Senses working overtime
Nicolette Lee starts with a massage, goes swimming and then she's off to the gym - it's a pretty packed diary when you are only 11 months old. But her mother, Christabel Lee-Lau, reckons it is all worthwhile.
Because of the number of classes Nicolette attends, Lee says some people will think she's a tiger mother. 'But I was reading online prior to having a baby about what classes are available.'
She stumbled across PEKiP, a child development programme aimed at facilitating babies' development in their first year through play and movement, and before long, mother and daughter were signed up for classes in Hong Kong run by Anne Knecht-Boyer.
Lee is among a growing number of Hong Kong parents who believe the more so-called 'sensory' experiences their babies have, the better prepared they will be for school and university.
Established in Germany more than 30 years ago, PEKiP (Prague Parent-Infant Programme) is a system of exercises based on the ideas of a Czech expert on mother and child care, and Knecht-Boyer says it includes massage and activities conducted with parents to promote bonding and enhance babies' cognitive and motor skills.
'Research shows that your baby's first year is really important for brain development and future health and well-being,' she says. 'For optimum development, a baby needs a stimulating environment to play and learn. Parents can learn how to speed up the development of their children's psychomotor skills through play and other activities. This can help prevent the learning difficulties experienced by some older children in school.'
With a maximum of eight babies, classes are organised around different age groups - six weeks to three months, four to six months and seven to 12 months - with activities tailored to match.
As the babies get older, they are introduced to increasingly challenging activities. 'We focus on things like tummy time, which helps babies learn to push up and crawl,' says Knecht-Boyer.
Other activities include visual-fixing or tracking, when various colourful toys are held or moved in front of a baby's eyes, prompting them to focus on the object and strengthen their optical muscles. Rocking a baby is also important to strengthen the vestibular system of the inner ear which aids the child's sense of balance and co-ordination, says Knecht-Boyer.
Her goal is to ensure that babies meet their development milestones on time, she says.
However, some experts warn of sensory overload. Dr Lise Eliot, associate professor of neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School, says the rate of motor achievement in infancy has little relevance to a child's overall development. In her book, What's Going on in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life, Eliot says it cannot, for instance, reliably predict later IQ scores or any other measure of cognitive development.
'Just because a baby can't walk at 15 months, doesn't mean he won't be taking calculus in high school or even play starting forward on the basketball team,' she writes. 'As long as he is within the normal range for acquiring motor skills in infancy, there is no reason for concern about his later achievement.'
Practice is essential for building motor skills, she says - provided it's conducted at the right time. 'Done too early, the necessary circuits simply aren't there to benefit from it,' she says. 'Indeed, some researchers believe that premature practice can actually interfere with the acquisition of certain skills, either because it ends up training the wrong neural pathways or because the baby grows frustrated with trying to do something he has no hope of mastering at the time.'
Still, Lee remains a convert. Nicolette's development is very advanced compared to other children of her age, she says. 'She sat up very early and she's been crawling since she was six months old,' says Lee. 'The class was kind of nerve-racking at first because Nicolette cried the first four or five times we went. I think it was because they have to get naked and it's not something she enjoyed. But now she loves it and her physical development has really developed.'
When Knecht-Boyer introduced PEKiP classes in 1999, hers was the only child development programme in Hong Kong. Since then, similar classes have sprung up in the city.
At Baby Step in Tin Hau, organiser Michelle Lau runs a range of sensory classes designed to stimulate spatial awareness and visual, auditory and tactile senses, including Baby Sensory, a system developed in Britain.
'The theory is that babies are born with millions of brain cells but the connections between brain cells are not established,' Lau says. 'But during the first year, stimulation will help to develop more connections and develop a more solid foundation for later learning.'
Baby Step, which opened about a year ago, designs classes around a different theme - say, pirates or the beach - each week.
'Every class is different; for instance, one week we might have baby signing to help language development and another week we will have fresh flowers and herbs to smell,' Lau says.
Dr Li Hui, assistant professor specialising in early childhood education at the University of Hong Kong, says development is akin to a marathon.
'A leading start does not mean a leading end,' Li says. 'Just because you start earlier doesn't mean you can achieve more than others. Education is a lifelong thing.'
Sensational Baby, founded by former primary school teacher Kathryn Eagle, is among the newest providers of sensory programmes. Launched in April, the classes promote sensory development, nurturing and exploratory play for babies and young children from six weeks to two years old.
Babies exposed to visual, auditory, tactile, taste and spatial activities are ready to explore the world and are more active and creative, Eagle says. 'A strong sensory base helps babies process the information they need to thrive.'
The classes can also be a confidence-booster for new parents such as Sher Martelle-Climas, who has been attending with her seven-month-old son Carys.
The first months with a baby can be challenging and sometimes lonely, says Martelle-Climas.
'We constantly question how well we are doing as parents, we seek opinions, we compare. Sensational Baby really offers a secure atmosphere to air thoughts or worries, and receive support. '
PEKiP, 7/F, Ming Tak Building, 101 Wan Chai Road, Wan Chai; www. pekip.com.hk, tel: 2573 6623, email: email@example.com