I remember the joy when my son clutched a toy for the very first time. My baby can hold a toy! “Oh wait”, said the voice of anxiety in the mommy head. “Is he right-handed or left handed?” “Come on, it’s too early to tell”, said another voice (I’d like to believe it was the voice of wisdom. Yep, it’s still somewhere there in the mommy brain.)
Of course it was waaaay too early to tell, but as a parent, isn’t it one of the things you’re asking too? My son is now 14 months old. He can hold things in both hands, he can pass things from one hand to another. Yet it’s still too early to tell. And is it that important? Are you going to love your child less if he’s left-handed? Or if you’re left-handed, are you going to like a righty less? Or are you secretly hoping, he or she will be left-handed – a hidden genius and rugged artist with the wildest imagination? Sometimes we just wave the hand and say ‘We parents worry too much.’
Not until the age of 3-4 (some sources say 2-3, as always, babies are individualities) can we talk about absolute laterality. Once babies start grabbing things, they may prefer one hand over the other. But before the age of 1 they actually should be using both hands and experimenting with both parts of their body equally. If they have very strict preference at this age, it could be because the parents hand them objects into one hand only; then it’s good to switch the hands here and there. If this is not the case, it’s good to check (preferably with assistance of a pediatrician) for a possible muscle weakness or underdevelopment.
When talking about laterality, most people think about hands first. But laterality refers to a preference for a whole body side. Humans’ ear and eye laterality should be ideally identical with hand laterality. If it’s not, it could lead to learning problems in the future – it may be crucial in the way a child processes information. So as we, parents, anxiously watch for the “handedness”, we should watch for possible signs where a child is using one eye or ear more when forced to choose.
Breastfed babies are in a slight advantage when it comes to eye and ear stimulation – they get usually fed from both breasts, so primary sound and vision stimulation changes with each breast. Bottle-fed babies tend to be held in the same position when being fed. If you have a bottle-fed baby, you might try to stimulate him in different positions.
The same applies if your diaper changing station is by the wall with a parent changing always from one side. You might consider either changing the side with each diaper change or, which is even better for you and the baby, move the table so the baby’s feet are towards your body and you look at your baby from above. This is by the way the most preferred diaper changing position in Motessori-style upbringing.
How to support muscle development in both hands? Children as young as 10 months can be handed crayons and showed, how to use them on paper. Don’t expect any miracles, your baby will need a few sessions to figure out things (and you’ll need a bit of patience trying to stop her eating the crayons:) ), but you can start with drawing some simple shapes, letting them scribble over them and filling them with different colours. Describe what you’re doing and you have just developed an educational game! Example:
Look, I’m drawing a blue square! Will you help me colour it? Now we’re making a red circle.
You can even make it a pre-diner game when one partner is preparing the meal and the rest of the family is waiting at the table (and you have a brand new family ritual!). While ambidexterity (equal skills with both hands) is very rare, children are natural learners and using both hands for easier tasks is a game for them, so even older children can take part and try drawing the same easy shape with each hand taking turns.
I like these triangular crayons for the first experiments – they don’t roll away, are non-toxic AND washable. Washable is important. Mark my words…
Just remember – we all are unique and possess individual nervous systems – you cannot change your baby’s laterality and you SHOULDN’T try.
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