Our panelists: Rachel Gagen (Pediatrician & IBCLC), Scott Rankins (Speech-Language Pathologist), Kevin Van Wynsberg (Department Chair for the Center for Counseling and Family Studies at LU), and our moderator, Lauren Barnes. Today’s topic, while primarily focused on babies in their first year, also spanned to toddlers, and older children as well. We covered important topics such as milestones, learning styles, and feeding.
Milestones seem to always be in the back of a parent’s mind. They serve as a measurement and comparison tool between your child and every other child of his or her age. Is my child developing normally? Does his lack of speech present a concern? Should she have more hair at this point? Is his head too big? All of these are valid concerns, but Gagen, Rankins, and Van Wynsburg gave several reasons why worrying about milestones can add unnecessary pressure and anxiety to parents.
Gagen explained that you should “compare your baby to your baby.” The milestones are there to help parents and doctors make sure everything is progressing normally. However, she noted that while some babies are exactly where they need to be, others are either a few months behind or a few months ahead, and that’s okay! The best way to measure your child’s progress and development is to look at where he or she was a month ago, two months ago, and so on. Rankins explained the importance of looking at a child holistically. As a Speech-Language Pathologist, Rankins sees varying levels of communication difficulties, and the milestone measurement serves as a generalization by which he can start asking questions and making predictions. He explained that the range can be about 3-4 months on either side, so focusing too heavily on the specific milestone for a specific age can be inaccurate. Similarly, Van Wynsburg commented that ten fingers and ten toes is a much easier “normal” measurement than what is “normal” socially, emotionally, and kinesthetically with infants. He argued that there are so many great tools out there available to parents—of which the milestones are one—but we don’t want the tools to take the place of what is most important, interacting with and helping your child learn about him or herself and his or her environment.
Learning styles of today are certainly different than they were twenty-five years ago. Today, we have iPads and cell phones and toys that light up and talk back. Rankins commented that one of the down sides to these battery-operated toys is that children are not presented with the challenge of using their imaginations as they are with less tech-centered toys. He stated, “Interaction is how we learn how to communicate effectively.” And with toys that do the talking for us or Baby Einstein videos that replace child-parent interaction, children may lose out on valuable communication building. Both Gagen and Rankins agree that children don’t need much to entertain themselves or to learn through exploration. Gagen joked that whatever you give your child for his or her first birthday, you can simply rewrap it again for his or her second.
Feeding, Bottles, and Silverware
A large part of learning for both children and parents deals with feeding. Regardless of whether your child is breastfed or bottle-fed, each child must learn how to eat solid foods eventually. Both Gagen and Rankins explained that it is important to begin some sort of solid foods at 6 months in order to prevent future allergies, but what is equally as important is letting your children experiment with and get messy with their food. The sensory experience of eating is valuable for your children on several levels. They are able to feel the different textures, smell the different scents, and taste the different flavors.
Parents may not realize how pivotal their role is in a feeding situation. Van Wynsburg advised that when feeding your child, you should make sure to keep your face happy or neutral. If you go into a meal with an anxious or worried face, your child will pick up on your hesitancy. This is one of the reasons why allowing your child to have a messy face is crucial. It allows the child to explore without interruption from a napkin or face wipe. When asked about children who cannot handle a mess on their faces, both Gagen and Rankins explained that if you freak out about the mess on their face, then they will freak out. If you have a child who cannot handle food on his or her face, talk about it. Use it as a learning tool. Ask them about the different textures, temperatures, and colors. You can even add some sweet potato puree to your chin! They will likely become distracted by the interaction or see the mess as a positive aspect of the food experience.
While babies are encouraged to use bottles and pacifiers up until 12 months, any bottle or pacifier use after that can have negative effects. The panelists explained that bottles and pacifiers can become ingrained habits that will be more difficult to break the older your baby gets. Some of the negative effects include future orthodontic issues or mouth disfigurement and susceptibility to ear infections.
Silverware can provide another learning obstacle, but Rankins mentioned that you can introduce silverware as early as eight months. At that age, babies will immediately bring the spoon to their mouths, so this can start the process fairly easily. However, children will not be able to use solely silverware until about three- or four-years-old, so let it be part of the learning experience and not something you force.
While we briefly touched on potty-training, that is a topic for another time! Thank you to our amazing panelists for your wisdom and insight!