Even as soon as a baby is born — or in the case of premature infants, when they are stable – parents play an important role in stimulating their child’s development. It is now widely known that the first few years of life are a critical period of rapid growth and development that set the stage for the child’s progress later in life. Developmental activities not only help children gain new skills, but studies show that they also help the brain to develop properly.
When my son, Nathan, born 16 weeks premature, came home after 140 days in the NICU, I was determined to do everything I could to help him “catch up” to his full-term peers as quickly as possible. He came home on oxygen and an apnea monitor, so dealing with his equipment while at the same time pumping around the clock to provide him with breast milk and caring for a newborn quickly became overwhelming. After doing a bit of research and speaking with his team of doctors and therapists, I was comforted to learn that a few basic modifications to our routine was all he really needed to get a boost on his development. Simple, every-day activities can go a long way towards building a healthy foundation, and I learned that parents do not need to spend a lot of money on expensive toys or enrichment programs to help their children get the stimulation they need.
Here are a few simple ways in which parents can help get their kids off to a healthy start, all of which I believe greatly helped Nathan during his first few months home:
- Provide infant massage
In addition to the bonding benefits, regularly massaging your baby can also help reduce muscle stiffness, improve circulation and normalize muscle tone. It also helps your baby become more aware of his or her body and provides sensory stimulation which increases their awareness of the world around them. For premature babies, one study found that massaging preemies regularly may boost their immune system and help them gain weight more quickly. With all of these benefits, massage can help every baby. It’s also great to combine massage with a few simple stretches of your baby’s arms and legs to loosen the muscles. You can easily work infant massage and stretching into your routine during diaper changes or at bath time. Just remember to be gentle when stroking your baby to make sure you don’t over-stimulate or hurt the baby.
- Turn off the TV
The American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement a few years ago recommending that children under the age of 2 not be exposed to television or interactive screens. This statement was supported by research that found television to be distracting, over stimulating and linked to attention problems later in life for young viewers, even when it is on only in the background. While many parents may think that baby videos and other media marketed for infants is educational, the reality is children at that age don’t understand what’s happening on screen, and unlike face-to-face interaction, it doesn’t provide them with the immediate feedback they need to learn. For preemies, this is particularly important because they are already at increased risk of development delays and attention deficit disorder. Simply turning off the TV and engaging in play activities with your baby can help accelerate development.
- Read books to your baby regularly
Research has found that early exposure to language has a profound impact on a child’s learning throughout life. In addition to helping with speech and language development, reading helps build logical thinking skills, increases concentration and discipline, and establishes a stronger bond between parent and child. For preemies, the benefits of reading to them can begin even while they are still in the NICU. A recent study shows that premature babies exposed to higher word counts while in the hospital have higher cognitive and language abilities later in life. Making reading part of a daily bedtime ritual might also help your baby sleep easier at night. Your baby will begin to associate reading with bedtime and will learn that after a nighttime story, sleep follows.
- Just spend time with your baby
The most important thing babies need during the early months and years is quality time with their parents. The simple acts of cuddling your baby, singing to her, or playing baby games like “Peekaboo” all help stimulate the growth and development of your baby’s brain. Of all the things you can do to help your baby build a healthy foundation, the most crucial is providing your time, attention and love.