Babies Know More Than You Think: Sensory Moments

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Your baby knows more than you might think but Barbara Sher explains to our readers how short sensory moments can really boost brain development and only take a minute out of your busy day.

 

By Barbara Sher, The Games Lady 

 

Sensory Moments Do More Than You Know

All of us are born with undeveloped brains. We’ve got one hundred billion brain neurons at birth, but they aren’t connected to anything, yet. We have a primitive brain stem that alerts us to danger but it’s going to take a lot of experiences before our brain cells connect up and make sense of our world. What we do have, fully functioning and completely mature, is our sensory system. We smell, see, hear, taste and feel with our whole bodies, right away. When we experience a sensation, we factor in this link and make a new connection between those waiting neurons.

For example, we learn that a certain combination of smells, sights and sounds—the smell of milk, a certain face and voice—means Mom and a pleasant full feeling in the belly. Another combination of sensations such as hearing a deeper sounding voice and feeling a firmer touch computes to Dad. The one seen as continually moving, he turns out to be big brother.

As babies process and integrate sensory information and make more and more connections, they learn about the world and their brain enlarges.

So what does this mean every day?

Okay. So we get it that the pathways between brain cells are reinforced by what the infant sees, smells, hears, and touches. We understand that as parents we can reinforce these connections through stimulating the senses. It’s not surprising to us when neurological research shows that babies raised in a sensory fertile environment develop brains that are larger and more enriched.

But how can even the best-intended mom fit an “enriching” experience in the fifteen minutes she has between laundry and dishes?

It’s possible. As an occupational therapist working with children for over 40 years, I want to tell you a little trick: Think Sensory Moments. It takes only a moment here and there to give children that extra touch. Just think this: Which of the senses do you want to stimulate for the Sensory Moment?

Say, you want to stimulate your baby’s hearing. Add that element in when you are doing the morning routine of changing diapers or washing her face. Just add sound and sing about what you are doing! Use any tune such as “London Bridge” but instead of the intended words, describe your actions:

“I’m putting a diaper on you, diaper on you, diaper on you. I am putting a diaper on you, but first I’m washing your tush.”

Or

“I am washing your little chin, little cheeks, little lips. I am washing your little nose and making your face all clean”

It doesn’t take any more of your time and it adds an element of fun for you both. Babies don’t care if you are off key and say dumb words. They just like the novelty of a new sound and as a bonus; singing stimulates the right side of the brain where imagination and creativity reside.

Say, you want to stimulate touch. Once the baby is all freshly diapered and alert, take an extra enriching moment and squeeze her muscles. Just put small amounts of pressure down each arm and leg. It’s like getting little hugs all over her body and as an added bonus; it teaches baby that these body parts belong to her.

And if you’ve got a moment more, bicycle her legs as well as bringing them up and down and in and out. You can even say or sing about what you are doing and introduce a few vocabulary words while you’re at it.

When babies are paying attention, their eyes widen and their body gets quiet. When they have had enough stimulation, they will turn their head and look away or maybe even fuss. Babies cue us when to stimulate and when to stop.

And there’s more

If you want to hear more Sensory Moment ideas, I have to give you some extra news. There aren’t five senses, there are seven.

In addition to the old standards: sight, sound, smell, taste and touch; there are two other senses, the vestibular and proprioceptive sense. Neurologists have known this for years. I guess we don’t hear as much about them because the words don’t roll smoothly off the tongue. They are easier to remember if we think of them as the movement and balance sense.

The proprioceptive sense is the reason you know where your body parts are without looking. You can close your eyes and put your arms up in the air and don’t have to look up to know where they are. Your proprioceptive sense tells your brain where your body starts and ends, and what it’s doing. That little leg game with your infant begins that movement awareness. Later when they are crawling or toddling, bouncing them on your knee also stimulates this sense.

Your vestibular sense is the innate awareness that you are on the ground, that you won’t float away – it’s an essential core sense of stability that tells your brain that  gravity is holding you down, and which way is up. It’s this awareness that develops your sense of balance. Rocking and swinging stimulate this sense, and that’s why children love to do it.

We like it, too

We all like to have our individual senses stimulated. That’s why when we listen to music, really LISTEN to music, it feels so good. Think about the absolute eye candy of an amazing sunset or the heart stopping moment when we really take in the sight of our sleeping baby. The next time you take a walk in nature, take a moment and really concentrate on a sensation: the babble of the water, the smell of fresh air or the feel of a breeze on your cheek. In that moment you will have the feeling that all is well. Sensory moments do that.

Use some of the ideas in the following two posts, or make up your own, and give your child the gift of a Sensory Moment. Take a few Sensory Moments for yourself in your own day. We all feel better when we experience a little piece of joy.

What about my child with special needs?

Children with visual or auditory impairment benefit even more with Sensory Moments because they get the opportunity to practice and increase the senses that are working for them.

If your child has a brain anomaly such as cerebral palsy, stimulating their senses is crucial in developing alternative pathways.

Children with sensory integration differences, or who are on the autistic spectrum, especially need to have their movement and balance senses strengthened. Children who under-recognize sensation such as falling down and not feeling pain need more Sensory Moments. Many SPD and ASD kids will hurl themselves to the ground, against walls, crash into people, tackle other kids, hug way too hard or spin in circles, just to get more feedback from these senses.  When I’m working with these children, I find that jumping games and tight squeezes work really well to calm them and bring them into their bodies, so do games that crash them into pillows or roll them in a blanket.

Sensations that are irritating such as touching sticky stuff can be slowly de-sensitized with progressive exposure.

 

See our next post discussing sensory moments: part 1 for children from birth to three years of age. 

 FOR MORE OF BARBARA SHER’S GAME IDEAS GO TO: amazon.com/author/barbarasher-gameslady​

previously published on parentingspecialneeds.org in July 2010

photo by Barry Rayburn CC BY NC 2.0

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