As a pediatrician, mom, and infant developmental expert, I love talking about newborn development. During the newborn visit, I often get parents in my office wondering what they should do to engage with their babies. First, it’s essential to understand the development domains and how/when to foster them.
What are the four main domains of development?
- Social/Emotional: This domain includes a child’s ability to understand and use their emotions, connect with and learn about other human beings, and develop empathy.
- Language/Communication: This domain includes a child’s ability to learn communication skills (non-spoken) and language (spoken). This includes creating the sounds for speech, understanding language, communicating with verbal and non-verbal cues, and eventually putting words together.
- Cognitive Development: This domain includes a child’s development of intellectual ability and creativity. They develop this domain by being shown things in their environment and connecting their experiences with movement, language, and other domains. In cognition, first comes vision (in the first two months), followed by reaching out and putting things in their mouth (oral exploration), followed by learning about their environment.
- Motor: This domain includes a child’s ability to use gross motor skills or large muscles (tummy time, sitting, crawling, walking) and fine motor skills or smaller muscles (fingers for gabbing things). Fine motor skills are often overlooked. But these are things like grasping, releasing, pinching, or using their hands and fingers and are very important later in life.
The cognitive and social/emotional domains are—in my opinion—the foundation for the other development areas. You can’t’ teach language or motor skills if you are not connected with your baby (social/emotional) or bridging how everything in their environment affects one another (cognition).
What should you do month-to-month to foster development?
When your child is a newborn, don’t’ focus so much on “play.” This time is “survival mode,” where your only job is to learn about your baby and your new role as a parent. Learn about their hunger cues (rooting, smacking their lips, sucking their hands) and sleepy cues (looking dazed, red eyebrows, or yawning). You can begin to do tummy time on your chest when you are awake. But the goal, when you bring baby home, is to settle into your new role. If anything, the social/emotional domain is being heavily fostered as you bond and connect with your baby in your way.
Continue to enhance that social/emotional bond by showing them love and affection in your own way: skin to skin, cuddles, kisses, etc. Remember, this physical and emotional connection sometimes isn’t immediate for some parents. If you feel disconnected as baby grows, speak to your doctor.
Start doing tummy time if you haven’t already. This is something that will be done when they’re awake. It is a great activity to keep their head round and help develop neck and shoulder muscles. If they don’t’ love it, work them up to more floor time and/or lay down on the ground with them. Tummy time will help them develop their motor skills. To assist with tummy time, you can use black and white contrast images that you lay in front of baby. They help connect neurons in their brain, supporting cognition, and can help them do tummy time for longer.
As they start to look around more, introduce a rattle to help them track with their eyes. Start midline and move the rattle to the side of their visual field. If they don’t’ move their eyes towards it, shake the rattle a little to get their attention. This eye-gazing will help develop their cognitive skills—learning how to interact (move their eyes) with an object in their environment (the rattle).
Start reading to your baby if you haven’t already. This is a great way to lay the foundation of language/communication. Hearing your voice, cadence, and love in your voice will also help with social/emotional bonding. Babies/young infants respond better and learn language with a high-pitched sing-songy voice, so don’t’ be shy in getting a little musical.
For language development, mimic their sounds and coos. When they coo, coo back. If they smile, smile back. This reciprocity is part of pre-verbal communication that is important in language/communication development. Continue doing tummy time to foster those motor skills. And continue reading to your baby to foster those language skills.
Continue to bond with your baby to foster that important social/emotional bond.
The key to early infant development is to remember engagement doesn’t’ have to be expensive or time-consuming. Playing with our kiddos, especially before they can smile, can sometimes be challenging. Remember, they are sleeping more than they are awake. So, when they are awake, set goals on which activities above you want to do.
Above all else, don’t stress about their development. With your love, guidance, and ability to teach them about the world, they will thrive.