Talk to Your Baby

Ergobaby’s 180 Reversible Stroller reversible design is better for your baby than you may know. The way you use your stroller could very well be shaping your child’s brain development.

Neuroscientists have made great strides in the last decade in understanding how babies’ brains develop. It has relevance to all sorts of parenting decisions, including what kind of stroller to buy and how best to use it. Ironically, most parents still have little awareness of that information.

There are two particularly important insights that emerge from these discoveries. The first is that brains are developing more rapidly in the first 3 years of life than they ever will again. These are, of course, precisely the years that a child spends in a stroller. The second is that relationships with people have a massive impact on the pathways that form in the brain. The direction that a stroller faces naturally changes the way a baby experiences her relationship with her parent.

Human babies are born already connected to other people. They have brains that monitor others’ facial expressions, vocal tone, smell, and even heart rate. Babies are designed to read everything that other people do as ‘meaningful’. Their brain needs to see it as meaningful because it is trying to figure out how the world works. The baby’s brain is looking for patterns that are predictable. That search is one of the things driving all that neural growth. The baby wants to figure out how to stay as emotionally connected to a parent as possible because that’s when they feel safest. Author Sue Gerhardt puts it this way in her best-selling book Why Love Matters (pg. 11): “Babies’ experience of parents’ behavior has as much influence on the child’s emotional make-up as his or her genetic influence.”

How can this scientific information help us to think more about stroller use? It tells us that when the baby is in a parent-facing orientation, they can stay emotionally connected through seeing your face and hearing your voice. That will help them to feel safe, perhaps even safe enough to fall asleep faster or to look around curiously at the wider world. When they are facing forward, though, they can only stay connected to you through your voice. On busy city streets, it can be hard even to hear that voice.

Traffic flowing on city streets easily reaches 80 decibels in volume, sometimes 90. It is interesting to note that the American Academy of Paediatrics states that 85 decibels is the threshold for dangerous levels of noise. This means that the majority of babies being pushed on city streets today are taking rides in environments that are uncomfortably loud. It also means that most of them won’t have a parent’s face within view for the moments they might feel scared. If a baby feels scared, their body can’t calm down on their own. The immaturity of the brain and physiological systems means they are dependent on the presence of a trusted adult to truly relax.

Is it really true that ‘most’ babies will be having this anxious experience? That will come as a surprise to many parents reading this blog, since the forward-facing orientation has become so normalized in Western cultures. Two systematic studies, both of which observed stroller use on main city streets (in the UK and in New Zealand), have both confirmed that the majority of strollers are used in a forward-facing position. Both studies also showed that when strollers were in a forward-facing orientation, conversation was much less likely to be occurring than when babies were facing the pusher.

That’s not surprising, of course. Human beings are understandably less likely to speak to someone they can’t see face-to-face. However, when we consider the evidence showing that the amount of talking a parent does has a big impact on a child’s language development, it lets us think again about how long today’s babies may be spending sitting facing away from their parents, strolling along streets that are uncomfortably loud. Once we put it this way, it isn’t hard to realize strollers could indeed be having an impact on infant brain development. (Car seats probably are, as well, but that’s another blog!)

So when are babies old enough to ride in strollers that face outward? Well, there’s little science to give exact guidance. That’s why we need more investigation. For now, what we do know is that as babies become old enough to crawl, and their world gets bigger, they spend an increasing amount of time engaging in a phenomenon that psychologists call ‘social referencing’. Babies take quick glances at parents’ faces, using the emotional expression that they find there as a guide to how the baby himself should feel about something. For example, if a big dog comes bouncing toward you in your stroller, should you feel excited or scared? Prior to the age of one year (and even well after), a baby reaches her conclusion by consulting her parent’s face. But if you are baby riding in a stroller that faces forward, looking out at a big dog or a noisy taxi, then you don’t have any information available to help you figure out how to respond. For babies with immature brains, life is always harder if you don’t have anyone around to offer emotional help.

That’s one of the things that’s terrific about the 180 Reversible stroller. Unlike many other stroller models, it is super easy to change the orientation. If you’re out in a park, where it is not very loud, the baby might be keen to look outward. But when the two of you get back to loud streets, the baby can easily be shifted into a parent-facing orientation, so that the sense of safety and even fun can continue.

Perhaps as manufacturers of infant products become aware of the emerging neuroscience, they will be able to think in more depth about the implications it holds for stroller design. Manufacturers’ products are shaping infant brain development in ways they do not realize. This insight can feel sobering, and even controversial, as responses to an earlier article in the New York Times revealed.

Until that point, though, what’s a parent to do? Here are my two main tips. First, let the baby tell you when they are ready to face outward. If they are craning their head, clearly keen to face forward, then turn them around. If they aren’t doing that yet, it’s a signal that they feel safe and happy precisely because they can see your face.

Second, when you do turn the baby around — keep talking, talking, talking.

 

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Dr. Suzanne Zeedyk

Dr. Suzanne Zeedyk is a research scientist fascinated by babies’ innate capacity to communicate. Based for 20 years at the University of Dundee (Scotland), in 2011, she set up an independent training enterprise to disseminate the science of connection to the public. She now works internationally with organisations, strengthening their awareness of how childcare decisions shape brain development, and how those decisions are integrally connected to our vision for the kind of society we wish to build.

December 7, 2017

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