The first 1000 days PART THREE: babyhood & toddlerdom
This is the third in our series of four articles on the first 1000 days of life. Research has proven this a critical and unparalleled window of time, which has a lifelong influence on an individual’s growth, brain development and relationships. Here we focus on days 500-750 (babyhood and toddlerdom from about eight to sixteen months) and share experts’ advice on how to best nourish hungry minds, bodies and souls.
By eight months old your baby has really woken up to the world (even if you’re still, understandably, half asleep) and is wanting to meaningfully engage. Your home is their playground and science lab as they test their parameters and continue to make sense of all the new sights, sounds, smells, textures and tastes they encounter daily. As you watch this happen, it can serve as a great reminder that, as parents, we need to practise appreciating the simple things in life as well. Slow down when you can and imagine seeing through their eyes. Watch in wonder as their personality unfolds.
One of life’s greatest joys is to watch your baby experience their firsts, many of which happen between eight and sixteen months. Crawling, walking, dancing, riding … not to mention new foods and first words. Through both verbal and non-verbal communication, your baby is carving out their sense of self and learning how to relate to others. Rest in the knowledge that they’re their own little being, with their own unique strengths, and they’ll reach milestones in their own good time. As a parent, your responsibility is to provide a loving environment where they’re safe to explore and discover, and to look past the everyday battles to the healthy long-term habits you’re laying down. Just don’t forget yourself and your own relationships, and to celebrate how far you’ve come. As your little one takes his first steps, it’s a great time to assess your own sense of balance.
Eight to sixteen months is a time of intense curiosity, experimentation and discovery. Dr Melanie Woodfield explores what’s really going on, and shares tips to help our little ones on their journey.
Sensing, relating, connecting – newborn babies are full of wonder, and invite delight in those around them. As the months pass (the days are long, but those months fly by!), babies are developing at a rate of knots in a whole host of areas – physical, cognitive, social, speech … the list goes on. And one of the most wonderful things is that this development usually happens naturally without fancy toys and equipment or perfect parenting practices.
As the months pass, the fog of sleep deprivation usually begins to lift and a new season begins. A season which includes the beginnings of independence. Cue the gasps of parental pride and clicking cameras as rolling and crawling happens. Lay the plastic in anticipation of banging spoons and flying puree. Witness your cherub intensely concentrate on colourful toys, which are flung away, then loudly mourned, then flung away, then loudly mourned once again.
One of the big changes that happens for babies as they develop is the ability to get to places independently. Sitting, rolling, crawling and those early steps all allow access to a whole new world. Babies at this age don’t just sit back and observe, they interact with their surroundings by mouthing and manipulating things, babbling, and watching for patterns in what things – and people – do. It’s so interesting when the dog grunts every time you pull its tail. And when Mum makes that noise after you’ve dumped the spoon on the floor lots of times. The ability to move, coupled with a driving curiosity, leads to lots of discovery and learning during this phase.
Cause and effect
Jean Piaget, who put together an influential theory around children’s development, suggested that very young children acquire knowledge and learn problem solving partly by manipulating objects in their environment, and partly by trial and error. Around this time, they develop the notion of cause and effect. This is essentially the expression on your child’s face when they press a button on their toy and an animal pops up – the realisation that “I pressed that, then that happened”. Many toys designed for young toddlers incorporate some elements of cause and effect to capitalise on this awareness and interest. Press a button and a light or a noise happens or something pops up.
Another achievement in this stage is the development of object permanence. As adults we take this for granted. Think of the classic game of peek-a-boo, where hands cover your face for a moment then they’re removed to baby’s delight. As grown-ups, this game isn’t as much fun – mainly because we know that the person hiding behind their hands is still there. For a young child, the game is surprising and entertaining, partly because until they develop object permanence, they believe that, if they can’t see something, it isn’t there. Object permanence is the understanding that an object still exists, even if we can’t perceive (see, hear, touch) it. This is why when you leave the room it can be profoundly distressing for a young child – they don’t have the awareness that you still exist but you’re just in another room. This is not to say you need to stay within view of your child at all times, it’s simply to help in understanding why they might become distressed at something seemingly so small.
Some babies are mostly calm, rarely cry, and when they do are easy to settle. Other babies are fussy and fractious, demanding and assertive. These features don’t directly translate into the adult that your wee cherub will become. It’s a tad more complicated than that, so fear not; your fussy infant won’t necessarily become an adult diva! Infant ‘personalities’ are a complex mix of their temperament and other things too, such as where adults in their lives are at emotionally, changes around them, rhythms and routines, caregiving habits and behaviours, sensory sensitivities, and feeding and sleep routines. But even as a newborn, you may see glimpses of who your baby will grow up to be. And as the months pass and baby begins to move, it’s interesting to see traits emerge. Is your baby confident to move towards others, or does she tend to hang back? Interested in new toys and foods or prefers old favourites? Sails through teething or grizzles for weeks? Some of these traits will be long-standing characteristics and some are classic signs of stages or seasons that most babies go through.
Several developmental factors collide at around eight months of age. Your baby may enter a season of insisting they are carried all the time and bursting into tears if you leave the room. The child who was previously happy to be cuddled by almost anyone now only wants you. This reflects the healthy development of attachment connections, and when you throw object permanence into the mix, there’s the potential for a baby who doesn’t want you out of their sight.
Around this age, babies also develop the ability to show the facial expression of fear. Previously they could show interest (by holding their attention), disgust (at unpleasant tastes, for example), pleasure (smiling), and sadness or anger (eg when a favourite toy is removed). Knowing that your baby is afraid and distressed can make leaving them – even for short periods – really difficult. Alternatively, it can feel frustrating that your previously placid baby is now crying at the drop of a hat.
There are thousands of books and techniques which promote themselves as being the best way to stop babies crying. And hundreds of friends and relatives with a perspective. My two cents worth is as follows: trust your instincts. It’s that simple. You know your baby. If she has started being unusually clingy, chances are she needs cuddles. You’ll find plenty of Dorothy Waide’s practical tips on settling babies at ohbaby.co.nz.
Separation anxiety in infancy is completely normal, and while it’s demanding for a period of time, it will lessen as baby matures. There may be blips of increased anxiety around big changes in family life, such as moving house, travel or starting daycare. Thankfully, these are also likely to settle with time. It might help to return to familiar routines, people or objects to help little ones feel secure and stable.
Let’s get physical
Lots of communication between babies and the adults in their world can be non-verbal. By this age, adults are usually pretty practised at recognising baby’s signs of tiredness, overload or hunger. It can be tempting, especially if you’re frustrated, to resort to using lots of words to describe to your young toddler what they should be doing or saying. We’ve all been there – “You’re crying again? What’s wrong? I’ve just fed you! Calm down. It’s not that bad, you’ll be okay…” Too many words can be overwhelming and you may find actions to be more effective method of communication, particularly if emotions are running high.
When young children are distressed, there are a few core messages that are useful to communicate. These are nice and simple: “I’m here, I love you, I can help and I understand”. Of course you can say these aloud – that’s wonderful. Even if your child doesn’t yet understand all that you’re saying, they’ll absolutely appreciate your tone of voice. To accompany your words, there are also ways of conveying these messages through actions:
🎕 Long, firm strokes down their back.
🎕 “Mmmmm hmmmm” or other soothing sounds.
🎕 Rhythmic pats on their bottom.
🎕 Opening your arms wide to invite a cuddle.
You may not realise it but by being with your child in the midst of their big feelings, you’re helping them to regulate or modulate their emotions. You’ll notice that this is not about ‘controlling’ or avoiding emotions – our feelings have a purpose and a function and usually make sense. It’s often the behaviour or words associated with the feeling that we’re not so pleased with.
I tend to think of a thermostat on a hot water cylinder. If someone uses lots of hot water, the temperature in the cylinder changes and the thermostat ensures that the water comes back to a suitable resting temperature – not too hot, not too cold. The change in temperature is normal and to be expected. It’s neither good nor bad – it just is.
In parallel, changes in emotions are also normal and neither good nor bad. Small children experience big swings of feelings, often with huge intensity. Their thermostat (their ability to regulate their emotions) is beginning to develop. They have some basic ways to self-soothe, such as sucking a thumb or distracting themselves. But often times they seek help from the people they love for regulatory purposes. For example, young toddlers often have difficulty regulating fear, so they tend to express their fear in ways which attract comfort and attention – often this involves crying. A caregiver joins them and voices or physically shows the kinds of messages the child needs to hear to help regulate the fear. Spoken or unspoken messages like “It’s okay. I know you’re scared but Mummy’s here now. I can help. I’m here”. The adult is acting like an external thermostat and helping provide the regulation that the young toddler isn’t quite able to do independently yet.
Child development is an incredible thing and all the more fascinating when you see it happening in one of the little people you love. Enjoy the puree-smeared gummy smiles and the endless noisy toys, as despite the mess and noise, this is a season of incredible growth in both babies and those caring for them.
Dr Melanie Woodfield is a clinical psychologist in Auckland and mother of two. She works for a child and adolescent mental health service and writes and teaches on the side.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT