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The Competent Parent: Avoiding Infant Overload

Welcome to our online series on parenting advice with our expert Dr. Deborah Wood.


Dear Dr. Debbie

I’m about to become a mother for the first time.  My husband and I are very excited, of course.  I’m wondering, with all I’ve heard about the importance of early brain development, how much is too much?  We already include the baby in our conversations, knowing our voices will be recognized in the delivery room.  When baby is active, we use touch to let him or her know we are noticing the movements. We plan to read books to the baby, fill our home with music, go to Mommy and Me exercise class, and make “play dates” with classmates from our childbirth class.  But with all the sound-making toys, texture toys, videos for babies, etc., etc., etc., we’ve gotten as gifts before the baby even arrives, is there a danger of overload?



Dear Expecting,

First of all, congratulations!  You are preparing for this very important role with as much good information, tools, and resources as you can.

While it’s true that early brain development depends on stimulation from the outside world, there is a limit to how much a little one can absorb.  Also, as you come to know your very unique baby, you will learn to read signals that say, “Thank you, I’ve had enough fun and need to shut down for a while.”  In fact, since you are already playing with your unborn child, you might notice that hiccups can occur with overstimulation, just as they will in infancy.

Other expressions of “Leave me in peace for bit,” can be: closing the eyes, turning the head, arching the back, batting objects (or faces) away with the hands, and fussing.

In contrast, an active and alert baby, eyes bright and focused, is ready to play and learn, building connections among 100 billion brain cells. When my first child was just half a day old, after the family left, and he’d been fed and diapered, he gave me a look to say, “What else have you got?”  So I told him the story of the Three Bears, complete with voices for Papa Bear, Mama Bear, Baby Bear and Goldilocks.  He loved the part about Baby Bear’s porridge, chair, and bed being “Ju-u-st right.”

If you follow your baby’s cues, you may find you can provide stimulation for about a half an hour – singing Mother Goose Rhymes such as Pat-a-Cake, turning the pages of a board book while talking about the pictures, playing Peek-a-Boo with a towel, or walking in the fresh air together – before a new activity or a rest is needed.

An interesting project was designed by the manager for Child and Young Culture at Kulturhuset (House of Culture), in Stockholm.  Katti Hoflin was challenged to create a space in the busy downtown area just for infants up to 12 months and their parents.  She had a vision of slowing down the fast pace parents often find themselves in, to one more suitable to tiny babies who are so new at everything.  The project, known as Zero to One, was so enthusiastically received (or shall we say – appropriately stimulating), that lines formed as parents awaited their one-hour sessions in the room.

The space has been replicated, though on a smaller scale, at the Swedish Embassy for the American public to enjoy.  Families can visit through April 24th, 2011, on Saturdays, 11 am to 4 pm or Sundays, 12 noon to 5 pm at the House of Sweden, 2900 K Street NW, Washington, DC.  Slowly changing lighting effects and calm music provide visual and auditory background to the white pillows and floor mirrors for subtle but “interesting enough” stimulation.

Ms. Hoflin was on a panel recently discussing “Family Life in a Fast Paced World” and talked about the purpose of the space.  The main intent, she said, is for parent and child to connect with each other.  In fact, at the installation in Sweden, there was a strictly enforced rule that only one parent was allowed in at a time.  This was to prevent, she explained, the two parents from interacting with each other and speaking ABOUT the baby, rather than WITH the baby.  Hoflin’s hope was to create the opportunity “for the parent to be reminded of the glory and the greatness of the meeting between them.”  She remarked, “Nothing else needs to happen.”  Upon exiting the space, parents are encouraged to write a note to the baby, to be read in ten years’ time, about what a special time their early parenthood has been.  Not too boring, not too over-stimulating, but as Goldilocks said, just right.

Dr. Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis.  She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum.  Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at www.drdebbiewood.com

Do you have a parenting question for Dr. Debbie? Email us! editor@chesapeakefamily.com


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