These newly acquired skills are a result of both physical maturation and experiences in the care of attentive and loving adults over the past 12 months. Language development and eagerness to try new things are the result of:
Influences on the positive outcome: Getting ready for language and learning
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The first noises children make cooing and babbling appear to be genetically programmed and occur as they gain control over their mouths, lips and vocal cords. The sounds and the words that children eventually make are a result of the language which is spoken to them. (53)
Childrens brains are ready to begin the process of language learning at birth. When adults speak to infants the sounds they make activate the language area of the brain and strengthen specific neural connections. As specific sounds are repeated hundreds of times, these connections get stronger and eventually an auditory map is formed and the brain is "wired" for language. By the time infants are 12 months old, if they have been spoken to a lot, their auditory maps will reflect all the sounds of their native language, and the basic building blocks for further language development will be in place. (11)
Experience counts. The more children are spoken to, the more words they will recognize and, as they get older, the more words they will use. (11) For very young infants, what the parent says is irrelevant. It is hearing the words from an adult who is smiling and paying attention to them that is the important experience. An affectionate response encourages infants to carry on babbling, and continue in their language development.
By about nine months, children recognize and respond to a few words such as their names. The high-pitched, singsong speech style of parents seems to help babies connect objects with words. (53,11) At 11 months, children are starting to associate words with objects by hearing them repeatedly in different situations, and they are imitating word sounds. At around one year of age, children speak their first words.
Children learn much more than language during their first year. They are developing fine and large motor skills and using them to learn about the world around them. Like language, new motor skills evolve in a predictable sequence according to a biological time table and they are developed and refined through practice. Parents encourage this development by creating an age-appropriate, child-friendly environment that stimulates children to touch, hold, and manipulate objects. They teach children when they are ready to try a new skill. They help them to complete tasks that may be beyond their current capabilities and praise them for a job well done. They encourage children to experiment with new toys. They are sensitive to what interests them and build on those interests.
All of these experiences help build children's confidence that they can succeed when they try new things. Not only the skills learned, but the positive associations with learning provide a solid base for the preschool years and beyond.
Community resources assist parents both to understand the learning needs of their child and to meet those needs.
Many parents must return to work long before their childrens first birthdays and leave them in infant child care. The quality of the child care they receive has a significant influence on their healthy development. Provincial governments have the authority to set standards for child care. Where such standards are set they are based on minimal, rather than quality expectations. Even so, the majority of children, including infants, are cared for in unregulated settings. (53) Research on unregulated settings is limited, but existing studies suggest that caregiving in regulated homes is of higher quality. (53)
Government policies influence access to, as well as quality of child care, including infant care. Quality child care is labour intensive and therefore expensive, ranging from $6,000 to $10,284 a year in a 1993 study. (53) Across Canada, parents absorb most of this cost. Some governments provide subsidies to low income families. However, in the past decade, fees have increased, family incomes have not kept pace with those increases, and the availability of fee subsidization has decreased. (53)
Government policies in the following areas have an impact on parents access to quality care for their infants:
Positive parenting skills
A child smiles. A parent smiles back. A child gurgles and a parent sings a song. A child bumps his hand and receives a hug and soothing words. The positive emotional tone of these actions and reactions set the stage for childrens learning.
Parental mental health is one of the strongest risk factors for problems in children. Emotionally healthy parents are more likely to be able to respond warmly to their baby and to be emotionally available to their child. (286)
Support and knowledge of what children need to promote their positive development can help parents develop positive responses to meet these needs.
Community initiatives that help parents understand the needs of their babies and feel comfortable and confident caring for their babies help them establish warm and responsive relationships. While some parents actively seek information and opportunities to learn about parenting new infants, seeking help beyond immediate friends and family is not the norm in our society. The process of reaching out to new parents is important.
Family resource centres exist in many communities. They vary in the range of supports they provide, but are staffed by people who are warm and accepting; who can help answer questions asked by new parents; and who model good parenting behaviours themselves. Their goal is to build a respectful relationship with parents reinforcing and building on existing strengths. The range of services these centres offer may include a drop-in centre, scheduled events for parents to get together, and structured programs for infants and parents. They provide supportive, non-threatening, accessible, and informative services. (237)
Homevisiting programs are designed to provide support and develop the confidence and competence of parents. Various studies have shown that well designed homevisiting programs can improve the physical, social and emotional well-being of families. (41)
Homevisiting is most often used with families who have the greatest need for support such as young, single mothers, families with few economic resources, and families who may not regularly access other community services. Homevisitors need to be well trained and supported. Their successful interaction with the family depends on their ability to establish a positive, trusting relationship with them. (22, 41, 87, 148)
Infant stimulation programs provide opportunities for parents to get together with other parents and their babies, and learn new skills from a trained leader. Many of these programs train parents to observe their babies, to consider what it is their babies are experiencing and/or trying to communicate, and to adapt their responses to the needs of the infant.
Mentoring programs link experienced parents with new parents. They help inexperienced caregivers feel comfortable with their infants and model affectionate, stimulating parenting skills. An example of such a mentoring program is the Canadian Mothercrafts Parent Companion Program.
Safe and varied environment
Infants explore the environment using their senses. When they are attracted to something they naturally touch, taste, push or pull. Toys or other objects within their reach need to be examined to ensure they can be safely handled. Once children are mobile, dangerous items need to be moved from cupboards or drawers that are within their reach.
Mobile children need space to explore. Having a room that is child-proof will allow them to use their muscles. It also gives them opportunities to move close to or away from the security of their parents or caregivers.
Young children need variety. If things are too familiar they can be quickly bored.