. Bare feet against swaddles, laps, beds, carseats, strollers and the ground exposes babies to different textures, temperatures, and opportunities to push with their feet and toes. Barefoot tummy time and crawling allows full freedom to use feet and toes for movement.

When You Need Shoes, Choose Wisely

Now that we’ve pointed out benefits of being barefoot, let’s talk about those city sidewalks and snowy grounds. When you need to put shoes on your child, keep these points in mind:

  • Strong ankle support at the back of the shoe
  • Flexibility in the front of the shoe to allow the foot to move
  • Wide at the front of the shoe to allow toes to spread and move
  • Level sole that matches the floor
  • Avoid high-tops, as they restrict ankle movement

Exceptions to the Barefoot Rule

While being barefoot as much as possible is ideal for the majority of babies, some children, and even adults, may benefit from wearing shoes due to abnormal foot development. Pediatric Physical Therapist Dr. Andrea Hayward, PT, DPT explains that if you notice any of these red flags during the first few years of walking, consult with your pediatrician or a pediatric physical therapist:

  • Feet are rolling in
  • Feet have blisters or callouses
  • When standing, toes are turning outward rather than pointing straight
  • Knees knock together
  • Persistent toe-walking

Those cute shoes on the shelves these days can be hard to resist. Try using them for photo ops, and then set your barefoot baby free to explore and learn about his surroundings, his body, and movement through his feet!

07 Aug

20042aPulling up to stand was exciting for your little one. Suddenly he could see his surroundings like never before. To explore in this new, upright position, he starts shuffling his feet side-to-side while holding on to furniture or other large, fixed “support” objects. This is cruising, and it prepares him to move in an upright position for the rest of his life.

When Do Babies Cruise?

Babies generally start cruising within weeks of learning to pull to stand, usually between 10-12 months.

How Does Cruising Evolve?

Cruising starts with tentative side-to-side steps. As your baby gets used to bearing weight on his feet, he will gradually rely less and less on his hands for support. Eventually he’ll cruise with confidence, taking wider steps and using his hands only to steady himself. When he’s comfortable, he’ll experiment with holding on with one hand, switching to the other hand, rotating his trunk to turn and look around, and even letting go for a split second to cruise from one support object to another.

Cruising and Gross Motor Development

Cruising is prime time for your baby’s hips. The act of stepping side-to-side develops his hip abductors—the muscles on the outside of the hips that allow one leg to remain stable while the other swings through space. Strong hip abductors are crucial for walking, so cruising is an important prerequisite.

Cruising also strengthens his leg muscles and core, which gives him the power and postural stability required to move while holding himself upright.

Cruising and Fine Motor Development

Pediatric Physical Therapist Dr. Andrea Hayward, PT, DPT explains that just as crawling helps develop the hands for hand-related fine motor skills, cruising does the same for the feet. As your baby cruises he shifts his weight from one part of his foot to another, shaping and preparing his feet for the fine-motor movements involved in future milestones like walking, running, jumping and climbing.

Cruising and Motor Planning

Cruising promotes motor planning, which allows us to safely and efficiently navigate our environment. Being able to do things like turn corners while walking through a building, swerve while driving to avoid a pothole, or maneuver a cart through a crowded supermarket are a result of motor planning. Hayward explains that cruising supports this because your baby must figure out how to turn the corner when he reaches the edge of the coffee table, for example, or get around a toy on the floor.

How to Encourage Cruising

  • Set up a safe environment for cruising. Hayward says that babies are more likely to practice cruising when they feel safe, so be sure yours has plenty of stable support objects, like furniture, or sturdy play tables or toy kitchens. You can also put bumpers on table corners and other hard edges to ensure that his inevitable tumbles are as padded as possible.
  • Entice him! Place his favorite toys on different support objects to encourage him to cruise to get them. Place play tables, toy kitchens and the like close enough to other support objects that he can cruise from one to the other. You are one of his favorite toys, so sit on the opposite end of the couch and encourage him to cruise to you!
  • Keep his feet bare. Wearing shoes can both restrict the precise foot movements that happen during cruising, as well as dull the rich sensory information your baby receives through his feet. Being barefoot as much as possible is important throughout your baby’s development.

Above all, set your baby free to cruise as much as possible! As with every stage of his development, cruising is a difficult new skill that takes a lot of practice to master. The better he masters cruising, the more prepared he’ll be for the next stage: Walking!

24 Jul

20041aLife with a toddler is busy. Getting out of the house, mealtimes and bedtimes are each a full production involving several steps. Does it make your head spin to imagine these productions getting even longer because your toddler wants to do things like put on his shoes, feed himself, and pre-brush his teeth before you do the actual job?

Encouraging age-appropriate self-care tasks can test your patience, but it’s essential for your toddler’s emerging sense of independence. Independence gives us a sense that we are not helpless, but rather in control and responsible for ourselves and our actions. Even the simple act of putting a dirty shirt in the hamper helps your little one feel capable, builds his self-esteem, fuels his desire to learn and grow, encourages self-reliance, and let’s him feel like a contributing member of the family.

Self-care tasks also benefit other areas of development, like executive function and fine motor skills.

Tips for Encouraging Self-Care Independence

Depending on his personality and changing moods, your toddler may be motivated to do self-care tasks on his own, or he may need a little push. Here are some tips for supporting his burgeoning sense of do-it-himself:

Learn about age-appropriate self-care tasks. Chances are your toddler will let you know when he wants to do something by himself. As long as it doesn’t involve kitchen knives or another perilous activity, follow his lead and offer help if he needs it.

This article is a great resource for self-care activities through age 2. You can also scroll through our BabySparks app for self-care tasks by month, as well as independence-promoting activities you can do with your toddler.

Offer choices. Part of a child’s drive to do things on his own is a desire to feel in control. If he wants to wear shorts outside on a cold day, you may be able to avoid or diffuse a meltdown by offering him reasonable choices: “Do you want to wear these blue pants or these green pants?” That way he can still take ownership of the final decision.

Make self-care accessible. Put your toddler’s pajamas in a low drawer in his room so he can pull them out himself at bedtime. Or put some of his plates and cups in a low cupboard in the kitchen so he can retrieve them himself at mealtimes.

Allow extra time. If your toddler’s bedtime routine usually takes 30 minutes, try starting a little earlier. This is a win-win for both of you: He’ll have time to successfully complete a task and you’ll have room for patience while he does it. This goes for mealtimes, picking up toys, and any other daily routine in which your toddler can play a role.

Balance stepping away and stepping in. You may have to sit on your hands to keep from grabbing your little one’s fork as he tries again and again to stab a piece of banana, but give him a chance (or several). Tasks like these involve fine-motor skills that take a lot of practice to master.

There will also be times when you want him to do something by himself and he fights it. Try compromising: “I’ll take off this sock and you can take off the other one.” Sometimes he will flat out refuse and you’ll have to choose your battles. He may be tired, or simply having a bad day. Like so many other areas of parenting, overall consistency is what matters.

Be supportive. Learning to do things by himself will involve frustration, messes, spills and mistakes. As he tackles increasingly difficult tasks, you want him to persevere. Support and praise send the message that mistakes are part of learning and can be overcome.

The self-care learning process can feel long and tedious, but remember that little everyday tasks teach your toddler big lessons about self-reliance, helpfulness, and responsibility.