Early infant development

By Barbara Hanrahan – Nursing sister and midwife, masters in midwifery, SA certified perinatal course developer

New parents are often concerned about how to play with their baby and to what extent should they facilitate early infant development. New parents need to be guided in understanding the stages of motor development and the activities and toys babies will enjoy.

Play is how a baby practices basic skills such as focusing his eyes. Through play the baby gradually explores the world around him. Parents are often burdened by the feeling that they are responsible for their baby’s intelligence.

So the starting point is to know that the more the mother and father relax and enjoy close proximity with their newborn during awake time – they will unconsciously be stimulating their baby’s natural development. Everything is a new experience physically, sensually, tactile and emotionally.

As a mother moves her baby around with her – the baby is exposed to new sounds – the tap running, the washing machine, water boiling in the kettle, hard and soft surfaces, different noise levels and discerning different voices, the dog barking, the phone ringing….. this stimulation all contributes to early infant development. The baby is learning at a phenomenal rate to recognise and adapt to these stimuli.

Encourage both the mother and father to spend skin to skin contact right through infancy, as this is physical, emotional stimulation with the added benefit of stimulating immunity. The newborn is most interested in its parent’s faces and the range of emotions that play across their faces. Drawing a mad, sad and glad happy face on a paper plate held within a baby’s vision also helps the baby to recognise changes in a parent’s face.

Talking to the baby is often a little strange for first time parents, especially new fathers. If the parent speaks gently about what they are doing with the baby – the baby begins to recognise changes in the pitch of the voice, language patterning and this increases the neuro transmitter synapse connection in the brain. Talking to the newborn at a distance of the breast to the mother’s face encourages the baby to focus its eyes on the mothers face and stimulates congruent body movements. Dads can do this too. If one studies the pupils of an adult in response to looking at a baby – one will see the pupils dilate in response to the pleasurable sight. This response is completely involuntary. Babies’ eyes are bigger in relation to their body size. It makes the baby look more appealing increasing the chances of being fondled and handled more lovingly. When the mother or father comes close to the baby and the baby likes what it sees the already large pupils dilate even more. It is important for the mother to involuntarily see the baby’s pupils and this is made possible if the iris surrounding the pupil is a pale colour. This is the reason why babies are born with blue eyes amongst Caucasian babies. By six months the iris starts to change to reveal the colour the baby will have for life.

83% of right handed mothers and 78% of left handed mothers will cradle a newborn in their left arm. By holding her newborn in this way the mother has instinctively brought her infant closer to the sound of her heartbeat. This is the sound the baby heard inside the uterus and is associated with peace, comfort and security.

During the first month and the next 4-5 months a baby’s activity is self-generated watching movement including her own hands. Much of a baby’s response is using the primitive reflexes a term baby is born with. In the first few weeks a baby learns to track objects visually and coordinate this with appropriate head movements. The grasp reflex is very strong in the early weeks usually evidenced by the sheer power a baby has of grasping a parent’s fingers and being pulled up into sitting without letting go. Reflex movements will gradually disappear and the baby will gain some control over arm waving and in coordinated kicking. Before four months a baby does not yet know that a rattle is a separate object from herself. But she is learning that if she feels something in her hand.

From newborn to 3 months a baby’s cognitive motor development will focus around visual cues, mastering her hands and experiencing the world through her mouth. Visually the baby will follow a bright object with her eyes, but it takes longer for the brain maturation that stimulates her to reach for the object. Visually she begins to recognise faces and show eagerness with wide eyes, waving hands and kicking her feet. Her fists begin by being closed and moving in a jerky way towards holding objects briefly, during this time – largely due to the primitive reflex of rooting – if she finds her hands near her face she will start sucking on them.

Stimulation a baby enjoys at this time is wind chimes, clock ticking, parents talking and singing. Babies begin to enjoy patterns, movement and light. An easy way to encourage this aspect of development is to place your baby near the different pattern curtains in different rooms of your house. Place a baby in a pram under a small tree and the baby will detect the patterns and movements of the leaves. And be sensorally stimulated by a soft breeze on the baby’s face.

From birth babies enjoy gentle, firm touch – when the baby is in the quiet alert stage. So start baby massage with small bytes first. Massaging the feet – massage the face and head – massaging the arms and hands – later if the baby shows willing cues – massage the chest and or the back. Newborns will not readily enjoy a full massage for the first few months. So a little at a time, perhaps accompanied by soothing music. But all babies thrive on lots of cuddling. An idea is to put your baby down on a variety of surfaces – a fluffy soft towel, plastic change mat (but readily lifted in order to put something under the baby, cuddling the baby with a soft silky shirt, a knobbly shawl …..

Be reassured that a newborn really does not need toys to stimulate development in the first three months. Everything is a new experience to begin with. We learn with being exposed to a stimulus over and over again. Interaction and cuddling, changing and feeding serve as stimulants for emotional, social and motor development in the first three months.

Babies do not have any quality control, so they do not know when someone has made a mistake, and they are incredibly forgiving. Primarily what we all want is emotional caring, physical contact and soothing affirming words. Babies are only aware of their own needs and not aware of the new parent’s feelings of being overwhelmed, tired or confused. Babies are not affected by their parent’s adjustments to being new parents and caretakers as they are by their long term relationships with them.

Primitive reflexes originate from the oldest part of the brain. For example – palmar grasp is strongest in the first 3 months. But as the “new brain” begins to dominate the infant’s behaviour it will stimulate a reflex such as new grasping which is variable and controllable. We see this around 6-8 months when babies start to put everything in their mouths – a new form of stimulation.

There is one major aspect of development that needs stimulation for all babies – development of the shoulder girdle. We live in a fast paced urban world – with babies often spending quite a few hours strapped into a car seat in a sitting position. Research has shown that babies born by elective caesarean section may well have lower muscle tone vs babies who have had to negotiate the birth canal. Newborns need to lie on their tummies in order to develop the shoulder girdle naturally. Advice on preventing SIDS sees most of our babies in a side or prone sleeping position. Babies can be put tummy to tummy with either parent whose talking will stimulate the baby to pick its head up in order to locate the source of the voice. Putting a baby on it’s tummy after changing a nappy and encouraging the baby to watch an object that leads them to start lifting their shoulders off the nappy changing surface. The development of a baby’s shoulder girdle is critical for a lot of other developmental abilities.


How well can a baby see – as a starting point for visual development in infancy? The eyes do not work together yet to focus at a distance. Most babies start developing binocular vision from six weeks. At close quarters a newborn can focus on what is in front of their face. At this stage babies prefer moving objects – like the mother’s talking as it animates her face. Newborns also favour curved shapes, over straight shapes, they are sensitive patterns and like big brightly lit objects.

How well can a baby hear – they start hearing in utero from as early as 24 weeks gestation getting stronger by 28 weeks gestation. The sharper the sound the deeper the reaction. The middle ear of the foetus is filled with amniotic fluid until about a week after birth. This is nature’s protective device to aid the baby’s defence against the cacophony of noise at and after birth. Newborns react most strongly to high pitched female voices – most commonly responding to the mother’s voice in the last few weeks of pregnancy and in the early days of being a newborn.

This information focuses attention on natural stimulation of a newborn versus looking to toys to stimulate a baby in the first three months. A clean, normally varied environment (i.e. from room to room) and a lot of cooing and cuddling offers a newborn the richness it needs in its early life to develop emotionally and physically.

Baby gym and other social groups affords the mothers a chance to interact in a structured supported facilitated environment which helps the new mother develop confidence. The baby senses this confidence positively and relaxes and enjoys the mother’s attention.

“Small, vulnerable and wordless though the baby might be – it is at the same time power-packed with astonishing potential.” Desmond Morris

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