Wailing Through Stage 2: Everybody Is!
subject two is not subject one. subject two is not subject one. subject two is not subject one. subject two is not subject one.
See, things are different this time. As I suspected, The original Experimental Infant was, well, the easy one.
What's up with that? How many times have I heard this story. It's the one that goes "If I'd had my second child first, I might only have had one." Has anyone out there reading ever said this? Are second babies really, categorically pains in the ass? Or is there something more sensible at work here, like my being too busy to be as tuned in to him as I was to my first, only infant. I mean, I dimly remember certain evening bouts of crying with Nuvy, but nothing, NOTHING like what goes on with Van. From about week 3 to 9 weeks or so, he's been pretty much crying every minute he's been awake. Well, ok. Many, many waking moments are devoted to crying. Some others are devoted to looking astonishingly cute (let it be said that, after Nuvy, I thought I was no longer astonishable by cuteness. Was I ever wrong.). The moment pictured above was devoted to wavering on the edge of sleep. We have several of those a day, too. But anyway, so he cries a lot. In the meantime, lets discuss Stage 2--since I didn't the first time around. For those who are counting, Stage 2 is the period between one month and four months of age.
Practice makes...myelinated pathways make...muscle memory!
So, in addition to various levels of fussiness, Stage 2 is all about practice. Van spent his first four weeks mastering his basic body functions, and now, in Stage 2, he's beginning to experiment with motor control, and to make his first observations of the world that exists outside him. What he learns will begin to suppress his infantile reflexes during this stage, and they will continue to disappear in a pretty predictable pattern throughout his infancy. Neat, eh?
The chief result of Van's experiments will be a kind of preliminary organization of the brain through myelination in the cerebral cortex--that is, the thinking part of his brain. Myelin is an insulating material that brain cells put down around electrical connections that get repeated often (successful experiments and purposeful activity), and not so much around connections that are only made once, or just a few times (random activity or failed experiments). The point is to keep the signals flowing in useful directions, and not to have neurons firing randomly all over the place, looking for something good to do. This has already happened, to some extent, in the deeper, more basic levels of the brain, but now begins in earnest in response to the baby's repetitive experiments. Patterns of movement (schemata) evolve as the baby devises ways to accomplish the things he wants to do.
Myelination is a recurring theme in discussions of brain development. It's an important manifestation of learning and memory. "Muscle memory" is what Van is beginning to develop at this stage, through repetitive practice. Right now, he's learning to smile, laugh, and reach for things. Later, he'll learn to walk, run, make the sounds of his native language (in the Philadelphia accent he'll grow up with, alas, and not my own charming southern drawl.) and maybe play the piano, or play golf. Practice affects the brain this way throughout life.
Developing just after the parts of the brain that control vital functions and reflexes are the parts that control the senses. At birth, Van had all the equipment he needed to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell, but he had to wait for the areas of his brain that interpret sensory signals to develop to make sense of the signals it receives.
Let's look at some of the things Van's been practicing:
Resisting gravity: at between one and four months, babies discover that, with effort, they can lift their little heads and achieve a different view of things.
Swipe and grasp: the palmar reflex (the one that makes your newborn grab hold of your finger and not let go) is strong at birth, but a one-to-four month old baby learns that by controlling the opening and closing motion of the hand voluntarily, he can manipulate his environment. Right now, for Van, this involves looking at his hands a lot. I imagine that if he could talk, he might say, "Look at this! Don't tell anyone, but I think I can control it with my mind!"
Holding objects and bringing objects to the mouth: We're not there yet, but these are variations on the hand-mind coordination theme.
Cognitive, Emotional and Social development: A whole lot of goo-goo going on.
It starts with the hand-gazing, and then looking at other things in the environment that move, deciding which ones he can control, and which ones move independently of him. Kind of like a life-size game of Myst, isn't it? This looks to an observer like staring, gazing, or tracking objects with the eyes. If an object disappears from the baby's field of vision, he'll fix his eyes on the spot where he last saw it.
Gurgling and cooing, raspberries, and other vocalizations mark his earliest attempts at verbal communication. The Montessori folks tell us to talk to the baby in a normal, conversational tone, and to do it all the time.
Mercifully for those of us with crybabies, self-soothing behaviors begin to emerge during this stage. We're still waiting for Van to get hold of his thumb. So far, he's sucking his fist. Right direction, but not quite satisfying for him.
The supportive environment: baby zen.
The baby's curiosity is evident, and needs support without overstimulation with too many choices. A few simple grasping objects placed at the edges of the baby's reach are developmentally appropriate. I use a cotton bandanna, a little rattle, and a toy bird (he digs the cardinal). All this practicing requires space and time for self-induced motor activity. In other words, floor time. He has to get out of that carrier and kick and stretch it all out.
Montessori infant gurus warn that we'll be tempted to "entertain" the baby with a lot of toys, baby talk and other kinds of performance, and they urge us to resist this as far as we can. Give the baby time to really explore simple objects. Let him hear and participate (as far as he is able) in normal conversational speech, and take time to make a safe space for him where he needn't be restrained by a carrier or other apparatus. We're waiting and watching, as he tries to communicate with us.