By Dr Melodie de Jager
“My baby walked at 9 months” and “My baby talked at 12 months”, “My baby uses our iPad” and “My baby can build a 9-piece puzzle at 15 months” are conversations that leave many a mom feeling incompetent and silently doubting her own baby’s intelligence when she compares her gurgling toddler with these performing geniuses.
But what is all the fuss about? Is your baby missing out, slow or even deprived if you cannot share a similar accomplishment? The pressure to perform is nothing new, but it may be wise to question our attitude to early milestone performances. Yes it is wonderful when a baby can walk, talk and, in time, build puzzles, but reaching a milestone should not be the focus. The focus should rather be on baby developing at his own pace within the guidelines for each milestone.
Milestones are beacons that show a baby’s developmental progress. Milestones are not baby IQ tests where the faster your baby speeds past each milestone, the more intelligent he is. Milestones show progress. Each says, “Look mom and dad, I am unfolding according to my innate blueprint – one milestone at a time”.
What is absolutely amazing is that developmental milestones unfold in the exact same way all over the world for both baby boys and girls, if they are given the opportunity to move and explore.
We often don’t think about it, but babies don’t read books on baby development, they have no idea what is expected of them at a certain age and they don’t perform to please. Given the ideal circumstances, they simply unfold as though following a magical recipe.
Nature takes care of its own, and for that reason babies have an inbuilt development programme at birth – a series of primitive reflexes to prompt the development of the brain and body. Each primitive reflex is responsible for plugging a specific body part into a specific part of the brain and, to make this happen, a baby needs to make certain movements over and over again.
For example, if you put your finger in the palm of a baby’s hand the fingers will reflexively curl around your finger giving the muscles in the hand practice to be ready to voluntarily pick up things a few months later. Similarly, you’ll notice that when you massage the palm while baby is feeding he will reflexively suckle stronger.
Once a body part is plugged into the correct part of the brain, the brain starts using that part more often and that is why babies make the same movements for weeks on end. Making the same movements strengthens the wiring to develop the brain. Once baby has done the same movement enough times to ensure that the brain’s wiring is very strong, these reflexive movements go to rest, and then baby reaches a milestone.
A milestone shows that a part of the brain has just been wired and is ready to be used. Milestones are magical moments that need to be photographed and celebrated with the exact same enthusiasm as receiving a degree cum laude, because reaching a milestone is as difficult for a baby as getting a degree is for a student. It requires time and effort, and many failed attempts, before it finally comes together.
Then voila, baby can feed without reflux; he can keep his head up and turn it to look at dad; he can do baby push-ups and sit-ups; he can roll over and push himself up into a sitting position; he can reach for a toy without toppling over; and he will instinctively find himself on all fours, rocking to and fro while preparing for the big milestone – crawling!
Oh, the freedom of crawling is none less than a learner’s licence at the age of 17. All of a sudden a baby’s world expands and his new position provides a whole new perspective of the world around him. Think about how different a table looks when lying down compared to seeing it when on all fours. What a world to explore while engaging in the thousands of movement repetitions required to lay down the base wiring for muscle tone and creating connections between the left and right sides of the brain.
Crawling is much harder work for a baby than walking because a baby needs to coordinate 6 points of contact – 2 hands, 2 knees and 2 feet – while learning how to adjust to different surfaces when moving from tiles to carpets to wooden flooring, and navigating many obstacles as they go. Every experience is a learning opportunity and the more surfaces baby experiences the less likely he is to be tactile defensive (doesn’t like touch). Crawling is the master milestone and the one milestone that is skipped most often.
What can sabotage the journey?
- When baby is constantly on mom’s body or cooped up in a stroller or wrapped up like an Egyptian mummy, it prevents the freedom of movement that he needs to develop the brain wiring required to reach each milestone.
When a baby is born premature, the best place for him is skin on skin on mom’s body and sometimes wrapped up like a mummy, but a full-term baby needs the opportunity and freedom to move and discover his body and what it can do.
- Illness, as well as poor feeding and sleeping patterns, can sap the little one’s energy. With low levels of energy movement becomes too much of an effort and baby tends to be “floppy”. Floppy limbs are hard to move resulting in even less movement, thus less wiring and less muscle tone development, which will delay reaching a milestone.
- Contraptions like supporting chairs, walking rings or jumping apparatus hold baby in a position that his body is not ready for, potentially resulting in a skipped milestone which means less complete brain wiring. Research has shown that many emotional and learning problems later on in life are due to skipped milestones in infancy.
- A messed up sequence means messed up wiring because each milestone uses the previous milestone’s wiring, which it adds on to, to build an amazingly complex network of nerve connections. Poor nutrition means the fatty acids that are found in breast milk, and later in fish and some vegetable oils, are absent. The brain wiring needs these omega fatty acids to insulate and protect the nerve wiring. Messages travel at high speed when wiring is insulated, but travel very slowly in unprotected wiring that is the result of delayed milestones.
Faster is not necessarily better
According to Graham Codrington the average baby has a potential life expectancy of around 130 years. If that is true, why on earth would we encourage a baby to rush through his milestones if he is going to read and write for more or less 124 years? What is the big hurry?
The faster a baby reaches each milestone, the weaker the wiring. When pressure is high, later on in school, the wiring collapses and can be seen in the child’s behaviour and ability or inability to learn. Faster is not necessarily better.The purpose of each of the physical baby milestones is to wire a specific part of the brain. Moms and dads do not have to worry that they don’t know how to trigger a new growth spurt in preparation for the next milestone. Nature takes care of that by prompting baby to move in a certain way and to repeat that same series of movements thousands of times to strengthen brain wiring.
What is even more amazing, is that this prompting follows the same sequence in every baby:
- neck control
- rolling over
- pushing up
- sitting unaided and without support
- grasping at will
- crawling all over
- pulling up
- cruising around furniture
A walking baby has graduated from infancy and is now officially a toddler.
Please resist putting pressure on baby to perform, rather allow him to dive deep into each milestone to get as much pleasure out of each experience as possible. We owe it to our children to help them grow the best brains possible.
About the author:
Melodie de Jager is a qualified nursery school teacher with a doctorate on the role of movement in brain development and learning, which led to her developing BabyGym®, Mind Moves® and Mind Dynamix Profiling®. She regularly hosts workshops in Southern Africa and Europe, is a frequent guest on radio and TV, and is listed at the American Biographical Institute as one of the Great Women of the 21st Century. She has authored Play learn know, BabyGym and Mind moves (Metz Press).
All of her books are also available in Afrikaans.
*If your baby is months behind with a certain milestone and you are concerned, please have them checked out by your Healthcare Practitioner for your own peace of mind.