Dr Britta McLaren discusses the importance of understanding your baby’s sensory experience and how to stimulate your little one’s senses for richer sensory development.
Ever wonder what your baby can see, feel, hear, taste and smell? And what you can do to stimulate these senses? Some senses, like touch and hearing, are fully developed at birth; while others (such as sight) take a few months to mature. The senses are the tools that she will use to start understanding her environment, so it’s important that you spend some time stimulating them. Here are some ways that you can help your baby along her sensory pathway.
Your baby’s sight
At birth, your baby can only see up to 30cm – just the perfect distance to home in on mommy’s face as she breastfeeds. Make eye contact with her, smile and talk to her – she will find your facial expressions captivating. In the first few weeks baby will start to see colour, but can’t differentiate between shades, so stimulate her with highly contrasted toys, like a black and white mobile. Move on to primary colours at around three months old and then slowly build up in more colour each month.
She will also enjoy different shapes and interesting patterns. By eight months old your baby will be able to recognise the faces of people that she knows well. Make a scrapbook of special people in her life and show it to her regularly. At 12 months your baby will be able to tell the difference between near and far. Try taking her out to different places and point out objects that are both close and further away.
Your baby’s sense of touch
Touch is fully developed at birth and your baby will love the comforting feeling of your touch from the moment she is born. Skin-to-skin contact has many amazing benefits and will soothe and comfort your baby. Baby massage is a wonderful way to interact with your baby and you will learn her likes and dislikes by responding to her cues. Right from an early age, your baby will start putting anything she can into her mouth. Many parents think this must be a sign of teething, but it is her way of learning about different shapes and textures.
From about two to three months you can start placing different items in her hand so she can start to feel the difference between hard and soft; rough and smooth. Your baby will also love the senstation of a warm bath – and while you don’t need to bath your baby every day, she will enjoy the splashing the water. Introducing solids is also a great way to explore different textures. Allow some messy eating – letting her touch and feel the food as she starts to taste it.
Your baby’s hearing
By the time your baby is born, her hearing is almost fully developed. From as early as 23 weeks of pregnancy, your baby’s hearing develops, so start talking to your bump! As soon as she is born, your baby will recognise your voice and even other voices that she heard regularly while in the womb.
Talk to your baby all the time – tell her what you are doing as you go about your day-to-day activities and point out different objects and colours as you go. Have ‘conversations’ with her and pause, allowing her a chance to ‘talk back’. Copy the sounds that she makes back to her; this will make her feel important and understood. Read stories to your baby right from birth, even if she can’t understand what you are saying. By about 10 months old, your baby will love eliciting a variety of sounds by bashing different objects. Allow her to bash pots, pans and different surfaces, and play on a xylophone or drums.
Your baby’s sense of taste
From birth your baby has a preference for sweet tastes; this is why she enjoys your breastmilk. Breastmilk’s taste varies from day to day, so as she gets older it could make her more open to food variety than formula would. Look out for signs that your baby is ready to start solids somewhere between four and six months old and start with simple or bland tastes. Slowly build in complexities of flavour and texture, staying away for sugar and salt. Many babies reject food when they first taste something new, so keep offering it to her and chances are, eventually, she will take it. Allow your baby to finger-feed from seven months, even if it is just one or two meals or snacks a day.
Your baby’s sense of smell
Babies are born with a highly sensitive sense of smell. From before she is born she can smell the scent of food that you have eaten. After she is born, don’t use perfumes in the first few days and allow your baby to become familiar with your scent. This will help her to bond with you. The familiar smell of Mom or Dad can be very comforting for your baby. Similarly, a ‘lovey’ or comfort toy or blanket will often develop a scent that will be of comfort to your baby, so she may become a bit unsettled if you wash it.
Beware of overstimulation
While it is important to stimulate your baby, it’s possible to overdo it. It is also important to give your baby breaks from stimulation. She may become fussy or withdrawn when she is overstimulated. When she is older she may become hyperactive, clingy or start to hit when she’s overstimulated. As soon as you notice any of these signs, it is time for a timeout. Retreat to some peace and quiet. Also, when you arrive at a gathering, as tempting as it is to hand her around to her adoring family and friends, give her some time to suss out the crowd from the safety of your arms before you pass her to a new person to hold.
Lastly, forget the iPad and educational baby apps and television shows – they are excessively stimulating, while at the same time your baby will learn nothing from them. Screen time isn’t recommended until your baby is three years old, so stick to the good old-fashioned storybook or soccer ball!
There are some apps, however, that are useful for you. It can be hard to track your baby’s development and keep up with what stimulation she needs as she keeps changing and growing. Try Baby Sense, Baby Spark and Wonder Weeks – all three are great for helping you to understand your baby as she goes though those exciting, but sometimes rather challenging phases of development.