Responsive Caregiving and How it Helps Children Learn

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Many parents believe that infants and toddlers learn in a similar way that preschoolers do by adult-directed activities and a rigid schedule of daily events, or a “curriculum”. Infants and toddlers learn in a very different way from preschoolers. It’s not because they have a short attention span (infants can stay engaged in an activity they like for a long period of time). It’s not because they lack of cognitive skills (babies learn cause and effect very quickly, “I cry, help arrives.”). It’s because there’s a lack of the fundamental understanding of how infants and toddlers learn. 

Infants and toddlers learn language through exposure, repetition, and listening to having it spoken, not by formally teaching it. They learn trust by having someone take care of them, treat them kindly, and be in sync with their cues for hunger, sleep, and activity. They learn autonomy by playing alone and by being able to explore their environment based on their own whims and desires, not by an adult directing their activities. While it’s good to interact with your young child during caregiving activities (details in next paragraph) it’s equally important to let your child play by themselves. They can explore as they wish and with what they want, learn to entertain themselves, develop self-help skills, build confidence, learn naturally, become proficient in things they enjoy, have emerging interests and activities enforced by providing more toys like the ones they enjoy, explore objects, learn about cause and effect, and learn about the foods you feed them at mealtimes.

Think of it this way- the activities that may seem “routine” are the ones where the child is easiest to connect with (feeding, diaper changing, putting down to sleep, comforting, reading, etc). For a few minutes or longer you have their undivided attention and can interact with them. During a diaper change, you can respectfully tell them what you’re doing (“this is a bit cold”, “lifting your bottom”, etc) interact, make eye contact, talk, play, and be entirely mentally present and involved with what you’re doing with the child. While breastfeeding or giving a bottle, ask them, “Do you want milk ?” to let them know what’s about to happen versus shoving a bottle or a nipple into their mouth. They will learn what “milk” means and calm down a bit in anticipation of food arriving. During a feeding, look at the child and talk with them. Revel in the fact that this time won’t last long and talk with them about what they’re eating, how much you love them, how _____ they are, etc. Let them hold the bottle if they can and have a hand ready in case they drop it. If it tips to the side as they’re holding it, try to let them resolve the issue versus rescuing them. If they seem in distress about it, gently aid them a little, letting them do most of the work. Help again if needed. This teaches self-help and problem-solving skills. If ever a child is in danger or can get injured, then you need to step in and take action.

Babies learn about the vast world around them through experience, exposure, play, relationships with caregivers, trust, availability of motor activities, coordination, experimentation, and organized planned behavior. These are all based on the child leading the activities, not an adult directing the activities. For babies to be in an environment conducive to learning, they must interact with people and the environment. The growth of children is gradual and continuous and there is a connection between successive periods of development. Intentionally (ability to construct a plan) comes about as a child selects objects, plays with them, repeats actions on them, and creates a plan.

Cognition and language develop separately but they begin to merge within a social communication context. Some people force children to learn things inappropriate for their age (math flash cards at 3 years old!). We need to resist the pressure to apply inappropriate school-like academic experiences to the education of infants and toddlers. Play is extremely important to the child’s learning and that pushing a child does not foster real understanding of the world. The prerequisite for promoting cognitive development is security and attachment. Resist pressure to teach or to introduce academic kinds of experiences. Children will learn the names of colors and shapes in the course of normal conversations of you use them naturally. “Please bring me a blue pillow” or “Do you want a round cracker or a square one?” It’s best to teach wholesome experiences to children (like growing a bean in a cup) versus just telling them what a bean is. The more involved they can get in their sensory learning and hands-on activities, the more likely they are to truly understand its meaning and what it is.

Having an environment set up with the child’s age in mind, toys easily accessible, books spread out on the floor for babies, age-appropriate toys and some that are a bit challenging, a loving and affectionate caregiver, the knowledge of how infants and toddlers learn, and implementing real-life scenarios into the child’s daily routine will help develop the “whole child” (babies learn everything all at once, no learning is just cognitive or just sensory). The best learning occurs when the child decides the activities (safety is always a priority, though !) and the caregiver engages with the child. A caregiver shouldn’t entertain the child all day because this forms bad habits and a child that is too needy. At the same time, a child should be tended to as needed. Natural conversation about activities, food, things going on or things in the environment helps a child learn about their world and about language. With these skills in place, an infant or toddler is set to learn in a way that is geared toward how they learn and not how older kids learn.

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