You already know that when you smile, coo, and gaze at your baby, you’re coaxing along her budding social skills. Comfort her when she cries and you’re nurturing emotional security. Challenge her with tummy time workouts and stair-climbing practice and you’re spurring on her motor development.
But it’s not that simple. Researchers are finding that seemingly separate parts of development are actually connected in intricate and surprising ways. That means that when you poke one skill set in your child’s repertoire, you may not know you’re actually promoting growth in another.
One of the best, far-reaching examples is with physical touch. All baby mammals need it to survive and develop properly (unlike reptiles, who let their young fend for themselves). Rats, for example, lick their newborns to kick start physical processes like digestion or else their pups die. Physical separation in monkeys is known to suppress the immune system, and if a little monkey is raised being able to see, hear, and smell, but not touch, his peers, he will grow up to be emotionally disturbed. Human infants given skin-to-skin contact in the NICU breath more regularly, gain weight faster, and leave the hospital sooner than other babies.
And touch seems to make for sharper thinking skills too – for example, preemies who are massaged perform better on certain visual recognition tests later in babyhood. And older babies outsmart their peers on measures of cognitive skill when they are massaged directly before a test.
In other words, our baby’s thinking, feeling, sensing, and motor regions are more connected and integrated than we realize. Not only that, neuroscience research is now telling us that integration among regions of the brain is actually a major key to mental health and wellbeing: the better your baby’s brain regions talk to each other, the better the system functions as a whole.
Here’s a recent example of how this works – a study showing that very early motor skills experience might affect social development. Researchers fitted little three-month-old babies with Velcro “sticky mittens” and let them play with light blocks also wrapped in Velcro. The sticky mittens allowed the little ones to pick up and manipulate the blocks (in a way that their crude, swiping hand coordination normally does not).
After two weeks, the babies who had worn the mittens showed more interest in reaching and grasping at objects than their mittenless peers. But remarkably, the sticky mitten group had a precocious advance in social skill too – they were more interested in looking at faces after the training than the control group. In fact, the researchers noted that the interest in faces for those babies was akin to a five-month-olds’ – a full two-month advancement in social development. The scientists speculated as to whether this kind of early motor skills training could actually give children with autism (who show less of a preference for faces) a head start on social skills.
That grabbing and reaching could stimulate a little person’s social abilities is an unexpected twist. No need to run out and buy a pair of Velcro gloves for your newborn, but it helps to think outside the box when it comes to interacting with our kids. When you hold, tickle, massage, or wrestle with your little one, for example, it’s not only comforting and fun, you’re sparking messages in the brain that stimulate thinking skills and boost physical health. All those regions talk to each other – and nudge our children’s development along in surprising and mysterious ways.
Want to encourage baby’s development? Try these sensory toys:
A toy that grows with baby! At first the textures and shapes will be enough, but stacking helps toddlers understand systems.
Taggies Go-Go Car $25.00
With crinkly wheels, a rattle, and lights, this little car provides hours of exploration.
Giraffe Grasping Toy, $7.97
Watch your baby swivel, pivot, or just gnaw on this non-toxic toy.