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Thursday, November 7th, 2013
Early diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) offers the promise of early intervention – with the premise being the earlier, the better. New research suggests that we may be on the horizon of finding signs of ASD in the first 6 months of life. Here’s the breakdown of why this study – which examined attention to eyes in infants as a predictor of a diagnosis of ASD in toddlerhood – is so important.
Why Is This Study Design Powerful? This study – which builds on substantial prior research on eye contact in ASD – uses a powerful longitudinal design to search for the early signs of ASD in infants, including some at high risk (babies of older siblings with ASD). These design features give confidence in the results – the sampling frame goes from early infancy through the typical age of first diagnosis of ASD, and the high-risk component ensures enough cases to draw meaningful conclusions. And the construct of interest – attention to eyes – has been well-studied, is theoretically grounded, and can be measured with precision.
Why Are The Findings Provocative? Two reasons. First, while ASD (or the risk, or liability, to develop ASD) is assumed to be present at birth, early signs of ASD have been elusive. This study offers hope that by detecting a lack of attention to eyes in the first 6 months of life may offer one potentially powerful screen for risk for ASD. But there’s more. An especially novel finding is that infants later diagnosed with ASD started out in life attending to eyes – but that that ability declined over time. This may eventually be a clue in terms of underlying brain mechanisms – and it also suggests that if these fundamental mechanisms are “in tact” at birth and then decline, perhaps there is even more room for change with very early intervention. Either way, a strong signal of risk in the first 6 months of life may be translated – perhaps rapidly – into very early intervention strategies.
What’s The Take-Home Message? Parents have been encouraged to be mindful of some of the signals of risk for ASD in the early years – including 7 early signs of ASD. Although this study has not yet led to formal recommendations for parents, it does suggest how important face-to-face interaction is during infancy – and also highlights that parents should be vigilant about seeing how their baby reacts when eye contact is expected. The way a baby looks at the human face changes a lot over the first year in life – but the constant is that they spend a lot of time looking at it. The suggesting from this new research is that babies at risk for ASD show a decrease in their interest in the face during infancy. If this is happening, it is certainly worth bringing to the attention of a pediatrician, who will be positioned to look for other developmental milestones and indicators.
What’s The Future? Research studies are especially influential if they give a glimpse into the future. Here the hope is that a screening protocol can be developed to route infants into very early intervention – a developmental time that may hold promise for a lot of plasticity and response to intervention. Bear in mind that some of the most exciting findings to date about intervention – based on application of the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM) – demonstrated that one of the results of intensive intervention is changing the brain response to the human face, with normative patterns of brain activity achieved in some cases. Starting that process in infancy might lead to even more effective intervention programs for ASD.
Video Showing Early Signs of Autism
Mom and Baby via Shutterstock.com
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Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013
You may hear about lots of educational products that will make your babies “smart.” You may download lots of apps to try to give them an early cognitive “edge.” But what’s a simple thing you can do that will, over time, have huge effects on their development that far exceed whatever “benefits” the latest marketing fad can achieve? Talking to your baby.
Yes, just talking. Studies continue to show that there are huge differences in the number of words that babies (and toddlers for that matter) get exposed to – in the home. A new research study has revealed part of the effect of exposure to lots of words – it helps babies and toddlers process words quicker. The key here – as pointed out by lead researcher Anne Fernald at Stanford University – is that the faster an infant can process one word, the more ready they are to process a word that follows. While this should sound intuitive, the meaning is very deep in terms of brain processing – differences in processing speed can mean one infant is understanding a simple sentence, whereas another is not.
What’s the net effect of all of this? A language gap that starts in infancy and reverberates and grows larger through childhood. Kids who were exposed to lots of words frequently will have much better language skills.
So what can you do? Talk to your babies – a lot! Use child friendly language. Make it playful and fun. If you are out taking them for a walk and they see a dog and smile, look at them and smile and say “Doggie! Cute Doggie!” – and keep talking.
Sounds simple, right? Sounds obvious too. But we continue to see studies that suggest many babies do not get nearly enough of this. It’s so easy to do, costs nothing, makes your baby happy, makes you happy – and predicts good language development and eventual reading ability and success in school. So put down the silly toys and give the phone a rest – and talk to your baby.
Track your baby’s development with our Baby Milestone Tracker, or shop for the perfect baby book to read to your little one.
Mom With Baby via Shutterstock.com
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Monday, September 16th, 2013
The moment arrives. The baby’s here. Your life as mom or dad begins. And it’s not too early to marvel at how your newborn is wired to interact with you.
One of the classic ways to realize that your newborn is tuned into what you do is to stick your tongue out. In the first few days of life, many babies will stick their tongue out too.
WHAT’S GOING ON? Researchers have explored this phenomenon for decades, and some have continued to question if this is really social imitation (scientists are very good at coming up with – and ruling out – all kinds of alternative explanations for behaviors we observe). But a recent study of newborns has looked at this phenomenon of “imitation of tongue protrusion” and has concluded that it is what it is – even in the first few days of life babies are fascinated with your face, what it does, and in some cases have the neuromuscular control to copy you as a way of connecting with you.
WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE? Check out this 10-minute old newborn demonstrate “imitation of tongue protrusion.”
SHOULD I WORRY IF MY BABY DOESN’T DO IT? Keep in mind that “imitation of tongue protrusion” is not a diagnostic test. Some babies do it, some don’t. It’s not something to “work at” to make sure they do it. That’s not the point at all. The point is that your newborn is waiting to interact with you. There are many ways to nurture that fundamental urge, like gently stroking their cheek to promote them to turn their head, also known as the rooting reflex (which is a handy way to learn how to direct the head and mouth to a food source). Check out this list of 50 simple things you can do to “make your babies smarter” that are interactive, playful, and stimulating.
IS THIS JUST ABOUT LEARNING? All of these ways of interacting with babies promote brain development and provide the type of optimal stimulation they need. It’s good to know that babies are equipped with the ability to search out exactly what that is – something researchers call the “Goldilocks effect” – as they can, for example, scan for just the right amount of information they need in the human face at different ages. But beyond the purely cognitive elements here, remember that it’s really about the social bonding. Your baby is not only learning that the world is interesting and full of surprise and stimulation, he or she is discovering the joy of having you there to bond with, play with, and love.
Newborn Sticking Out Tongue via Shutterstock.com
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Friday, August 30th, 2013
Not yet. But someday it may be a possibility.
Researchers are developing a technique that analyzes the placenta for troboblast inclusions (TIs) – which are folds and creases that can be observed at a microscopic level. Preliminary research is suggesting that a density of these may indicate risk for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Longitudinal studies will now track babies for a few years to determine the magnitude of that risk.
We often hear about exciting science that will not come to fruition for a long time. But what’s intriguing about this project is that the scientists argue that the biological screening will promote the earliest environmental intervention possible. This is a terrific perspective because we know early environmental intervention can have profound effects on the development of kids with ASD. So rather than waiting for biological cures that may never happen, it’s quite smart to think about using biological science to bolster our ability to deliver interventions that we know have positive and sometimes quite powerful benefits.
Scientist Using A Microscope Via Shutterstock.com
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Monday, April 8th, 2013
Such is a key take-home message from the Early Childhood Summit 2013: Innovation and Opportunity - held in Boston on Friday, April 5th as part of the ongoing celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Boston Children’s Museum.
This meeting brought together leaders from pediatrics, developmental science, public health, the non-profit sector, and top business leaders in the Boston region. The focus was on sharing new ideas about the challenges that some kids and families face, along with possible creative solutions to ensure that kids have early experiences that serve as a platform for healthy and adaptive development. And the idea of thinking about “enrichment” and “protection” as critical components of a child’s rearing environment particularly resonated with me.
This idea was offered by Jack P. Shonkoff, MD, who is the Director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. As discussed by Dr. Shonkoff, “enrichment” refers to all the good things parents should be doing in the early years to promote social, emotional, and cognitive development. These are the fundamental building blocks of parenting, including spending lots of time talking to babies and toddlers, being emotionally responsive and engaged, and promoting and supporting curiosity and play. But Dr. Shonkoff emphasized – using the platform of neuroscience research – how critical it is that babies and toddlers also be protected from the toxic effects of excessive stress. Overexposure to harsh rearing environments – including those characterized by overt discord, anger, hostility, and criticism – can take a psychological toll in the early years which can have lasting effects due to the neurodevelopmental sensitivity to extreme stress. Even babies and toddlers can show stress responses that get turned on too much – and don’t shut down quick enough – which predicts a host of problems down the road, both in terms of cognitive and social functioning as well as physical health.
Jack P. Shonkoff, MD, Harvard University
By integrating the concepts of enrichment and protection, we have a framework that simultaneously emphasizes both the good things that parents should be doing lots of, and the bad things that parents shouldn’t do much at all. For those of us who study kids – and in particular track kids from infancy through adulthood – we keep seeing more and more evidence that those early years matter greatly in terms of influencing brain development at a critical period of life. Putting effort into enrichment and providing protection against toxic stress is indeed an equation that predicts healthy development (physical and psychological) from the early years all the way into adulthood.
Photo of Jack P. Shonkoff, MD, addressing the Early Childhood Summit 2013: Innovation and Opportunity meeting (April 5, 2013, Boston, MA) courtesy of Gus Freedman
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babies, Boston Children's Museum, Brain Development, Childhood Play, Childhood Stress, Harvard University, Health, Kids Health, Parenting, toddlers | Categories:
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