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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Baby at play

By Zenaida Serrano
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Heather Wittenberg of Pukalani plays with her daughter Sasha, 4 months old. Playtime is simple and doesn’t require fancy toys.

Courtesy of Keri Duke

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Heather Wittenberg

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Pukalani resident Heather Wittenberg, a licensed psychologist and mother of four young children, is the creator of BabyShrink, a parenting Web site that offers information and support on child and parent development for families in Hawai'i and beyond. Wittenberg — aka "Dr. Heather" — addresses questions regarding separation anxiety, potty training, tantrums and more.

Learn more; www.babyshrink.com.

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Parents: What's playtime like with your newborn baby? Share your ideas at HAWAII.MOMSLIKEME.COM

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Heather Wittenberg of Pukalani plays with her daughter Sasha, 4 months old. Play is how babies learn to interact.

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Sarah Burns of Lahaina recalls what playtime was like with her first baby.

Burns was extremely careful during those first few weeks.

"Oh, yeah, most definitely, I was much more afraid," said Burns, 32, whose son is now 5. She also has a 2-year-old daughter.

Many first-time parents are hesitant to interact and play with their tiny, seemingly fragile newborn bundles. On top of that, newbie mommies and daddies may be unclear as to what "playtime" actually entails.

"People think 'play' means you've got to bust out the toys and be really active," said Heather Wittenberg, a licensed psychologist from Pukalani who specializes in the development of babies, toddlers, preschoolers and parents. "The truth is, it's much more subtle than that."

Playtime is simple and doesn't require expensive, fancy toys — just the natural interaction between parent and baby, said Wittenberg, who is also the creator of www.BabyShrink.com, a Web site that offers information and support on child and parent development.

"Cuddling, cooing, smiling and talking to your baby are the best ways to 'play' with your newborn," said Dr. Michael H.T. Sia, a pediatrician and chairman of the department of pediatrics at Kapi'olani Medical Center for Women & Children.

Ideas to stimulate baby include simply carrying him, which provides the perfect vantage point for a wakeful newborn, as well as giving her a lot of different things to look at, said Sia, crediting British child psychologist Penelope Leach, who spent decades writing about child development.

Leach noted that while infants are not able to see anything more than a foot away in great detail, they still enjoy the play of shadows, contrasts and shapes that light brings. Cutouts with black and white patterns also fascinate newborns.

But "never feel guilty or stressed out about not stimulating your newborn's brain development," Sia added. "Einstein never used flash cards."

Burns, a writer for www.TheOhanaMama.com, quickly got over her new-parent jitters. She said favorite "playtime" activities with her newborn children included simple activities such as playing peek-a-boo on her lap, talking while doing the dishes and doing push-ups over baby while stealing kisses.

As much as parents should make it a priority to play with their babies every day, older siblings are encouraged to "play" with them too, said Wittenberg, who has four children ages 8, 7, 4 and 4 months.

"Your baby will respond differently to each family member," she said.

And the benefits of playtime go beyond bonding between baby and loved ones.

"It is the means by which babies learn to interact with others, make their needs known and get their needs met," Wittenberg said. "Babies learn via play as they try out new behaviors and see what happens."

For instance, Wittenberg said, a baby might wonder: If I want my Mommy to smile back at me, do I get better results by screaming, or by smiling and acting cute?

"So early play is the foundation of all communication and learning," Wittenberg said.

Burns advises first-time parents to play in "little spurts," keep things simple and feel absolutely no pressure.

"Just know that everything you do with them, they're soaking it all in," Burns said.

• • •


How do you play with a newborn baby? Psychologist and mommy Heather Wittenberg of Pukalani offers her top 10 tips:

• Take care of yourself. The more well-rested and centered you are, the more responsive you can be to your baby.

• Be a "baby detective." Learn your baby's unique rhythms, preferences and style. This will help you know when, and how, to best play with her.

• Mornings are often good playtimes. If you work, try to have a nice playtime with baby as you change, dress and feed her before you leave for work. Allow extra time so that you're not rushed.

• Use your eyes as the primary means of communicating with your newborn. She can control her eyes before she can control the rest of her body.

• Find the most comfortable position to maximize eye contact with your newborn: 12 to 18 inches is the optimum range. Try placing her on your lap (facing you), bouncy seat or the changing table for playtime.

• Use your voice to connect. Babies respond best to "motherese" — higher-pitched voices and simple phrases.

• "Match" your baby's communications. Move your body at about the same speed she moves hers, speak at the same volume and give her a visual break by looking away and backing off when she does.

• Focus on the "conversation." Playing with baby means taking turns talking, making faces and gesturing.

• Have realistic expectations. Newborn babies (up to 3 months old) may only make eye contact and "play" with you for a few seconds at a time. Offer her the opportunity to play several times a day, knowing you may only connect once in awhile.

• Try to play with her several times a day, but allow her some alert time alone each day to practice her new skills.

Reach Zenaida Serrano at 535-8174. Follow her Twitter updates at www.twitter.com/zenaidaserrano.