Ayesha, a first-time mum, usually has a few different activities planned for eight-month-old Hamza each day. After breakfast, they sit with either wooden blocks or plastic shapes, and then she reads to him baby books. After his nap, Ayesha takes out more toys for him while an educational DVD is playing in the background. “Initially, I didn’t want my son to miss out on every opportunity to learn new things. I know how babies can absorb information so I thought while I am at home with him, I will teach him as much as I can. Hamza loves the attention that I give him but I’ve learnt that sometimes he just doesn’t want me to read or play with him,” says Ayesha. “He doesn’t focus on what I’m doing and begins to get agitated and even starts to cry. This is when I know it’s time to stop and let him be.”
Like Ayesha, many mothers know the feeling of guilt for not engaging in exciting activities with their babies all the time. After all, how are they going to develop properly if they are not stimulated? Alison Gopnick, author of The Scientist in the Crib: Minds, Brains and How Children Learn, says, “Baby brains are more flexible than adult brains. They have far more connections between neurons, none of them particularly efficient, but over time they prune out unused connections and strengthen useful ones. The lack of prefrontal control in young children naturally seems like a huge handicap but it may actually be tremendously helpful for learning. The prefrontal area inhibits irrelevant thoughts or actions. But being uninhibited may help babies and young children to explore freely. Babies get a protected time to learn about their environment, without having to actually do anything.” So scientific research shows that babies actually benefit even when they are not engaged in any activity.
Infants are born with an immature nervous system, which can take months to normalise. Until this happens, babies cannot control the amount of stimulation that saturates their nervous system, thus overstimulation can occur. Sister Lilian, South Africa’s trusted pregnancy advisor, says, “Be cautious not to over stimulate your baby. Quiet, even pensive times are everyone’s prerogative, including your baby’s. You might well find your baby becoming fractious if you think that the surest route to happiness is to always be actively entertaining, jigging or playing with your baby. Soothing activities and ones that rely on routine and familiar rituals are also important for a balanced, and consequently contented, frame of mind.”
Signs of overstimulation include:
- Not making eye contact
- Squirming, arching back or pushing away
- Yawning or grimacing
- Clenching fists
- Whining, fussing or crying
Babies Need Quiet Time
Katherine Lee, a New York-based parenting expert says, “Allowing babies the time and space to do nothing – or a quiet, relaxing activity of their choosing – is quite crucial to their development.” So how can you give your baby quiet time?
When your little one shows signs of having a sensory overload, try one of the following:
- Allow him to relax on a play mat, watching his surroundings, while you get on with your cooking or other chores
- Sit him on his feeding chair near the window, preferably one that faces the garden, where he will be able to watch the rustle of the leaves
- Take a leisurely walk with him in his pram
- Give him a baby book and let him handle it on his own
- Let him relax in his cot in his room (under your supervision)
Mum of two, Leanne, says that with both of her children (who are now 4 and 5), she made quiet time a priority. “When Kayla and Brandon were babies, I would leave them in their rooms when they appeared overtired. I could sense when they were getting irritable, especially if they didn’t have a nap, and then I would leave them alone for a bit to play with the mobile in their cot. I would move the monitor to whichever room I was in so I could check if everything was fine. Kayla usually fell off to sleep if she was too tired and Brandon just talked to himself as he played with his toys,” says Leanne. Now that they are older, Kayla and Brandon are still required to have some quiet time each day, where no toys or TV are allowed. “I think it’s important that they learn how to think and reflect and just to be comfortable with themselves.”
Avoiding Sensory Overload
Every mother knows her child best. When your little one gives you hints that he has had enough and needs a break, then anticipate it and give him that reprieve before it is too late. A good idea to avoid dealing with an overstimulated baby is to minimise the amount of stimulants that your child is exposed to. Choose either one educational toy or a DVD for him to watch instead of allowing him to use both. Don’t keep too many toys out for him to choose from as he will have trouble focusing on all at once, making it difficult for him to choose one.
Providing adequate quiet time for your baby has its advantages. Your baby will learn independence and realise that he is not attached to you. By responding to his cues that he needs a break, your baby will realise that his needs are being met and this is a positive contribution towards his development. Quiet time also gives him a chance to explore and get creative – just by watching you doing something or by watching an inanimate object. “Far from being mere unfinished adults, babies and young children are exquisitely designed to change and create, to learn and explore. Those capacities, so intrinsic to what it means to be human, appear in their purest forms in the earliest years of our lives. Our most valuable human accomplishments are possible because we were once helpless dependent children and not in spite of it,” says Gopnick.