Updated: Aug 25, 2019
By Dr Penny Tok
As parents, we all want the best for our children, but that in itself can make us go mad. What is "best" for our young ones then? Times have moved on from when meeting the physical needs of a child was sufficient. New parents are now bombarded (and quite often guilted!) by this information-sharing age regarding how much more they need to do for their young baby. A barrage of classes for babies and toddlers have now erupted. Left-brain training, right-brain training, whole brain training and now mid-brain training?! While some of these have good research-backed foundations, an overwhelming majority of them are marketing gimmicks.
THE MAGIC WORD: STIMULATION
Under-stimulated? Over-stimulated? Optimal stimulation? While research has consistently shown the long-lasting positive effects of infant stimulation, this has had the unfortunate effect of having opportunistic marketing people instil fear in us about not stimulating our child enough. Remember that everything is a new experience for a young infant! Lights, shadows, sounds, textures are all very exciting to a new baby. For the first few months of their lives the main things babies do is eat, sleep, and ahem, poop! That’s about it. Oh and of course - cry! You should not leave your baby alone in a cot with no interaction all day but please do not feel that you have to go out of your way to create a day-full of exciting experiences for your infant.
There really is no need to crack your brain trying to stimulate them further either. A very young child is easily stimulated! You do not need fancy toys, flashcards, or expensive CD and DVDs which purport to help develop them into geniuses. You do not want to over-stimulate them as their little developing brains can only absorb so much.
A room with soothing colours and a mobile hanging above (which does not even need to have music and definitely no flashing lights!) and some simple open ended toys is really all babies need in the first few months. Once they grow a little older, you can add some soft books or some cuddly toys (when there is no longer a suffocation risk). Please be vigilant to ensure that anything you pass to a baby is safe. Placing them in an area where they can watch you and other family members potter around the house is a great way to constantly maintain interaction with them and to provide some stimulation.
So while I do not advocate toys that are specifically said to “train” a baby, I do encourage parents to spend a little more money buying quality toys and clothing that are as natural as possible (i.e. safe from toxic dyes, BPA, etc.), and environmentally friendly. One great way of getting good quality products whilst being kind to the environment is to acquire preloved wooden toys from other parents whose children have outgrown them. Online Facebook groups like ECMSG Pre-Loved Sales and apps like Bakipa and Carousell are good sources. Just a little clean-up and they are good to go. Furthermore, there is no need to rush off to sign them up for special classes unless you want some extra bonding time with your child in addition to the regular daily routines. "Mum and Baby" yoga classes or parent-accompanied playgroups providing plenty of unstructured play are good places to relax and meet other like-minded parents.
So the next time you feel compelled to buy that fancy toy or sign your baby up for some expensive class that promises to make them a genius or ignite their inner creativity, take a step back and think twice. Pore through the technical jargon they sometimes use and critically consider their value. Ask them for objective research showing that their methodology works. Do not be afraid to challenge them.
As children grow older, mental stimulation becomes even more important as they are now equipped with the mental capacity to absorb, make sense, manipulate, and critically analyse what they are experiencing. This cannot be achieved by flash cards or classes that train a specific part of a brain! A very good book to read on the cognitive development of babies is The Scientist in the Crib which presents scientific information in a user-friendly way.
Enjoy your baby - there is no need to rush their development.
Here are some ideas for gentle infant stimulation:
Nothing beats the touch from a fellow human being - especially from mummy and daddy! Plus the babies smell so heavenly, don’t you just want to hold them?
TALK AND READ TO THEM
Talk about what, you ask? Anything! A running commentary of what you are doing as you are doing it (e.g. house chores) is good enough! It does not have to be the most stimulating conversation, the goal is to let them hear your voice and to start learning about language. Interesting research has shown that even the melody of a baby’s cries follows their native language! Reading from a young age helps develop a love for reading. And reading fiction has been found to help with the ability take perspective (see here for more information).
GET OUT INTO NATURE
And keep those phones and apps away! Join a baby and mama group if that helps get you out into the sweltering Singapore heat. Best of all, most of these groups are free! Facebook groups like Stork's Nest Singapore are a great way to make new friends and set up playdates with children of the same age.
Playing a certain type of music on a loop cannot make your baby smarter! So don’t rush out to but those Baby Mozart CDs. Also, why limit yourself to playing only classical music or nursery rhymes? You can play music from all around the world to increase your baby’s exposure to different sounds and rhythms.
TOYS THAT DO NOT DO MUCH
One good way to encourage exploration and creativity is to obtain toys that do not constantly “entertain” the child. Good old fashioned cars, blocks and other similar simple toys are excellent ways to get children to create their own play. So ditch the TV and other screen devices and let their imagination run wild.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Penny obtained her PhD from Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand). She had previously obtained her undergraduate degree in psychology from National University of Singapore (NUS) and her Master’s degree (Applied Psychology) at Nanyang Technological University (Singapore). She also holds a Certificate in Autism and is a Chartered Psychologist registered with the British Psychological Society.
She runs her own practice, Dr Penny Tok Psychology Practice, where she works with children and their families with various needs, conducting diagnostic assessments, counselling and behavioural intervention. She also conducts regular talks for parents, schools, private companies, and other professionals.
Married to a fellow psychologist, they have a young son, who is the centre of their lives.