Ask the experts: Baby leaps

By Published On: September 17th, 2012

Today, we have with us the experts from The Wonder Weeks, the best-selling book that helps parents decode the important facts you need to know about interacting with baby during crucial phases of development, based on the scientific work of Dr. Frans Plooij and his late wife Dr. Hetty van de Rijt.

Ask the experts: Baby leaps, Pregnancy & NewbornIn 1992, Dr. Frans Plooij and his late wife Dr. Hetty van de Rijt found the roadmap into a babies mental development. Thirty-five years of science proved that babies’ mental development occurs in leaps, 10 timed leaps, based on the babies due date. Every time a baby goes through a leap they perceive things they couldn’t do before. It’s like the whole world around them changes. No wonder they start to cling to their parents and get afraid: eat less, sleep less, cry more and even get sick more often. Every pediatrician sees that in some weeks, parents turn to them for advice more often. Simply because parents do not know what is going on with their baby. Here is a closer look at the leaps that your baby may be experiencing:

In the uterus
Some people think that the period in the womb is mostly for physical growth. Of course there is some truth to this, but there is more to it.In the last period of pregnancy, babies begin to do things with their brain. Perhaps it is to go too far to say that they think, but studies show that babies start to respond differently to stimuli, whether from outside or inside. The brain is involved in these reactions. This is fascinating when you consider that less than a hundred years ago people thought that a newborn baby was not much more than a body with a number of reflexes. We now know a lot about the different sensory developments of babies still in the belly.

Your baby knows how you feel!
You know better than anybody else that as a mother you are bonding with your ‘bellybaby’ You are already getting to know your baby before you’ve even seen him. You know exactly what each kick and turn means. And your baby knows you too! He tastes, hears and feels your mood!
The taste of the amniotic fluid depends on your condition and your mood. Every time your baby takes a little sip of this fluid, he tastes the changes. He has a much larger number of taste buds than an older child or adult. Also, the taste buds cover an even larger area, the entire oral cavity. He is a master taster. Research has shown that if you suddenly experience something stressful, the taste of the amniotic fluid changes. Small changes, such as during a chat with the neighbor, are not easy to measure. But when you, as a mother, talk with full attention to your baby, it’s usually accompanied with a lot of emotion. And he will taste that. Such intense emotions help your baby to understand your ‘talk’ better. Similar emotions help your baby to learn to speak after birth.

Besides that he tastes what you are feeling, your baby hears what you are feeling. The mood of your baby is indeed largely determined by your mood. He picks it up when you express it. He does that by the melody of your voice, listening to the changes in the pitch of your voice. Your voice betrays the emotions you feel as you speak. The words do not need to correspond with what you feel, because he does not understand their meaning. Your heartbeat betrays you mood. Your baby hears how your heart responds to certain situations. How the beat speeds up or slows down when you are happy, frightened or sad. Your baby hears your emotions and sympathizes with you.

Your baby also reads the emotions in your breathing. You can be breathing quietly, hurriedly, be sighing, or take long pauses and so on. All this conveys a message. A message in which he in turn responds to in his own unique way.

Memories from the uterus

Newborn babies even remember things from the abdomen, though he is not aware of it. Research has shown, for example, that the ability to listen to sound, and not only hear, is significantly increased between the 36th and 37th week of pregnancy. The baby recognizes sounds that he has heard before. His memory works. The researchers discovered that when they played the same music to a 36 to 37 weeks old baby in the uterus time and again. They noted the same move every time the music began to play. A sign that the bellybaby recognized the music. A baby starts by reacting to sounds he hears from the belly. But he still does not recognize the sounds. For that he must continue to develop. And that development takes place between the 30th and the 36th week. This time the development is not in his ear, but in his brain.

Your baby will experience a lot, but very different!

Even though your baby hears, tastes and feels a lot in the belly and he is able to “remember” things, he does so very differently from the way we do. This is because his brain is not working exactly like ours. We smell that someone next to us is wearing perfume, but we do not hear and taste the perfume. A newborn baby does not yet experience those differences in sensory perception. His sensory experiences are still mixed up. All the signals that come in through his senses he experiences as a whole. As a kind of ‘soup’ of experiences. By birth your baby does not even understand he has his own existence. He thinks he is one with the rest of the world around him. That is something we can hardly imagine. With each mental leap your baby will experience the world more the way we perceive it. He learns the differences between various sensory signals and learns to recognize his own self.

Mental leap 1
Wonder Week 5:
The World of Changing Sensations

For much of the last 4 or 5 weeks, you have watched your infant grow rapidly. You have become acquainted with each other, and you have learned all of his little ways. His world at this time is hard for adults to imagine. It’s in soft focus and its qualities are undefined—in some ways it has not been so different from his life in your womb.

Now, before the mists that envelop this infant world part and allow him to start making sense of all the impressions that he has been busy absorbing in the last few weeks, he will need to go through his first major developmental leap. At about 5 weeks, and sometimes as early as 4, your baby will begin to take the first leap forward in his development.

New sensations bombard your baby inside and out, and he is usually bewildered by them. Some of these new things have to do with the development of his internal organs and his metabolism. Others are a result of his increased alertness—his senses are more sensitive than they were immediately after birth. So it is not so much the sensations themselves that are changing, but rather the baby’s perceptions of them.

Mental leap 2
Wonder Week 8:
The World of Patterns

Sometime around 8 weeks your baby will begin to experience the world in a new way. He will be able to recognize simple patterns in the world around him and in his own body. Although it may be hard for us to imagine at first, this happens in all the senses, not just vision. For example, he may discover his hands and feet and spend hours practicing his skill at controlling a certain posture of his arm or leg. He’ll be endlessly fascinated with the way light displays shadows on the wall of his bedroom. You might notice him studying the detail of cans on the grocery store shelf or listening to himself making short bursts of sounds, such as ah, uh, ehh.

Any of these things—and a whole lot more—signal a big change in your baby’s mental development. This change will enable him to learn a new set of skills that he would have been incapable of learning at an earlier age, no matter how much help and encouragement you gave him. But just as in his previous developmental leap, adjusting to this new world will not come easily at first.

Mental leap 3
Wonder Week 12:
The World of Smooth Transitions

At around 11 or 12 weeks, your baby will enter yet another new world as he undergoes the third major developmental leap since his birth. You may recall that one of the significant physical developments that occurred at 8 weeks was your baby’s ability to swipe and kick at objects with his arms and legs. These early flailing movements often looked comically puppetlike. At 12 weeks, this jerky action is about to change. Like Pinocchio, your baby is ready to change from a puppet into a real boy.

Of course, this transformation will not happen overnight, and when it does it will entail more than just physical movement, although that’s usually what parents notice most. It will also affect your baby’s ability to perceive with his other senses the way things change around him—such as a voice shifting from one register to another, the cat slinking across the floor, and the light in a room becoming dimmer as the sun dips behind the clouds. Your baby’s world is becoming a more organized place as he discovers the constant, flowing changes around him.

Mental leap 4
Wonder Week 19:
The World of Event

The realization that our experience is split up into familiar events is something that we as adults take for granted. For example, if we see someone drop a rubber ball, we know that it will bounce back up and will probably continue to bounce several times. If someone jumps up into the air, we know that she is bound to come down. We recognize the initial movements of a golf swing and a tennis serve, and we know what follows. But to your baby, everything is new, and nothing is predictable.

After the last leap forward, your baby was able to perceive smooth transitions in sound, movement, light, taste, smell, and texture. But all of these transitions had to be simple. As soon as they became more complicated, he was no longer able to follow them.
At around 19 weeks (or between 18 and 20 weeks), his ability to understand the world around him becomes far more developed and a little more like our own. He will begin to experiment with events.

Mental leap 5
Wonder Week 26:
The World of Relationships

At about 26 weeks, your baby will start to show the signs of yet another significant leap in his development. If you watch closely, you will see him doing or attempting to do many new things. Whether or not he is crawling at this stage, he will have become significantly more mobile as he learns to coordinate the action of his arms and legs and the rest of his body. Building on his knowledge of events, he his now able to begin to understand the many kinds of relationships among the things that make up his world.

One of the most significant relationships that your baby can now perceive is the distance between one thing and another. We take this for granted as adults, but for a baby it is an alarming discovery, a very radical change in his world. The world is suddenly a very big place in which he is but a tiny, if very vocal, speck. Something he wants can be on a high shelf or outside the range of his crib, and he has no way of getting to it. His mother can walk away, even if only into the next room, and she might as well have gone to China if he can’t get to her because he’s stuck

Mental leap 6
Wonder Week 37:
The World of Categories

At about 37 (or between 36 and 40) weeks, you may notice your baby attempting to do new things. At this age, a baby’s explorations can often seem very methodical. For example, you may notice your little tyke picking up specks from the floor and examining them studiously between his thumb and forefinger.

Or a budding little chef may rearrange the food on his plate by testing the way a banana squashes or spinach squishes through tiny fingers. He will assume the most serious, absorbed expression while carrying out these investigations. In fact, that is just what they are—investigations that will help the little researcher begin to categorize his world.

Your baby is now able to recognize that certain objects, sensations, animals, and people belong together in groups or categories. For example, a banana looks, feels, and tastes different than spinach, but they are both food. These are important distinctions and similarities to sort out. The leap into the world of categories will affect every sense—sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch.

Mental leap 7
Wonder Week 46:
The World of Sequences

Babies are natural mess-makers. During the last leap in your baby’s mental development, this talent probably seemed at its peak. You may have marveled at your baby’s knack for destruction as he disassembled, tossed around, and squished everything in his path. If you are alert for newly developing skills in your baby, at around 46 weeks you may suddenly notice him doing things that are quite the opposite. He will begin, for the first time, to try to put things together.

Your baby is now ready to discover the world of sequences. From this age on, he can begin to realize that to reach many of his goals, he has to do things in a certain order to be successful. You may now see your baby looking first to see which things go together and how they go together before trying to put them in each other, pile them on top of each other, or piece them together. For instance, he may concentrate on aiming as well as he can before trying to pile one block on top of another. He may push a peg through a hole in a peg board only after he has compared the shape of the peg to the hole.

Mental leap 8
Wonder Week 55:
The World of Programs

Every child’s first birthday is a significant occasion. The end of the first year means for many parents the beginning of the end of babyhood. Your little cherub is about to become a toddler. In many ways, of course, she is still a baby. She still has so much to learn about her world—which has become such an interesting place to explore. She can get around so much better now, though, and she has become adept at getting into everything that interests her.

Shortly after the first birthday, at around 55 weeks, your little one will have gone through another big change in his mental development and will be ready to explore the world of programs. This will make her seem even more like a little person with her own way of approaching the world. A watchful parent will begin to see the blossoming of a new understanding in the toddler’s way of thinking.

The word “programs” is very abstract. Here’s what it means in this context. In the previous leap in development, your baby learned to deal with the notion of sequences—the fact that events follow one after another. Programs are patterns of if-then decisions. The next sequence that is expected depends on what has just happened, instead of repeating every time.

Mental leap 9
Wonder Week 64
From Theatricism to Temper Tantrums

For the first time, your child is now able to change programs he’s learned so far. And he loves playing with this. You can see how he varies the programs endlessly and studies all consequences of this. You can see how he does all kinds of “physical antics,” gets acquainted with the outdoors, starts to be more skillful with things and language, imitates others, role-plays daily life, practices emotions, starts to think ahead, starts nagging to get his way, starts to put on drama-play, starts to “demand” a vote, starts to be “aggressive,” can distinguish between mine and yours, starts being nice and placating to get on mom’s good side, starts to make jokes to get around the rules, starts negotiating and bargaining, starts experimenting with “yes” and “no,” starts to know how to get someone to do something for him, learns to do something together, wants to help in the household, and experiments with “thoughtless” vs. “careful.”

Tries to Get His Way
Adults have years of experience with “principles.” With trial and error, we’ve mastered the skills belonging to principles. We know what justice, friendliness, humanity, helpfulness, and cooperation mean. We also know how we can get another person to do something by altering our own behavior. These are things learned over time.

Your toddler, on the other hand, still has to learn all these things. Like you in the past, he does so by trying and experimentation. Eventually, he will learn that with nice behavior, he can achieve a great deal. In the meantime, by making the most of his big eyes and a very sweet voice, he plays you to get his way. If you think about it, it’s very smart!

The examples of principles given above are mainly moral principles, which deal with norms and values. They are all about things that you either do or don’t do. Things that are good or bad. But there are other types of principles that concern the way we do things. For example, while making a puzzle, a principle can be to construct the borders first. Another principle under this banner can be to eat the things you like least first and save the best things – like dessert! – for last.

But, be aware: scientific laws also belong to the non-moral principles and your toddler now starts to discover them! He learns that to build a tower of bricks, the biggest brick has to be on the bottom and that all blocks should be aligned properly in order for them not to fall. If he doesn’t construct his tower in this way, the tower will collapse and he will get frustrated. All very logical. And some toddlers spend all day playing with toy cars, watching them descend an incline.

Mental leap 10
Wonder Week 10
The World of Systems

With the tenth leap, 75 weeks after due date, or more easily said, 17 months, your toddler gets the new ability to perceive and handle “systems.” He is now able to see clearly over the world of principles. He no longer applies principles as rigidly as before. He is able to adjust his principles to changing circumstances. He also starts to understand that he can choose how he wants to be: honest, helpful, careful, patient, etc. Or, he could choose to be just the opposite. From off this age you can see him develop the earliest beginnings of a conscience by systematically upholding his values and norms.

We adults use the term “system” if the parts it consists of are interdependent and function as a whole. There are tangible examples, like a grandfather clock that needs winding, en electrical network or the human muscle system. There as also less tangible examples such as human organizations. To name just a few examples, take the scouts, the family, the drama club, the police station, the church, our society, our culture, and the law.

The Discovery of “Me!”
Of course, it will take years and years before your toddler learns what our society, culture or laws are really all about. He starts at a very simple level and stays close to home. He develops the idea of himself as a system, and together with mom and dad he forms a family. And his family is not the same as that of his little friend, nor is his house the same as that of the neighbors.

The system in which your toddler lives day in and day out, and that he can discover the best, is the system of “me.” When the world of systems opens up to him, he starts to develop his notion of self. This has several consequences. For instance, your toddler now discovers that HE owns and controls his own body, that HE can orchestrate things, that HE can do things himself, that HE can control things, that HE can show his own desires and that HE can make decisions. All these are examples of his growing concept of self.

Copycatting and Comparison
Your toddler now starts to understand that mommy and daddy are separate people, too. He starts using terms as “you” and “me” and is also very interested in both mom’s and dad’s physique. He discovers that he has a penis just like his father, and that mom doesn’t. He sizes up all the similarities and differences to a tee.

For the first time in his life, your toddler can put himself in someone else’s place, now that he realizes that not all people are alike. For the first time he sees that not everyone likes the same things as he does. That would have never occurred to him when he was younger. He has become less egocentric and that has all kinds of ramifications. For example, he is now able to comfort someone. He is at his high point in mimicry. He copycats anything and everything around him, including your behavior, and his fantasy play comes to life.

As a parent, this is your opportunity to start being a role model and show behavior you want you child to possess. “So,” says Frans Plooij, “start setting a good example now, and it will be an investment for life!”

One Family is Not the Other
Your toddler is now fascinated by all other living beings, from ants to dogs, as they are all systems. Your toddler starts to realize that he is part of a family and that his family is different from his little friend’s family, whom he visits twice a week. His family is the first human organization he gets to know from the inside, and he makes no mistake about noticing that his little friend’s family doesn’t necessarily have a salad with dinner like his own family. In his family they have a different set of rules.

Master of the Arts… With a Capital “A”
There are great actors, brilliant scientists and amazing artists… and then there is your toddler. At this stage of the game, he is the greatest artiste of them all.

Just as he recognizes his family as a system, he begins to distinguish his family from others. He already does the same with his friends, house and neighborhood. Het is getting better at finding his way around in the familiar surroundings outside of his house.
He also starts to be very conscious of his clothes. He can be pretty vain and can be very possessive it it comes to his “things” (like his toys).

At this age, a lot is happening: He starts making art with a capital “A” – not just chicken scratch and scribbles anymore, but now he draws “horses,” “boats” and (of course) “himself.” He also begins to appreciate music – that, too, is a system. He starts to get a sense of time and starts to remember past experiences and is able to anticipate future happenings.

He will now begin forming his first sentences. Not every toddler does this, though. Just as with other skills, children differ greatly in the age at which they start. All toddlers now understand a lot of what you’re saying, but some are not ready to start speaking. Others use several words and constantly mime, but don’t talk in sentences yet. Whether or not your child does depends on how you interact with him.

Time for Clear Rules!
Nagging and crying to get his way, being childish, wanting to be amused constantly, being sloppy when he can be neat, being unkind and hurting another person on purpose, doing naughty things… Maybe you wonder if you are the only one being irritated by this kind of behavior. No, of course not! Your toddler is not a baby any longer. The time has come to set some rules. And, he is more than ready for these rules. What’s more: he is searching for these boundaries.

When he has entered the world of principles, he yearns for rules. He is looking for chances to familiarize himself with them. Just like your kid deserves food everyday, he deserves rules too. Most rules he can only discover when given by you. Social rules in particular are important. You have to show him what is correct and what is incorrect behavior. There is no harm in laying down the law. On the contrary, you owe it to him, and who better to do so than someone who loves him?

Values and Norms
Your toddler is learning at a fast and furious pace – he almost can’t even keep up with the amount of incoming information! So, now is a good time to make sure he learns good behavior, for what he learns at this age “sticks” and is hard to change later on in life.

During this period a start is made with developing a conscience which is a system of norms and values. If the groundrules are not set now, and in the right way, negative consequences will be visible in the near future, to begin with the ‘Terrible Two’s.” As difficult or even impractical as it may seem to give this rule-setting and conscience-building so much of your time and effort at this early and changeable stage of your child’s life, it is an in-depth investment for the future. It will save you, your child and everyone around him a lot of misery.

You can’t spoil babies, but you can toddlers! By understanding what is happening inside that little head of your newly formed toddler – and remember, they are pretty savvy – you can shape the future behavior of your toddler and set values and norms that will carry him through life. To learn more about how to do so, be sure to read the new, extended edition of The Wonder Weeks.

Want to know more? Pickup the book, it’s jam-packed with great info and now, The Wonder Weeks have made a leap themselves from a single book that describes all 10 mental developmental leaps to 10 individual chapter books. Every chapter book describes exactly, per leap, what is going on with a baby, how to help him and what a babies new abilities are after the leap. Available on the iTunes Bookstore and Kindle.