(RxWiki News) The first few years of life are filled with constant discoveries and learning experiences, giving us much of what we will use for the rest of our lives.
The medical community and parents both have long known that this is a crucial time in development, and now the two realms of motor skills and social skills have been tied together.
"Motor skill development is crucial in infants"
Klaus Libertus, a lead researcher at the Kennedy Krieger Institute’s Center for Autism and Related Disorders, conducted a study which showed that early motor development was a big contributor to infants' understanding of the social world around them. This link is important for all babies, but for those who are delayed in social development, it could provide an invaluable tool.
Previous research at the Institute has found that infants who are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) exhibit less interest in faces than normally developing babies, and they have lower social orienting. In Libertus' recent study, 36 typically developing three-month-old infants were divided into two groups.
The first group received active motor experiences, in the form of "sticky mittens." These were Velcro mittens with which the babies could easily grasp toys also covered in Velcro. The babies were encouraged to reach out for the toys.
The second group was given the same mittens and toys, but without the Velcro. This resulted in a passive experience, as they could only interact with the toys as parents provided the movement and stimulation, rather than utilizing their own motor skills.
After two weeks of observation, researchers tracked the babies' eye movements and compared the two groups to each other, as well as to control groups of infants outside the study. Results showed that the active group showed more interest in faces, focusing on faces first, in ways that were comparable to five-month-old infants who had not gone through the sticky mitten training.
By contrast, the passive group of babies showed no preference between faces and objects. The more reaching attempts that infants made, the stronger their tendency was to prefer and focus on faces.
"For parents, this means that early motor development is very important and they should encourage motor experiences and active exploration by their child," Libertus said. "Fostering motor development doesn’t have to be complex or require sticky mittens. Any interactions or games that encourage a child to develop independent motor skills are important."
The study also shows that when motor skills are delayed or impaired, such as with autism, social development could be negatively impacted. Infants at risk for ASD or who show signs of abnormal social development may benefit from motor training as early as three months of age.
Study findings were published in the September 2011 issue of Developmental Science.