5 Keys to Unlocking the Magic of Early ChildhoodJan 26, 2023 05:00AM ● By Emily Freehling
Provided by Parent Education-Infant Development, a program of the Rappahannock Area Community Services Board
During the first three years of a child’s life, the brain grows to 80% of its adult size, making more than a million neural connections every second. It’s hard to overstate how important this period is for laying a foundation for future growth. For children who experience developmental delays, this is a time when interventions can yield results that help children gain the skills that will help them as they get older.
The Parent Education – Infant Development program (PEID) is an early intervention program for children from birth to 36 months. The program, run through the Rappahannock Area Community Services Board, serves families in Stafford, Spotsylvania, Caroline and King George counties, and the city of Fredericksburg.
PEID’s team of speech language pathologists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, early childhood education specialists, and service coordinators want to see Fredericksburg’s children thrive. Based on years of experience working one-on-one with parents and young children, the PEID team offers these tips for new parents to ensure that the first three years lay a foundation for a lifetime of healthy growth.
1. Routine Benefits Everybody in the HouseThe COVID-19 pandemic turned household routines upside-down. Remote work and schooling bled into hours normally reserved for family connection and sleep. Reclaiming a regular structure in the home is especially important for families with infants and young children. Infants need deep sleep to form neural connections and encode sensory memories that foster early brain development. Irregular routines can be an obstacle to deep sleep. There is no need to plan days to the minute, but having a basic structure, with regular times when your family eats meals, goes to bed and settles down for nap times, will promote healthy brain development in your child, while also making your life easier.
2. Take Your Baby PlacesGrocery delivery and pickup have made parents’ lives easier, but tagging along on everyday errands is developmentally important to even the youngest children. “When children are not exposed to these kinds of experiences from a very young age, it can cause sensory integration issues when all of a sudden at age 2 they visit a big store for the first time,” said PEID Program Coordinator Suzanne Haskell. Regularly bringing your infant or toddler along on simple in-person errands will help them build the skills to successfully interact with the world later on. You can still enjoy the convenience of delivery or pickup, but pick a day when you don’t have a long list of groceries to lug, or a weekday when the stores aren’t as crowded. Narrate what you see. Say the names of items as you put them in your cart. Talk about everything you are doing. Your child will have an enriching experience while you are stocking your pantry.
3. Provide True InteractionTablets and screens are a bigger presence in young children’s lives than they were several years ago. Increased screen time risks crowding out important interaction and hands-on play. Even the most engaging YouTube video cannot replicate “serve and return” interactions between a child and caregiver. Children build neural connections and important social skills when a caregiver responds to their sounds, gestures or cries. “It’s a good social-emotional foundation for infants and toddlers, knowing who is going to respond to them. Learning early on that there are people they can rely on to respond to things helps them later in life, as well,” said Alison Standring, Part C Coordinator for the Infant & Toddler Connection of the Rappahannock Area. It doesn’t matter what activity you choose—read a book, knead play dough or stack some blocks—just make sure you are looking into your child’s eyes, responding to them and limiting distractions from phones and devices.
4. When It Comes to Toys, Embrace AnalogYou don’t need expensive gadgets to entertain your child. Play is the most important work of infants and young children, and the best “toys” for this work are simple items such as blocks and dolls, or even household items like spoons and bowls. Haskell said she’s seen an increasing number of children using electronic apps to color a picture with the touch of a finger. She said there’s so much that a child learns from crayon-and-paper coloring that can’t be replicated in an app. “They miss out on using their fingers, using a grasp, learning how to put enough pressure on a piece of paper,” she said. “All of that is done through actually holding a pencil or crayon.”
5. It Really Does Take a VillageIt’s hard to overstate the value of having a strong support network as a parent. Having a baby changes your life in many ways. Meeting other parents with children of similar ages can help you learn about community resources and fun family events, while giving your child a chance to interact with other children and build social skills. These are just a few of the experiences the Fredericksburg community offers for parents and young children to socialize and meet others.
- Mary Washington Healthcare offers free Moms and Babies Groups on Wednesdays at 10 a.m. at the John F. Fick III Conference Center in Fredericksburg. Moms come with their infants, and a lactation consultant is available to answer questions. A baby scale is also available at the meetings.
- The Central Rappahannock Regional Library offers weekly Mother Goose story times for children ages 0 to 2 and Toddler Time programs for ages 2-3 at its branches. Grow a Reader rooms in the branches are wonderful places to take your child, engage in literacy activities and meet other families. Visit librarypoint.org to learn about all of the free programming the library offers this age group.
- MOPS International is a support group for mothers of preschoolers with local clubs meeting at several area churches. MOPS meetings offer childcare and are a great place to meet other parents. Many area churches also have programs to support parents of young children. Visit mops.org to find a MOPS group near you, or ask what may be available at your church.
- Parks and recreation departments in Fredericksburg, Stafford and Spotsylvania have ongoing classes for children of all ages—and the parks themselves are a wonderful place to meet other families with children. Build a regular park visit into your weekly routine, and you’re sure to make a connection or two.
- The Rappahannock Area YMCA provides childcare for young children to member parents while they exercise on-site. The Y also offers preschool and swimming lessons for children as young as 6 months.