A rise of classes aimed at infants are springing up, but do they actually have any impact on the babies, or are they more for mom and dad’s peace of mind?
My daughter and I went to our first “class” together when she was 3 weeks old. It was a breastfeeding support group at Exempla Good Samaritan hospital, where I had given birth, and it was the best thing I could have possibly done with a newborn.
I wasn’t having any trouble breastfeeding my child, and she was eating and gaining weight normally, so I didn’t need that kind of support. But what I desperately needed—without even knowing it—was a group of women to talk to who were at a similar stage of life.
From there, my daughter and I did mom-and-baby yoga together, we went to music classes and joined a stroller club so that I could get some exercise. When it came to the idea of enriching my infant’s life with quasi-extracurricular activities, I bought into the idea hook, line, and sinker. Sure, it got me out of the house, but were they doing my little bundle of joy any good?
Hannah Hennig, a Longmont-based parenting and education consultant, and owner of the website Inspired Parenting Solutions, assures me they were.
“What research has shown is that learning is much more powerful in early childhood than any time later in life,” she says. “When it comes to education, going to Harvard is no comparison to infancy. One estimate is that 95 percent of everything we learn is done before age 6.”
Advances in neuroscience are having a transformational effect on early childhood education and psychology. Where our grandparents probably thought of infants as adorable little vegetables—with little or no capacity to learn until they were much older—scientists today have discovered that learning begins in utero, in the third trimester, and only continues from there. Recent research led by Christine Moon, a professor of psychology at Pacific Lutheran University, shows that babies begin recognizing the sounds of language before they’re born.
“We could say that early childhood is a time when the mental, emotional hardware of the brain is being assembled in interaction with the environment,” Hennig says. “This is where our responsibility as adults comes in. We can’t just wait for the genes to run their course, because the brain develops from experiences.
“The structure of the brain doesn’t follow an automatic genetic program. Social intelligence is created from experience, too. Intelligence is a dynamic potential in every child from birth, but its final outcome will be determined by how much of this potential has been lovingly activated early in life.”
Essentially, the neurological maps of our children’s brains are beginning to form even before birth; pathways that are stimulated at a young age make learning easier as the child grows, but pathways that are not stimulated will shrink with disuse. According to Hennig: “When a child hears music, he will learn music. When he hears language, he will learn languages. When he sees art pieces, he will learn art. When he sees anger and arguments, he will learn anger and arguments… and so on.”
So which classes are best? Turns out, they all have similar yet different benefits. Which will produce future Einsteins and Mozarts? Probably none of them. The goal of infant and toddler classes shouldn’t be to teach a particular skill, but rather to expose the children to different kinds of stimulation that will promote brain growth.
“If we want successful children,” Hennig says, “we need to light a spark in them, making them love learning. This can only come from joy. Once the child is inspired, she will find her way in her own time.”
Want to ignite your child’s spark? We break down some of the most popular kinds of classes found along the Front Range and their benefits for newborns age 1-month+, unless noted.
You might have heard that playing classical music for your unborn or just-born child will make them smarter. While that isn’t technically true (music has not been shown to raise IQ), exposing babies to music has plenty of other benefits. Hearing is one of the most developed senses at birth, which makes music an excellent teaching tool for engaging infants and stimulating their interest in the world.
“Early exposure to classical music has been linked to happiness later in life,” Hennig says, “as well as social ease, mathematical talent, artistic ability and above-average language skills. You can’t start too early with music. Doing music every day is fine as long as we also allow moments of silence.”
Where to go:
Kindermusik: Available across the Front Range, kindermusik.com
Musikgarten: Available across the Font Range, musikgarten.org
Mountain Song Music Studio: Boulder and Ft. Collins, mountainsongmusic.yourvirtuoso.com
Gymnastics and Tumbling
Gymnastics before they can walk? Yup. Turns out movement is essential not just for improving gross motor functions, but for brain growth as well. Based on animal studies, scientists now believe that in order for a mature brain to develop, children need movement and rich stimulation at a very young age—and the combination of movement, social interactions, and usually music in these classes is just about ideal.
But be mindful of how your child reacts to these classes, Hennig says. “Not every child likes to move within a group setting. Toddlers especially are sometimes stressed by too many people because they can’t yet follow or communicate.”
Where to go:
Gymboree: Locations across the Front Range, gymboreeclasses.com
The Little Gym: Locations across the Front Range, thelittlegym.com
Sports and Dance
Don’t worry about training the next Beckham or Baryshnikov. Creative movement classes are more about helping your child learn to use their body than they are about teaching skills. As with gymnastics and tumbling, the combination of movement with a social environment provides rich stimulation for infant and toddler brains. According to Dr. Cheryl K. Olson, a public health researcher who compiled research on the subject on behalf of Little Gym, research suggests that creative physical movement may be the key to bringing up confident, well-rounded, successful kids.
Inside Out Creative Movement: Lousiville, insideoutmove.com
Let’s Get Movin’: Boulder JCC, boulderjcc.org (ages 15 months+)
Mommy & Me Dance: Elite Dance Academy, Boulder, Broomfield, Littleton, elitedanceacademy.net (ages 15 months+)
Soccer Tots: Boulder Indoor Soccer, boulderindoorsoccer.com/soccertots (ages 18 months+)
Baby Sign Language
Baby sign language has become something of an it-thing with parents, and for good reason. For some children, it helps them “talk” before they can speak, which can decrease a lot of behavior problems that come from being unable to communicate needs and desires. Hennig agrees: “It connects three very important activities: movement, which babies love; language, which babies are naturally interested in; and communication, which is what your baby wants to do.”
According to Hennig, signing “strengthens [children’s] social-emotional awareness. It has been shown that children who feel that their actions have an impact upon the world, develop empathy for others earlier; they begin to understand social relationships earlier than children who remain passive and whose movements and decisions are being controlled by caretakers.”
Signing Smart: Locations Across the Front Range, signingsmart.com (ages 6 months+)
Baby Signs: Locations across the Denver Metro, babysignswithcassiefriesen.com (ages 6 months+)
Think Mandarin for your toddler is a little too tiger mom? Think again. “Experiments have shown that when a child hears a foreign language spoken by a native speaker once a week for one hour, his or her brain remains equally receptive to that language as a native child from that culture,” Hennig says. “So it makes a lot of sense to reinforce foreign languages at an early age since the mind is naturally open and receptive.”
Again, the key here is to remember that the goal is not for baby to become fluent in German or French, but rather that those neural pathways—which will allow easier language acquisition later in life—are opened. “In early childhood all the child needs to do is listen. She can learn without effort,” Hennig says.
Hebrew Storytime: Boulder JCC, boulderjcc.org
Music Lingua: Locations across the Front Range, musiclingua.com
At first glance, it may seem like mom-and-baby yoga is more about giving mom a comfortable place to stretch and relax than it is about giving baby anything. Not so fast, says Hennig: “From my experiences with children, I am convinced that teaching a form of meditation is best begun in infancy.” Meditation for infants? It’s a skill, like any other, and opening up those neural pathways might make it easier later in life.
“Having the child share yoga or other forms of meditation in the presence of the mother or father is a perfect way to begin. You can be sure that your experience is transmitted to your child, and that she will naturally absorb the elements of the practice, and the benefits.”
Baby & Me Yoga: The Mama ‘Hood Denver, themamahooddenver.com
Baby & Me Yoga: Our Sweet Beginnings Littleton, oursweetbeginnings.com
Scientific studies done at the University of Miami Medical Center’s Touch Research Institute show that premature babies who receive massages every day develop more rapidly both physically and neurologically. “We all know that little children want to be touched, that they enjoy light clothes, and desire lots of movement,” Hennig says. “Bonding experiences are the core of the neurological benefits we are talking about.”
Some practitioners also claim that other benefits include better sleep for babies, but Hennig believes that the bonding time alone makes infant massage worth trying. In fact, many hospitals now offer infant massage classes.
Infant Massage: YoMama Boulder, yomamaboulder.com/infant-massage
Infant Massage: Tranquil Touch by Jennifer Littleton, tranquiltouchbyjennifer.com/infant.html
Lots of mommy exercise courses that include baby have become popular, including some with songs and word plays to keep children engaged. Other classes are more an opportunity for mom to get moving with her children in tow. “If we teach a child without bonding with them at the same time, we do not truly stimulate brain development,” Hennig says. In fact, research suggests that all learning is rooted in parental attachment at this age, meaning that the more we involve our children in the things we do—including exercise—the more they will learn.
Plus, you might lose some of that stubborn baby weight, which seems like a win-win.
Baby Boot Camp: Locations across the Front Range, babybootcamp.com
Stroller Strides: Locations across the Front Range, fit4mom.com
How much is too much?
Of course, is there such a thing as too much stimulation?
Doctors have reported that children as young as toddlers show signs of stress from being overscheduled, and that sort of stress is bad for brains. “Stress is known to shut down the growth and learning ability of the brain,” Hennig says. In fact, “research has shown that under stressful circumstances brain connections can even be lost, and the expansion of the cortex is measurably reduced.”
The prescription, then, is balance. Parents can easily expose children to many wonderful learning opportunities without classes. Simply by playing music, dancing and being active, kids are given opportunities to move and exercise, as well as exposing them to the arts. Classes can fill in gaps where parents might feel they are lacking. A parent who thinks of himself as non-musical might decide to join a music class, for example, and the mom who wants to communicate better with her child might go for sign language classes.
“When we enrich our children’s lives, it is not enough to fill their minds with facts early on in life,” Hennig says as a final thought. “We have to go deeper and create a new model for education based on neuroscience. The new approach is a combination of ‘nature and nurture.’ It is through joy, harmony, and positive relationships that we unleash the natural genius in our children from an authentic source—their lovely brains.”