by Celia Brayfield
When you gaze at your new baby and wonder what destiny has in store, you hope dyslexia won’t be part of the picture, with its possible consequence of alienation. However, parents can act to minimise the possibility.
According to Sally Goddard Blythe, who runs the Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology (INPP), a self-funding research and clinical organisation based in Chester, there are factors of family life that interfere with the development of a child’s mind. Her book The Well Balanced Child describes how the infant mind matures and what action parents can take to help it develop.
She argues that the restrictions of a modern childhood, with small homes, baby-seats and reduced opportunities for movement, produces problems. A couch-potato lifestyle can have mental as well as physical consequences. The INPP has 30 years of experience in working with children whose learning difficulties begin in infancy, when they don’t move enough, and in the right way, for their brains to develop the abilities they need to master reading and writing.
“In the first year of life, important connections are being formed between the brain and the body,” Goddard Blythe says. “Balance, co-ordination and eye movements, which a child needs before it can read, all depend on these connections.”
One thing that interferes is a persistence of the reflex reactions of the newborn. These give the baby survival instincts, prompting it to search for the breast, gain control of its body and react to danger. As the baby grows, the movements of crawling suppress the reflexes, which die as the child develops balance.
Babies who don’t crawl or aren’t active enough in their first year retain their newborn reflexes and have to struggle against them. Not only could they have difficulty in reading and writing, but they may also be clumsy and unco-ordinated, have trouble tying shoelaces, riding a bicycle, catching balls and find it hard to do things that involve two skills together – such as copying from a whiteboard.
Immature reflexes may also show up in a child’s feelings and behaviour, because the balance mechanism in the brain also has emotional connections, so children might be hyper-reactive, have trouble concentrating, be easily upset and be overly anxious, fearful or aggressive.
The INPP has developed a ten-minute remedial exercise programme, being tried out in schools. Studies in Cumbria and Derbyshire have indicated that it is twice as effective as traditional exercise and four times better than none at all, in improving reading and writing and behaviour in primary schoolchildren. A study of 670 children — average age eight — in seven schools in Northern Ireland showed improved concentration and a trend towards higher academic achievements.
Every child with learning difficulties is different and has a unique cluster of physical, mental and emotional challenges to overcome. The analysis isn’t a perfect fit, but in some cases it can turn a child’s life around. Of course, it is better to need no remedial exercises. “The process of maturation is hard-wired into our instincts,” says Goddard Blythe. “All children need to develop normally is the opportunity to do the natural thing.”
This means giving a baby ample space and freedom of movement, particularly in the first year. She suggests that from the age of about six weeks a baby should have “tummy time”, when it can lie on its front and wriggle freely. “And don’t make the mistake I made. I was so delighted to have a girl after two boys that I put her in pretty dresses, which aren’t nearly as easy for a baby to move in as Babygros,” she says.
The baby will naturally start doing “push-ups”, raising its head and upper body, and within a few months will start crawling — this is vital for its neurological development.
Because the sense of balance is so important, she suggests a traditional rocking cradle, and for older children those bouncing and swinging games are developmentally vital. They help children to gain mind-body co-ordination. Old-fashioned swings and roundabouts are probably better than adventure playgrounds.
Goddard Blythe’s recommendations include music and singing, reading, conversation, optimum nutrition and family meals. In fact, she concludes, the classic Enid Blyton childhood, with country picnics, nursery rhymes and cod-liver oil, had an awful lot going for it.
The Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology; 01244 311414. http://www.inpp.org.uk/
The Well Balanced Child by Sally Goddard Blythe (Hawthorn Press)
Source: Times Online