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Avoid overstimulation by understanding your baby's needs

Mother reading to daughters

Babies receive, tolerate and process sensory input in different ways and to different levels. How babies (and their carers) manage this stimulation drives their learning, emotional development and relationship building. This is arguably the crux of all early learning, yet it’s one of the most often misunderstood tasks of parenting.

Babies communicate their feelings to us via a language of signals; the key is getting to know your baby so you can learn his or her cues.

Our babies are each unique; they have different tastes and preferences, they learn at different rates and in different ways, and react differently to certain interactions. As each child experiences the world in his or her own way, we need to understand their sensory temperament or personality (some can tolerate high levels of stimulation, others are more sensitive) in order to regulate their environment.

Too much or too little stimulation will not allow them to learn optimally, and can lead to boredom on one end or anxiety and distress on the other. Here’s a guide to understanding your baby’s sensory language.

Learning the language

Babies communicate their feelings to us via a language of signals; the key is getting to know your baby so you can learn his or her cues. We need to learn what our children can and cannot tolerate in terms of stimulation in order to create the right environment for fun, learning, and rest.

Much of acting out or tantrum behaviour happens when young children are overstimulated.

Here’s a guide to baby’s readiness to play and learn:

Signs of Enjoyment This is the optimal time to do stimulating activities together. These signs show baby is ready for fun and is inviting you to play.

  • Calm, alert
  • Kicking legs and arms
  • Smiling
  • Cooing
  • Gurgling
  • Making a big “oooo” with his mouth
  • Looking at you

Signs of Disinterest It’s time to end the interaction. These signs show that baby has had enough for now.

  • Looking away from your face
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Moaning
  • Back arching
  • Starting to cry

Signs of Sensory Overload These signs show baby is over-stimulated and needs to be given an opportunity to calm. Rocking him/her in your arms in a quiet room will help, or covering the front of the pram, to cut out noise, sights and light, if you’re out and about.

  • Hiccups
  • Flushing of the cheeks
  • Pallor or loss of colour in the cheeks
  • Arm flailing
  • Pupils dilating
  • Increased breathing rate / heart rate
  • Overly quiet or overly vocal (whichever is out of character for your child)
  • Crying

Developing calming strategies

Spending time with and being in tune with your baby will help you identify his or her sensory language. Avoid overstimulation as far as possible, as this can be stressful and overwhelming for babies. For example, try to plan outings, shopping and visits to friends when baby is in the calm-alert phase, and able to take advantage of learning from and enjoying all the new sights and sounds. Equally, avoid trips to the supermarket or other busy, crowded places when you start to notice signs of disinterest.

Much of acting out or tantrum behaviour happens when young children are overstimulated. As soon as you see signs of disinterest or that he’s had enough, end the activity and do something calming. Developing your own strategies for calming will bring peace, contentment, and greater connection for you both.

Calming techniques to try:

  • Use rhythmical rocking movements to help calm her down.
  • Find a quiet place to feed her and put her to sleep.
  • Give him a reassuring deep cuddle in new or busy situations.
  • Give him something to chew on (e.g. a teething ring or toy) while travelling in the car.
  • Play soft, classical music.
  • Cover car windows with window shades.
  • Shelter his eyes when going into bright sunlight or cover his pram when in a crowded place.      
  • Alter your tone of voice to sooth and calm her.

When it’s time for fun

Providing stimulation to match stage – not age

In the calm-alert phase baby is ready for fun and learning. Rather than choosing ‘age-appropriate’ activities, tune in to the developmental stage and preferences of your baby. Every baby needs a challenge that is ‘just right’ for them. The “Just-Right-Challenge” would be to offer just enough encouragement and support to spark action from your baby without frustration leading to him giving up or losing interest, i.e. let him do as much for himself as he is able to do. Your little treasure needs to experience success to motivate him to try again, says Nubabi occupational therapist, Carly Tzanos.

There are ripe periods of maturation, a window of opportunity if you like, when certain skills are ready to be developed. If we observe a child carefully we may recognise this window of opportunity and then cleverly help our little angel to practice a certain skill, thereby helping to perfect it timeously. How do we recognise this opportunity? Just watch…the nervous system is like a self-service petrol station! It seeks out that which it needs to mature. Whatever your child is doing over and over again, that is the area of development that is in the development spotlight! For example, if your little explorer is often tucking his knees under himself while he is lying on his tummy, you could encourage him to rock on his hands and knees as this will encourage the weight shifting needed for crawling.

Understanding your child’s sensory temperament, as well as identifying which phase she’s in will help you offer stimulating activities or calming, at the time she’s ready to receive them, providing the optimal environment for healthy learning and development.

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