By Alex Gazzola
Your baby learns about herself and the world she’s born into by her five senses – taste, touch, sight, smell and hearing. Her sensory stimulations are constant and often overlap when she’s breastfeeding, for instance, most or all of her senses are used at once, adding up to a magical experience for her.
Research shows that a varied pattern of sensory stimulation is important for your baby’s intellectual, physical and personal development. You’ve only got to look a her enchanted by your singing voice, fixated by a brightly coloured mobile or concentrated on her grip around a tactile, noisy rattle to see how valuable theses kind of experiences are.
Your baby’s taste buds begin to develop before she’s born and some research indicates that flavours that appeal to you will later appeal to your child.
Yet even if you prefer savoury foods to sweet, your baby is nevertheless born with a sweet tooth, and so when you begin to wean her she will probably lean towards fruit flavoured purees over vegetable based ones.
Between 4 and 6 months, you’ll probably find she enjoys purees of banana, apple, pear and mild vegetables such as sweet potato and carrot, mixed with milk, mild yoghurt or pureed rice. Don’t be tempted to add salt, sugar or spices to these early meals as they’ll confuse the developing taste buds, smothering the natural flavour of the foods.
From around six months or later – whenever you baby has got used to simple purees – you can begin to slowly introduce other tastes into her diet, including meats, dairy and fish, to help further develop her tastes. Do this with one food at a time, until about one year of age, when her diet may be almost as varied as yours.
The power of touch is hugely underestimated in the West: it can communicate love to your child, soothe her and boost her immunity. Research suggests that babies who are gently massaged develop and grow faster than those that aren’t.
Babies prefer soft, tactile fabrics, such as wools, cottons and the smooth texture of your skin and hair, and they will benefit from being exposed to different sensations. When she’s old enough and under your close supervision, let her roll about naked on safe and clean textured rugs, carpets, blankets and – dressed – even on a patch of grass.
Expose her to rougher textures too, for instance by letter her feel Daddy’s stubble with her fingertips! Let her play with toys that can be squeezed, moulded and caressed. Encourage her to feel using not only her hands and fingers, but with her toes and feet too – a feather tickle on the sole of her foot may well delight her!
In the early days of her life, your baby has double vision, practically sees in black and white, and the world at large may appear blurred. In these first few months, she is automatically attracted to your face and to objects with light./dark contrasts. Mobiles stimulate her, but try to grab her attention with toys with checked patterns or with strong contrast as well.
By four months she will be able to focus on objects within a few feet, and she’ll be using her eyes to co-ordinate manual movements. In the subsequent months a noticeable increase in her visual awareness should become apparent; she might study reflections or moving objects intently.
Encourage this by letting her see herself in mirrors, and point out pets and kinetic objects such as swinging pendula or washing machine drums in action. Babies of about six months can distinguish colours, so reading books to her whilst you let her observe the brightly coloured pictures will be an endless source of fascination to her.
Your baby is born with an affinity for natural, pleasant smells. She will be familiar with your own unique scent and will show a preference for sweet smells. It is important to have clean air in your house ad to keep artificial odours to a minimum so that her olfactory sense isn’t overwhelmed and polluted unnaturally.
Avoid the use of detergents, cleaners, bleaches, synthetic air fresheners, perfumes and eau de toilettes when possible because these can be terribly unpleasant and irritating to a young baby. Food aromas help stimulate her tastebuds, but don’t expose her to the smell of greasy or unhealthy meals; the aroma of fresh fruit and wholesome foods can help her develop an appetite for good foods.
Through hearing, your baby experiences language and music, both key in stimulating her intellectual and emotional development, as well as her speech. Music helps cognitive development in many ways, helping her to concentrate, understand, remember and learn. Even unborn babies respond to music, and just-born baby will often show a preference towards music she heard in the womb.
After birth, she will prefer high-pitched voices (which is why talking to babies in a ‘baby voice’ is advisable). Reading to your child is invaluable.
Avoid the temptation to make too much use of television for sound stimulation, because the noise can be too cluttered. Instead use special story tapes or simple music. ‘Music helps develop listening skills, teaches toddles rhythm and encourages language and speech,’ says Karen Sherr, founder of children’s music group Musical Minis (www.musicalminis.co.uk). ‘It can also help with their social skills, coordination and concentration too.’