Babies go through an extremely delicate developmental phase between their birth and 18 months. While you may claim (with absolute justification) that each developmental stage of a child is just as delicate before they reach adulthood, it is also fairly undeniable that, within the first 18 months, every imaginable physical and psychological dimension of your newborn develops in synchronicity with equal intensity.
Sensory stimulation and regular sleep are crucial factors during this period, and they are the main contributors to the babies’ adaptation to the world that surrounds them. If they are deprived in any way, shape or form of these factors, there is a heightened risk that they will suffer from some cognitive and developmental delays.
Sensory stimulation gives your baby an edge
Even though many parents wrongfully believe in the ‘hands-free’ approach when it comes to promoting baby development, nothing could be farther from the truth. It has been proven time and time again through careful studies that babies exposed to stimulation get an edge when it comes to cognitive development. During this phase of their life, cognitive and physical development are dynamically intertwined, so aiding your newborn through exposure to stimulation can do wonders for them. But where should you begin?
It all begins with a touch
It takes some time before your baby’s eyesight, hearing, taste, and smell develop to the intrinsic senses that they become later on, so this is the time when a touch has the principal developmental role. This tactile stimulation primarily comes from the mother, which is why it is considered to be a normal type of maternal stimulation.
It has been proven time and time again through experimentation and studies that supplemental touch of parents (but especially mothers) is essential for the normal development of countless species – from worms to rats. A lot of touching and kissing goes a long way but, of course, babies need to process all of the information that they accrue through sensory stimulation, and this is where solid sleep comes in.
The physical connection between sensory stimulation and sleep
Once a child reaches the age of 5, their brain will develop to about 90% of the size of an average adult – let’s say, they’ll almost reach the raw neurological complexity of their parents. This means that a period which predates it has to be resplendent with sensory stimulation and quality sleep in order for a child to absorb and learn from experience. The balance between these two factors will produce an emotionally stable individual, and it is all thanks to sensory neurons and synapses.
The brain stem is the most developed part of a newborn’s brain and it holds triggers for functions such as crying, feeding, kicking and, above all else, sleeping. In order to encourage its development – which includes the instant creation of billions upon billions of neuron connections – sensory stimulation is paramount. This is, by far, the most prominent physical, tactile proof of the connection between the necessity for sensory stimulation and sleep.
Sensory stimulation as a tool for better sleep
One should not belittle the role of all senses in sensory stimulation and as a factor to promote better sleep. You will notice that exposure to touch, sound, and visually dynamic environments will tire your child faster, thus prompting them to fall asleep for longer periods. This is due to two factors. One, responding to sensory stimulation – for example, tickling, playing, making faces – requires energy from the baby. Two, the baby needs to sleep in order to properly process and categorize all of the experiences. This is the basis of learning.
Furthermore, you can use sensory stimulation as a tool to tire the baby out and ‘encourage’ them to sleep. You can use the example given above and put it in practice – play around with your baby, make them laugh, tickle them and interact in a dynamic way. It’s an ‘ancient wisdom’ that this contributes to a rock-solid sleep of the baby later on. Do this enough times, and your baby will effectively fall asleep immediately after playing. This is a type of classical conditioning, also known as a Pavlovian reflex.
Audio stimulation is a safe bet even when circumstances are dire
By exposing your baby to the same music before sleep every night, you are essentially embedding this classical conditioning into your baby’s mind, which in turn encourages your baby to fall asleep faster. You’ll need a set of reliable baby sleep music that has been working its charm for decades and, in some cases, even over a century.
If you stay consistent with this habit, you’d be amazed at how wonderfully it works. Even when your baby is severely roused (let’s say the baby protests for this reason or another with loud cries), the right sequence of songs can ‘knock it out’ before you know it. It’s healthy for the baby and a godsend for parents, so it’s a win-win situation altogether.
Remember: routine does wonders
According to all that you have read above, you have probably already concluded that establishing a multi-sensory stimulation before sleep in the form of a bedtime routine does wonders, and you’d be absolutely right. Extensive studies have shown that 20-30% of infants have a tendency for uneven sleep behaviors, so relying on the mixture of tactical, auditory, olfactory and visual (direct eye contact) stimulations will stabilize your child’s sleeping hygiene.
Apart from tickling and playing familiar tunes, you can also rely on a relaxing bath, massages with gently scented baby-oils and simple cuddling. By doing this, you will not only promote better development of your child but improve your own mood as well, thus ensuring that you are a better parent.
Imagine a five-petal flower that blooms rapidly – each flower representing one of the five senses. This is an effective little metaphor for your baby’s early development. These petals may be delicate, but they are also your child’s prominent feature that is ‘soaking up’ the impressions of the world around them, which in turn builds directly into their character. When coupled with solid rest, they are an intrinsic set of learning tools with biological incentives and benefits.
You can always turn to the accepted truism that the lack of touch endangers the very life of small babies as an affirmation of this. In addition, you can use the sensory stimulation to your advantage in order to promote better (and more predictable) sleeping patterns of your baby. By the virtue of conditioning, you can ensure that the baby gets enough rest in order to advance healthy development.
Victoria Lim is a lifestyle writer with expertise in scribbling a lot of unnecessary words, traveling with a big pack of gummy bears (green ones to the victory!), walking a dog for miles and miles, getting bites from pet squirrel and choosing a tea for her next cup. https://twitter.com/VictoriasScrawl