Babies and Toddlers and Attention Skills
Starting at the beginning….how can we start our kids out from birth on the road to good attention? How can we help our little ones be focused big ones? Taking stock of our own attentional habits is a good place to start. Creating environments where our babies can thrive comes in a close second to making a difference in our kids’ attentional development.
As a developmental therapist, this is one of my most favorite topics to explore and learn about, especially for my family. I am always reading books and articles on attention, going to trainings to better my understanding and figuring strategies to assist kids in this area. So let’s get started…
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. WHAT IS A 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. The TV as baby sitter reigns no more! Tot-School parents rule!
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, pom-poms, 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 uber 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 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 you inner ear knows this, and it’s important to develop brain neurology in this position.