baby reaching

How to encourage very young babies to reach and learn

The day your baby first deliberately reaches for something is an exciting one, because it shows that your tiny tot is gaining control of their body, starting to develop hand-eye coordination, and realising that they can use their fingers and hands in useful ways (e.g. to grab a toy). 

Although your baby is born with a grasp reflex, which allows them to grip your finger when you put it in their palm, this response fades and your bub’s autonomous reaching action emerges around the age of three or four months, when they try to get hold of things they want. 

Now, new research suggests that instead of waiting for your young baby to exhibit a voluntary reaching and grasping behaviour, you should encourage them to handle objects from birth and show them how you use your own hands to do everyday tasks. 

To learn more about this, we got in touch with Priscilla Ferronato, lead author of this research and professor at the Health Sciences Institute of Paulista University in Brazil. 

Priscilla, your research suggests that from birth to three-months-old, parents and educators can support a baby’s motor, cognitive and social development by encouraging them to reach for things and watch our movements. Can you tell us more about this? 

Each baby’s development is a multi-factorial process, which means that as their brain makes neural connections and develops, every single small conquest or change will trigger a cascade of other changes and possibilities. 

Once young infants have the opportunity to at least try to use their body in a functional way (e.g. by using their hands and arms to explore objects), they will have to: 

  • Work out how to stabilise their posture 
  • Deal with gravity, and 
  • Contract and use their muscles, e.g. they have to make new neuronal connections to use the small muscles of their fingers. 

All of these actions increase their motor skill repertoire and action possibilities, which promotes their physical and cognitive development. 

Our research suggests that even a very young baby can learn to use their body functionally, and see the links between their movements and surroundings. Reaching and grasping helps them learn how to act, and what the physical and social consequences of their actions are. 

What are some practical ways that young babies can be incentivised to reach for, and touch, things?

Our research paper outlines many different activities that can be used to encourage little ones to reach and grasp, but overall, we suggest two pathways: 

  • Firstly, infants must have the opportunity to explore different types of objects as much as possible, including things with different textures, like fabric and wood. For this exploration to happen, parents and other care-givers should place the objects into their baby’s hands. 
  • Secondly, infants should be positioned in a comfortable, semi-inclined posture (e.g. in a bouncer), so they can observe their adult manipulating different objects. After they’ve seen this, the object must be placed into the infant’s hands for them to touch and handle. 

Also, parents and care-givers can: 

  • Place their baby’s hands on a smooth surface, first, and then on a rough object to raise their awareness of the difference between grasping and holding. 
  • Offer a finger for their baby to hold and give them a smile to reinforce the association between touch, visual stimulus and a social response. 
  • Shine a soft light (like a phone screen) in a dimly lit room, just above their baby’s chest to encourage them to use their arms to try and catch the beam of light. 

What kinds of parent and care-giver activities can very young babies watch and learn from

Babies benefit from watching housekeeping, nature events and social interaction activities, and they especially love to observe adults: 

  • Throwing dirty clothes into the washing machine 
  • Putting toys away in a basket 
  • Filling the bath with water 
  • Preparing food, e.g. using kitchen utensils, opening and filling pots, and washing things, and 
  • Eating and drinking, e.g. manipulating cutlery and holding a glass or cup. 

When a baby is out and about, they benefit from watching plants and animals moving around (e.g. leaves falling from a tree, birds flying, and dogs running), and can be given different baby-safe things to touch and hold (e.g. a flower). 

During social interactions, infants love to watch and to be part of adults’ conversations, and parents and care-givers are encouraged to look at their baby, and talk to them, as if they’re part of the conversation, too. As well as encouraging language development, this helps to teach babies about social rules, such as intonation, hand gestures, facial expressions, body postures and more. 

Previous research shows that babies can copy facial expressions as soon as they’re born, and your research suggests that young infants can copy manipulative motor actions, too.  What else have researchers learnt about babies’ development from birth to three months of age? 

Some seminal newborn studies (which we cover in our research paper) have found that newborns are able to control the functionally of some of those reflex behaviours that were considered to be involuntary for almost a century. 

We now know, from ours and previous research, that even during a ‘reflex response’ the brain is involved and infants are active beings from the very beginning of life. 

For example, with the sucking reflex, newborns can adjust their sucking frequency to sharpen the image they see of their mothers. 

It’s also been found that they can interfere in the asymmetrical tonic neck reflex (ATNR). 

With the ATNR reflex, a baby’s arms move when their head is tilted gently to one side, so they look like a fencer, with one arm pointing straight out in the same direction as their face, and the other bent towards their ear. 

However, work by my Norwegian research partner, Audrey van der Meer, shows that infants can interfere with this arm movement to keep their hands under their visual control. 

In my PhD, I also found that from one to two months of age, infants can learn to clutch a rubber cylinder in different ways to control the video image of a woman saying, “Hello” to them. 

So, what I can say is that babies are clever little people and there are simple things that adults can do to stimulate their physical, social and cognitive development from birth and beyond. 

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