If there's a book that you should add to your childcare or learning library, it's BabyGym by Melodie de Jager.
Melodie is a former nursery school teacher, and is now and educational therapist and author who wrote BabyGym (among several other books) to help parents better understand their newborns, and develop their bodies and brains.
I asked Melodie some questions aout BabyGym, and her tips for optimising baby's development.
Please explain the concept/programme “baby gym” BabyGym
Baby’s physical development receives priority during the first 14 months and as such BabyGym maximises this precious time frame to show mom, dad and nanny how to stimulate Baby and pave the way to brilliance. Age appropriate brain stimulation occurs when all baby’s senses and muscles are gradually and gently woken up in a specific sequence – exactly the way nature intended brain development to unfold. No matter how clever the brain, the brain needs wide-awake senses to prompt the brain into action, and strong muscles to do the brain’s bidding.
BabyGym has been designed to guide mom, dad (and care giver) on what’s best for baby from pregnancy, to birth and through each of the physical development milestone – sucking, head control, rolling, sitting, grasping, crawling, standing, cruising and walking.
BabyGym helps Baby to relax and unfold from a curled up little baby to a strong, curios, mobile and confident human being.
Research has indicated that there is a link between the variety of movements a baby makes during the first few months of life and baby’s ability to adapt and learn later on in life. The purpose of baby’s first year is to DEVELOP to become alert, strong, independent and clever and BabyGym makes this happen!
There’s a quote in the book “Only during interaction with humans that a child becomes a human being”. What does this mean, and what “interaction” needs to take place?
The brain is a fascinating organ but without information from wide awake senses and without action from strong muscles the brain can do absolutely nothing. For example in a case study where a baby was abandoned and reared by wolves the baby grew up to be wolf-like – he eats, moves, communicates and ages like the rest of the pack because that is what the baby’s brain and body was exposed to.
So what this statement tells us is in order to become a well-adjusted and independent human being (one day) a vulnerable baby’s brain needs sensory input such as touch, movement, smells, tastes, sounds, and eye contact to be able to develop. The environment and daily interaction from loving parents and caregivers directly develops (or hinders) who and what Baby becomes.
Most parents worry about milestones, and if their child is a few weeks’ behind in milestones? When should one worry?
Every child is different and so their pace of development also differs. At the BabyGym Institute we use the following as a rough guideline for milestones:
2 months head control – keeping the head up and stable
4 months rolling to the left and to the right
6 months sitting unsupported with an upright back and hands that move freely and start to grasp
8 months crawling on hands and knees
10 months standing and cruising around furniture
12+ months walking
What is important, is to know that milestones are beacons of progress. Milestones tell us what brain development has already taken place because a milestone always follows after the next level of brain wiring has matured, and that is why BabyGym places emphasis on (1)the sequence and (2)the quality of the milestones, rather than the rate at which milestones are reached. Faster isn’t always better.
Is there such a thing as overstimulation of babies and toddlers/ How do we know the balance?
Yes absolutely. A newborn baby is still adjusting from life in utero to life in air, light, space, etc. and with the transition comes many changes to Baby’s the sensory environment. In utero its warm and temperature is regulated; its dark; smells and tastes are limited to amniotic fluid and the sounds from the outside world are muted by fluid and moms body. So when a vulnerable newborn baby is exposed to sharp lights, loud noises, lots of movement and many smells (as one would typically experience in a shopping mall), it is a very different and often a traumatic experience for the senses and immature brain that still need to adjust.
When one uses the in-utero conditions as a benchmark for soothing conditions, it is easy to recognise an environment that would overstimulate Baby. In-utero conditions also guide us and equips mom and dad (and care giver) with the tools to calm a baby: MINIMISE STIMULATION and MAXIMISE mom’s touch, moms movement (slowly swaying with mom), moms smell, the taste of moms milk, moms reassuring voice and eye contact with mom. It is important to add though that once baby is calm and adjusting well to the new environment, Baby needs a variety of sensory stimulation to develop and that is where dad comes in. D for Dad, D for Development. Dads skin is rougher, his moves quicker and faster, his smell is different, his voice deeper and he looks different- and that is why in BabyGym we say Dad build the bridge to the outside world.
Toys play a big role in a child’s development. What advice do you have when it comes to buying toys, and what is the optimal balance between toys and “human interaction and play”? What are the key “toys” every baby should have?
When you look at what grabs a baby’s attention it usually involves mom and dad’s world: the keys, the remotes, the cell phone, mom’s handbag… It is always things that Baby see us use often… the keys, the remotes, the cell phone, mom’s handbag. Baby wants to be included in mom and dad’s lives and therefore wants to touch what you touch and do what you do. Toys are less appealing to babies and toddlers than real life, everyday objects.
Play starts when Baby moves and explores during ‘rug time’ when Baby is flat on the ground on the tummy and back. Rug time, rather than stroller or rocking chair time offers wonderful play opportunities and gives Baby a fantastic sensory and muscle workout. Instead of having a scratch and smell book, (a 2 dimensional way of learning), BabyGym recommends real objects and is why in a BabyGym class we use real life objects like a twig of lavender – Baby can touch it, crush it, smell it, look at it. while Baby is exploring the lavender it is an awesome opportunity for mom to talk about it: “this is a piece of lavender from our garden. Can you see its purple? (Touch baby’s nose) Smell it… oeee you like that! Or it smells a bit strange doesn’t it?” (And remove it).
So in short BabyGym would rather encourage including baby in your everyday life which includes engaging all the senses, making eye contact and talking to baby (which also automatically prepares the baby for the language and culture of the parents and family) rather than buying toys and contraptions and expecting baby to sit still and ‘entertain themselves’. If you want to buy “toys” invest in a mirror that provides great entertainment whilst baby is on the floor doing tummy time and wants something to look at and interact with, or good quality music instruments like a rattle made from wood or a xylophone that encourage movement, and provide good quality auditory input.
What are the biggest “mistakes” new parents make when trying to develop their kids physically and cognitively?
We think screens, worksheets and academic learning is the only form of learning, and the earlier we introduce them the better. Meanwhile your presence and attention, engaging the senses and the opportunity to play and move freely is the best form of learning in the first 2 years and makes academic learning 6 years later (when the brain and body is developed and strong and ready for it) a lot easier!
I love the concept of “waking up the senses” in babies. Can you explain a little more about it, since it’s not something that’s commonly taught or highlighted?
Not all mothers and babies have the same pregnancy and birth experiences and so not all babies are born relaxed and with wide awake senses eager to adapt to their new world. Some are born hyper sensitive and perceive touch, smells, tastes, sounds, and objects from their new environment as a threat- it terrifies them! Others are born quite detached and unresponsive and not quite aware of the changes and what is going on around them.
In both cases BabyGym helps baby’s senses to either calm down, or tune in and wake up to the environment and all the learning opportunities the environment offers. Remember, we said earlier the brain is a fascinating organ but is totally dependent on input from the senses? The state of the senses, and the quality of the sensory information that is sent to the brain will directly impact on the brain’s opportunity to develop and that is why we need to make sure the senses are wide awake.
Do you have top tips for stimulating: newborns, babies, toddlers?
– Trust your instinct
– When overstimulated – Sameness Soothes (think Mom and simulate in-utero conditions)
– When baby is awake and alert its development time! (Think Dad. He plays rougher, its wonderful for the inside senses and can prevent ADHD and hyperactivity later. Explore the house and garden. Interact, touch and name)
– Massage and loving touch is brain food. BabyGym encourages moms and dads to massage their babies from day 1. Not only does it help to relax baby, boost immunity and growth it also helps a lot of first time Moms and Dads to gain confidence in handling baby and to BOND with baby.
– Tummy Time is a must from day 1. Tummy time can be introduced flat on Mom or Dads chest and as baby grows and becomes stronger, progress to tummy time on the floor.
– Real life objects will always engage more senses and muscles than toys and screens (computer/TV).
Time spent with your baby = a developmental date!
What is the one thing (or the key things) you would like every parent – new and “old” – to know?
You are your baby’s anchor and the best development tool money can buy.
Baby Gym is available from Metz Press for R135.