Let’s Start with the Basics: Attention Skills
Starting at the beginning…how can we start our kids out from birth on the road to happy kidss? How can we help our little ones be happy big ones?
Taking stock of our own attentional habits is a good place to start. Creating environments where our babies can thrive make a difference in our kids’ attentional development. If we can’t attend long enough to know what our babies need, then we better slow down and focus. We are the only ones who can help our babies, and they are DEPENDING on you to do it!
Below area the basics to watch for in caring for your baby. They will help them grow up happy and loved. One day, all the love and care will come back to you ten fold.
Babies can benefit from many things we as parents do. From birth, we know that supporting brain health is often most simply done by providing good nutrition. It is very important to understand that the stomach links directly to the brain. The stomach makes up the enteric nervous system, and it is crucial in making neurotransmitters that are important for attention and mood, much like the brain. Additionally, the gut is the first place where a child’s immune system is turned on. Traveling through the birthing canal helps the baby ingest beneficial bacteria from the mother to turn on immunity. Immunity secures the future gut health over the long term, and overall health as well.
A balance is also necessary. In talking about children, sugar is one of the main culprits that rocks the once-nutritious apple cart. Years ago, sugar was a special treat, a few times a week if a kid was lucky. In the 70’s and 80’s, when the US government allowed food manufactures to legally market directly to kids, we saw a tremendous increase in food placement ads directed at kids. Most of the foods were sugar-rich and nutrient-low. Now sugar and processed food are staples for most daily meals for kids. As parents, we have two challenges; first to locate both healthy and convenient options in grocery stores, and then to communicate to our kids that just because a superhero is on the bag, the food is not necessarily filled with good things.
At the baby age, we can attend to our babies needs, without the burden of explaining superhero food labeling; however, we also have the breast food/best food dilemma. Breastfeeding is great in that it helps the gut turn on the immune system by providing antibodies from the mother directly into the babies’ digestive systems. GREAT! But moms often work outside the home, and in the USA, women have very little maternity leave. If a employer doesn’t allow for pumping breaks, or a mom can’t afford to buy a $200 breast pump (really?) what is a mom to do? Some moms are able to figure out a way to breastfeed, but others move on to formula. Formula is great for nutrients…AND refined sugar. Lots of it. Refined sugar is banned in all formula in some countries in Europe…but it is in almost all formula in the US. Makes me wonder what is the most nutritious formula. I was lucky to find a formula with an alternate sugar source when we needed to supplement with formula, but we paid several dollars more per container.
Sensory soothing also assists babies and toddlers in self-regulation, an important component to attention. They have a better chance to self-calm and soothe themselves when their general environment is characterized by safety and support. This basic idea, of trusting their environment, helps them to lay down brain architecture that supports development. Chronic stress, on the other hand, does the opposite, with milestones not being met as a result. Research presented by The Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University supports the correlation between toxic stress and developmental delay. So creating homes with positive family relationships that are supportive for the baby are the first steps in laying down brain connections that support attention. Simply put, the less stress in a home, the more attention skills develop.
As kids get a little older, we have more time to observe our own habits related to attention. Although seemingly still very young, our toddlers will begin to observe and copy our habits. It’s a critical time to make sure their environment is set up to facilitate attention. So let’s ask ourselves; how much time are we distracted from our kids? Do we look them in the eye, or sideways as we check our messages on our phone? Also, what media is distracting our kids? Auditory and visual media affect attentional skill development significantly, so it’s time to think about how much media time your kids are getting on a daily basis. This total includes music, T.V., video games, computers and mobile devices. What is the total for each toddler? What is the total for the family as a whole? The higher the total media time, the lower the total sensory and motor and social developmental time. So the lower the total media time, the better.
If you think your child might be behind in technology as a result, I can assure you that the technology is only going to get easier to use, and what we are using now will be outdated. By the time you child has good attention skills, they will be even more prepared to jump on the trend of media, whatever that shall be in the future.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with a computer game developer while sitting at the same table at a recent wedding. He graduated from a highly ranked University and worked for a prominent gaming company. I asked him if he was seeing kids’ video games being made that were interested in teaching developmental skills. He reported that the main industry goal is to make a profit, and that educational games didn’t bring in big returns. Consideration for kids’ developmental futures is actually not a priority. He said the industry was more about getting the kids hooked and wanting more video games.
Working with attentional skills and brain development for over 15 years, I understand that the format for media is often designed to influence addiction as well. The constant frame changes present in our current video formats trains the brain to change focus every 1-2 seconds. This is detrimental for developing brains. It lays down architecture that decreases long term attentional skills. Additionally, the executive function centers of the brain are off, and these are the ones that allow for sustained attention, task completion, and problem solving. Video games are similar. In France, for example, no children under the
age of 3 are to watch TV. Why? Research study after research study has found that media use at early ages has a significant negative effect on speech skill development and motor learning. In the US, the American Medical Association recommends no TV viewing for kids under the age of two, but profit-driven media companies market their wares to parents who actually are told it will enhance their toddlers’ development. Again, profits take precedence over the betterment of our children. So limiting family media time, and actually not introducing media to children until they are already exhibiting strong attentional skills is recommended. So What is the Toddler Parent to do in the meantime?
Try following these simple ideas to create an environment that your toddlers will love, and will hopefully provide parents with time to make dinner or take a break when necessary.
Top 10 List for Parenting an Attentional Toddler/Child:
1. Un-plug media for toddlers and young children, and create a time and space for adults to check media when children are not around. Use tools such as a smartphone to connect with other, as a way to model connection, not addiction.
2. Create a child-safe play space that is neat and more “low” stimulation than “high” stimulation. Visually busy walls in classrooms decrease attention in students. Make your home well organized with bins, and shelves where clutter and toys can be put away.
3. Set up toys and activities that are easily accessible so
kids can get them on their own. Gross motor activities like
indoor bowling, sit-and-spins, and other indoor-outdoor safe games are idea for this age.
4. Select and provide toys that encourage creativity such as building and problem solving construction games. The younger the child, the bigger the blocks.
5. Rotate toys every 2 months or so to keep the toys interesting. Use big bins to keep them orderly and easily stash-able each month. Kids will love to pick their own games and toys, as choice and curiosity rule!
6. Sensory games, toys and activities that focus on physical touch. Soft toys, pompoms, goo, building pillow forts, getting covered in pillows (safely) and playing games of tickle, tag and HUG! The touch sense is what needs stimulation at this stage of development the most.
7. Happy and joyful play with positive words and encouragement. Laying down basic neurons for successful feelings and fun play will come in handy when they get older and bigger challenges arise. When a child likes to work thought new experiences with their parent, they have a life-long support right from the start. They will be braver and more willing to try things given a strongly connected parental relationship.
8. Kids crave limits. Working with kids showed me that firm and gentle limits win the kids over every time. Following firm limits with positive and specific
praise makes kids feel proud and able to self-regulate. They know that, given certain limits, they can control themselves. As long as the parent is safe, meaning that they (the parents) are not hitting or yelling in the home, and are providing food, clothing and safety, kids trust the parents’ rules are in their best interest. If the kids can follow these limits, they feel über safe.
9. Use puppets! It sounds strange, but emotional regulation helps attentional skills. I have had kids tell my puppets things
they would never have told me otherwise. Hard emotions are easier felt and processed when aided by a fluffy puppet. I have had kids tell my puppets they didn’t want to be on their ADD medicine, just because the puppet was “acting” hyperactive and that maybe “the puppet needed some medicine”. Your kids will totally dig puppets, and even more so the sillier you get!
10. Sit and read books, for at least 20 minutes every day. Make sure the pictures are of good artistic quality if you are doing picture books. The more realistic the pictures, the better. As your toddler grows they will notice more and more details in the pictures. As you begin reading more and more words, your child will begin following the basic words and develop eye-motor skills. Finally, the attentional head/neck position they will use for the rest of their life is the exact position for reading a book. The position of head tilted forward and down is the position that facilitates attention for learning. The positional system in your inner ear knows this, and it’s important to develop brain neurology in this position.
Stop Feeling Bad About You Parenting Habits!
Baby Milestones Guide
So you come home with your new beautiful baby with no instruction manual. You have to be kidding right? It seems there is a new challenge everyday, and you just don’t have any idea how you are doing as a new parent, or seasoned parent for that matter. Doesn’t seem fair does it?
But there is hope? The closest thing we have to seeing how well we are fairing, from a developmental perspective, are baby developmental milestones. A sort of “Developmental Report Card” for the parents. The reason I say “for the parents”, is because if parents make good choices for their babies, then babies flourish. If they don’t make good choices for their babies, then there are what we as therapists call “developmental gaps”.
By checking in with developmental milestones from the beginning of your child’s life, you can see if your baby how well your baby is progressing . Milestones are not an exact science and every child is different, but you will start to see patterns in your child’s development, and if you pay attention and have genuine concern for you child’s development, you will find ways to adjust or support you babies environment so they flourish.
Working in developmental for 17 years, I have seen more than my share of parents who have differing levels of concern for their child’s development, with some too busy, too inattentive, or to self absorbed to check in on their own parenting skills. But by an large, most parents do care, but can’t see their own maladaptive patterns and how they are affecting their babies. To be blunt, they are clueless. And just to be fair, I was one of them.
Even as a developmental therapist, somehow I had inherited “Parental Cluelessness”. Almost all parents have this, as we can’t see our own behavior. To add to this symtomatology, our brain has coping strategies to assure us that we are “awesome” just so we can make it through each day without breaking down. Interestingly cognitive science has the research to support that the parents that have the best “self” judgement, actually end up more successful in execution tasks. All this results in the very annoying symptom of “I’m raising my kid better than that other parent over there.” Oh…the not so pretty side of parenting!
So what’s the cure? Well…the science isn’t all in yet, and it probably won’t ever be. But we have some data that suggest there are a few promising leads. The first promising lead is Mindfulness; being attentive to the present moment. A close second is Non-Judgement; looking at things in a neutral manner. And third of course is Developmental Milestones; the skills growing babies have at certain times of development. I say all of this of course with a chuckle, but honestly, it worked for me.
Mindfulness is of course important because it allows you to focus and be the observer of your world. Since you baby is in it, you are in luck. You stop being distracted and actually attend to what is happening around you. You see and hear and smell and breathe. I add “breathe” because you may be a little shocked at what you see. Dirty diaper, diaper rash, crying baby who needs a nap, and on and on and on. It is sometimes easier to stay distracted quite honestly. But, I promise, staying clueless is never the best in the long run.
Every time I check Pinterest for a new recipe, or check my e-mail to get a time for an event we need to get to that day, there is undoubtedly, a long list of immediate needs to meet upon re-entry into the real world. However, with a little practice I come to expect it! And I am prepared…at least mentally. And always, as a family we get back in the flow of life with at least our heads above water.
The second ointment for a case of Parental Cluelessness, is Non-Judgement. This is simple once you get the hang of it. It is the same as being the objective observer in a science experiment. You look, watch, take data, and report. No judgement, no “I am so wrong”, or “I totally messed this one up”. You look, see, and take data.
Finally, by comparing your data to Developmental Milestones, you get a score. Did your data match the developmental milestones? Is your baby meeting the benchmarks, to a greater or lesser degree? OR are they not even near the developmental milestone benchmarks. Developmental milestones are taken from objective observation of literally 100’s to 1000 of babies, so in general they are an “average” guide to developmental skills. It is very possible that your baby may be ahead of average in some areas, right at about average for others, and a bit behind in a few as well. It’s when you start to see a pattern not related to your kids individuality that change needs to happen.
And yes, I have used this approach with success. For example, I noticed that my own children were both on the lower end of size developmental milestones, being little “peanuts” as I so lovingly call them. We didn’t worry because growth was consistent and within norms per our physician. But when I noticed that my baby was not sleeping through the night when the average baby would have been for several months already, we changed what we were doing. We set more structure, kept her up a bit more during the day, building in more social time, and got a noise machine for her to sleep with. With those changes, our little baby became a serious snoozer!
So, let’s all stop using developmental milestones to judge our babies. Let’s start using developmental milestones to check in on our own parenting. If we do this from the start, there will be little chance our end up in a doctor’s office or therapy center because there is “a developmental problem with the baby!” Instead, we will help our little kiddos along the wild road, allowing them to flourish and grow quite beautifully!
Basic Developmental Milestone Categories Include:
Fine Motor Development
Gross Motor Development
Emotion Development/ Emotional Regulation
note ** I should note that some children do have specific conditions that warrant therapy, and it is always good to check with a therapist if you feel as a parent your child may have a specific problem. However, this article is targeted at developing kids without congenital difficulties or a developmental diagnosis.