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Advice for New Parents

Five Mistakes New Parents Make

by Jenn Berman M.F.T., Psy.D.
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It has been said that children should come with an instruction manual. The first year of being a parent is particularly overwhelming and confusing. You want to do everything "right" to give your child a good head start, and at the same time you are being bombarded with information and opinions - some of it contradictory - from friends and family. Here are five of the most common mistakes I see in my private practice as a therapist and parenting consultant. All of them are easily avoided.

Not Talking to Your Baby Enough

A mother once asked me, "Why should I talk to my baby? He can't understand me anyway." Researchers say that the single biggest determinant in a child's language acquisition is exposure - and you are your child's most important language teacher. It has been shown that the sheer number of words spoken to a child is directly proportionate to the size of her vocabulary. Keep in mind, this only applies to direct conversations you have with your child - any words she overhears from television, videos, radio, or other conversations do not count.

One of the best ways to ensure your child gets the recommended 30,000 words a day for optimal language development is to get in the habit of narrating what you do before you do it. This type of communication also helps establish respect and a sense of security for the child. There are three types of narration:
  1. Telling your child what is going to happen ("Now I am going to pick you up")
  2. Narrating her experience ("I see you hit your head")
  3. Letting her know your expectation ("We are going to start putting away the toys in five minutes")
All three of these narrations help expose your child to vocabulary and enhance your relationship.

Waiting Too Long to Establish a Schedule

When I work with a family who has a child with poor sleep habits, it is inevitably traced back to the early years. Most frequently I see these sleep problems occur in homes that do not provide enough structure for children to develop optimal sleep habits early on. According to an American Academy of Pediatrics study of three-year-olds receiving treatment for sleep problems, 84 percent struggled with their sleep problem since infancy. Creating good sleep habits starts early and goes hand-in-hand with a good schedule.

Children cannot be expected to have the ability to be able to fall back asleep unassisted until they are four months old and weigh at least fourteen pounds. At that point they have the neurological and developmental ability to sleep through the night. Once they hit that point, it is possible to teach them the skills they need to fall back asleep. This is also the time to start gently guiding them into a regular schedule with a bedtime ritual that includes activities like a bath, story, and cuddles.

Creating a daytime routine can help your child's ability to sleep at night and nap during the day. In addition, routines provide the structure that children need to feel safe and secure, allowing them to flourish. Parents who keep their children on a schedule have an easier time recognizing and responding accurately to their cues, which in turn helps children feel understood and fosters self-esteem.

Introducing Television Too Early

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no television before the age of two. In August 2007, the Journal of Pediatrics released a damning study indicating that for every hour per day that babies age eight months to 16 months were shown "infantainment" DVDs (the study specifically used Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby videos), they knew six to eight fewer words than other children who did not watch those programs. In fact, early screen time has been linked to a whole host of other issues for children as well, including: attention deficit disorder, asthma, high blood pressure, poor sleep habits, impaired eyesight, academic problems, depression, poor creative thinking, aggression, anxiety, and obesity.

Some parents wisely choose not to put their young child in front of the television, but instead to have the TV on as background noise, thinking that because their child doesn't seem to notice it, it doesn't make a difference. But background television can be even more harmful. It prevents children from developing "inner speech," that inner voice that is used to develop memory ("I am supposed to wash my hands after I use the potty"), plan ahead ("I better put dolly away before Ashley comes because I don't want her playing with it"), and work out steps in solving a problem ("When I put the puzzle piece here, it doesn't fit, but if I put it there it might work better"). Television in the background has been shown to decrease the quality and quantity of independent play as well as reducing interactivity with parents. Because infants have a difficult time differentiating between sounds, the background noise that television creates is particularly detrimental to language development. In a study of word recognition in the presence of background speech, it was discovered that a seven-month-old infant was not able to distinguish words he was familiar with against the background noise.

What gets baby's neurons all lit up are real-life experiences: the feel of grass under his feet, the sound of Mommy's voice, cold finger paint on his hands, and the smell of the family dog after a swim. In order to learn, babies need to touch, smell, hear, and see -there are no shortcuts. Allowing infants to watch images on a screen will create lifelong viewing habits that will be hard to change.

Waiting to Start Reading to Your Child

If your child is old enough to talk to, she is old enough to read to. In addition to being a great way for parents to bond with their child, reading is a great way to expose children to vocabulary. Believe it or not, just reading three picture books each week has been shown to increase vocabulary by as much as 40 percent, a rate that continues to keep pace over time. I recommend that parents read at least three picture books each day. Most young children's books are short, so it will take you only a few minutes to read your child a board book like Rockin' Babies, or a storybook like The Snail and the Whale. It doesn't have to be War and Peace, but it does need to be interesting and engaging.

Children who are read to regularly have better attention spans and memory, score higher in tests of creativity, are better readers, and are superior listeners. A study of 150,000 fourth graders revealed that those who were frequently read to at home scored thirty points higher in listening comprehension. When your child starts school, the two biggest advantages you can give him are a large vocabulary and strong listening skills. Because most of the instruction children receive in the first four years of life is oral, children with these strengths tend to enjoy school and achieve much more than their peers.

Giving Too Much Praise

The self-esteem movement has been very misunderstood. Most parents have been led to believe that the way to help a child develop self-esteem is to praise him repeatedly. But all those "good job" "you're so smart" compliments have actually been shown to harm, not help children's self-esteem. A Columbia University study compared the responses of two groups of children who were given a test. One group was praised for their intelligence and the other group for their hard work. When given the opportunity to try a difficult puzzle, 90 percent of the children praised for their effort chose to try it, whereas the majority of the children praised for their intelligence chose an easier one. The researchers concluded that kids who are labeled "smart" become so concerned with losing that title that they are not willing to take risks for fear of underperforming. Those that are recognized for their efforts were willing to try something more difficult, because their hard work was a variable they could control.

Parents shouldn't stop offering their children positive feedback, but they should also make sure to be thoughtful with their praise. When giving praise, parents should:
  • Be very specific ("You got all your pee in the potty!").
  • Focus on the process over the outcome ("You made your hand so steady that you were able to stack the blocks really high!").
  • Be genuine and believable.
  • Try thanking instead of praising ("Thank you for being so patient while I made lunch!").
  • Encourage, instead of praise ("If you reach a little more you will be able to get the toy. You're so close! There you go! You got it!").
  • Try a nonverbal acknowledgement like a smile or a nod.
 
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Meet Our Expert
Jenn Berman M.F.T., Psy.D.
Marriage, Family and Child Therapist
Dr. Jenn Berman is a Marriage, Family and Child Therapist in private practice in Los Angeles. She is the author of the best selling books SuperBaby: 12 Ways to Give Your Child a Head Start in the First 3 Year, The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy Confident Kids, and the children's book Rockin' Babies. Her award winning "Dr. Jenn" parenting column is printed in Los Angeles Family Magazine and five other magazines and has been running since 2002. Dr. Jenn is also on the Board of Advisors for Parents Magazine.

Dr. Jenn has appeared as a psychological expert on hundreds of television shows including The Oprah Winfrey Show and is a regular on The Today Show, The Early Show, and CNN. She hosts a live daily call-in advice show called "The Love and Sex Show with Dr. Jenn" on Sirius/XM's Cosmo Radio 5-8 pm PST.

In addition, Dr. Jenn has an eco-friendly clothing line for adults and children called Retail Therapy . All the tees have positive "feel good" messages and are made of organic and recycled materials. Dr. Jenn lives in Los Angeles with her husband and twin daughters. For more information on go to www.DoctorJenn.com or follow her on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/drjenn.com and www.Facebook.com/DrJennBerman.
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