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Thu, Oct 25, 2012
The Straits Times
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Yes, baby, I hear you
by Radha Basu

Watch out, parents. Tough love does not always work, especially with infants under the age of 18 months, says early childhood educator Peter L. Mangione.

And babies are smarter than most people would believe. They can comprehend emotions as early as 15 months and pick up the basics of language even before they learn to crawl.

Studies have shown that babies need to form a strong emotional attachment with at least one adult early in life to increase their chances of developing into confident, competent human beings.

Leaving an infant to cry himself to sleep in another room in order to foster "independence", for instance, is not ideal, said Dr Mangione, an American infant-care expert who was in Singapore recently to train teachers, trainers and carers from the childcare industry.

He also delivered the keynote address at a childcare seminar organised by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports.

The California resident is co-director of the Center for Child and Family Studies at WestEd, a non-profit group which specialises in incorporating the latest in scientific research on infants and toddlers into training and development programmes for childcare staff.

He has helped devise a programme for infant and toddler care for childcare staff which has been rolled out in more than 20 states in the United States.

So how can infants be made to feel emotionally secure?

Those who are nurtured in a gentle, responsive manner, held when they need soothing and spoken to in a calm voice in the first 12 months tend to be less demanding as toddlers than those who are not, said the expert, who has been in the childcare field for 25 years.

"It's important to build a relationship with the baby and follow his cues. I would not lift him up only when I feel like playing with him but also when he needs me to."

The adult in question need not be a parent. A caregiver such as a childcare centre worker, a nanny or a grandparent can also do the job, as long as he has proper training.

The key to building a relationship is not just physical contact. Communication matters too.

One mistake many parents and carers make is to believe that infants are no better than objects. So they tend to rush through the "custodial aspects of care", such as changing diapers or feeding the baby.

Instead, speaking to the baby during such activities - and explaining the sequence of the actions, for instance - could help the child learn to speak and understand.

When his own eldest daughter, Julia, was an infant, Dr Mangione said he would do exactly this.

"I am changing your diaper, Julia," he would begin, following it up with a step-by-step description of what he was doing. Well before her first birthday, whenever Dr Mangione began the diaper-changing ritual, Julia would be muttering to herself, "die, die, die".

"An untrained carer or parent might think that was baby babble. But it wasn't," reminisced the father of three girls aged between 17 and 21. "It was baby talk for the word diaper."

By 15 or 16 months, babies can also show cognition, by lifting their buttocks in anticipation of a diaper change, for instance, he added.

This is not parental pride.

Indeed, in the mid-1990s, researchers from the University of Kansas published results from a decade-long longitudinal study that showed a strong link between the number of words parents spoke each day to children aged between seven and 36 months and academic success for this same group of kids at ages nine and 10.

Children who were spoken to more often so early in life had better vocabularies, higher IQs and fared better at school.

"What's interesting is that researchers measured not direct teaching but just simple everyday chatter," said Dr Mangione. "This shows that every caring act can also be an educational act."

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