Foundation for Learning Laid in Infancy

Birth to Three article:  Carol E. Marusich, OD, MS, FCOVD

Alex just loves her swing,  she seems so happy just swinging for hours.  Will it hurt her to let her stay there?  Matthew really likes jumping and zooming in his walker.  I know he can not see his legs and his feet, but isn’t this okay for him anyway?  Caitlin cries when she is on her tummy.  She loves watching me and playing with her hands in her baby seat, but how will she ever learn to crawl?

These are all good questions.  We know babies are born with all the basic structures necessary to move, hear, see, taste, talk and smell.  But how will they learn to work them, and to coordinate them to understand the messages of each sense and use them together to participate in their environment?

The first three years of a child’s life are a time full of exploration and active participation.  They must be free to use their total body (touch, feel, look, manipulate, taste, smell, listen, name) in order to learn about themselves and the world around them, in order  to  “learn how to learn”.  This lays the founda­tion from which all other understanding and experience will develop.

Our baby’s first movements  are simple reflexes like turning their head in response to a touch on the cheek, sucking, thrashing movements when startled, changing arm and leg positions as their head is turned from side to side (which actually provides the first opportunity for eye/hand match) and so on.  These early movement reflexes start them on the road to discovering how their body moves, how it feels, exploring movement again and again until the reflex is slowly modified and voluntary  movement control takes its place.  It is a step‑by‑step process where each level of body coordination is based upon what was learned before.

The ability to move freely during this stage provides the opportunity to explore and practice all of these reflexes in many different positions.  It provides the opportunity to develop strength and the knowledge and understanding of how to work the system.  They must learn how to move, what part to move, where to move, why to move, when to move and when not to move. Hands become his to watch and move and grasp.  Legs and feet become hers to watch and feel and kick.  Even when your baby is sleeping in his crib he is practicing movement patterns and building his strength.   Does he ever really wake up exactly where and the same way you left him?

By four months of age, your baby’s  nervous system is already becoming more organized and complete. “Tummy time”  on a clean surface (floor, mat or big bed) is very important to allow your baby to ex­plore movement patterns  which will eventually lead to head control, crawling and creeping across the floor.  First he needs  to develop strength and then to practice these early motor reflex patterns in order to build upon them.  Slowly he will learn to control and coordinate those movements.

At first, a roll over is quite a surprise and quite a thrill.  This needs to repeated many times in order to build the control and balance necessary to pivot on his stomach, to sit up and eventual to move into creeping position and take off.  General movement patterns, such as creeping on hands and knees, provide some the earliest opportunities for development of coordination.  Think of the complex motor control which must take place in order for your infant to successfully move on all fours.  This creeping activity requires the combination  of left and right sides, upper and lower body, and the coordination of arms, legs, and head.  Then think how greatly this expands your infant’s world  and his opportunities for exploration and learning.

The experience he has already gained reaching for rattles, grasping toys, transferring them from hand to hand and bringing them to his mouth has taught him  about objects.  Now he is not only attracted to  them visually, but he can move toward them and grasp them on his own.  What a triumph!  What  motivation to explore this visual world which now can be his thanks to visual motor development.  All motor activity is becoming more visually directed and exciting visual targets (balls, toys, people) encourage even greater motor  exploration.  If I see it, I want to get it.

Babies who are frequently restrained in braces or casts or that favorite swing, baby seat, or walker will be unintentionally limited in their opportunity to explore their body parts (hands, feet, legs), their reflex motor patterns and the general motor movements necessary for good visual motor development.  As parents and childcare providers, it is up to us to be sure that our infants have ample opportunity to develop these basic motor abilities which will provide the foundation for movement and balance and eventually the control necessary for fine eye/hand manipulation.

Recent research indicates that how much and how well a person learns through out his life is determined largely by the variety of beneficial experiences to which he is exposed in the first years of life.  It is up to us to arrange the conditions in which our children can learn.