American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
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Developing Multisensory Skills in Blind Babies

by Amber Bobnar

Reprinted with permission from https://www.wonderbaby.org/.

From the Editor: Amber Bobnar's website, wonderbaby.org, is a trove of information and resources for parents of children with disabilities of every kind and combination. In this article she considers the challenges faced by blind babies as they strive to reach their developmental milestones. She suggests a variety of toys that can help children move forward, having fun all along the way.  

Typical infant development is very visual, but this modality is missing or strongly diminished in babies who are blind or have low vision. Most of our understanding of infant development relies on observing how babies respond to visual cues. Understanding how both blind and sighted babies interact with touch and sound can help us support blind babies as they learn about their world.

Integrating Sensory Inputs

Vision acts as a way to integrate different sensory inputs. For example, if you see a dog, hear it bark, and touch its soft fur, you can use your vision to pull all those elements together and understand what a dog is. For infants who are blind, the loss of the visual component makes it difficult to understand that the soft animal they can touch and the barking sound they may hear from a distance come from the same source.

Ivan Bobnar sits in a car-seat playing with a toy bumblebee.

Vision is even more critical as children develop an understanding of space and how their body is oriented in a room or how objects are related to each other. A recent study entitled "Multisensory Spatial Perception in Visually Impaired Infants," published in the November 2021 issue of Current Biology, explores how sighted and blind or low-vision babies respond to touch and sound, and how this may affect their understanding of how they are oriented in their environment. The study researchers emphasize that "the important role that vision plays in the early development of multisensory spatial perception raises the possibility that impairments in spatial perception are at the heart of the wide range of difficulties that many visually-impaired infants show across spatial, motor, and social domains."

Touch, Sound, and Sensory Integration

In sighted infants sensory integration relies heavily on the visual. Sensory integration plays a role in body perception, manipulation, interaction, and coordination. Sighted babies use all of their senses together to understand their bodies and the world around them. But what if we were to try to isolate how both sighted and blind babies respond primarily to touch and sound?

This study looked at how both sighted and blind babies responded to objects that (a) made a sound, (b) vibrated, or (c) made a sound and vibrated at the same time. These objects were placed in babies' hands, and their responses were recorded.

When given objects that make both a sound and vibration, both groups responded faster than with tactile or audio alone. However, the sighted babies were quicker and more accurate.

When presented with one object that makes sounds and one that vibrates, sighted babies showed a preference for sound, and blind babies overwhelmingly preferred touch. Interestingly, when blind babies were presented with objects that vibrated but did not make noise, they showed "faster and more accurate localization of tactile stimuli on the hands when their hands were crossed" than did their sighted peers.

Some of the conclusions from the study were:

These differences are noticeable in baby development. Blind babies, for example, often won't reach out for a toy that is making sounds until they are twelve months old, while sighted babies reach for sound-making toys at around five to six months old.

Now slightly older, Ivan plays with a set of bongos.

Focusing on multisensory play, combining sounds and touch, and playing with toys close to your baby's body, then pulling them away to encourage reaching and exploring, can help your baby develop better spatial awareness. According to researchers, "Such approaches may help visually impaired infants make better use of auditory and multisensory space to help them link the tactile world of the body to the outside world of objects and people."

Five Toys that Encourage Development of Sensory Integration and Spatial Awareness in Blind Babies

  1. Wrist Rattles and Foot-Finder Socks

    Wrist rattles and foot-finder socks have bells inside. The wrist rattles attach with simple Velcro, making them easy to put on and take off. These are fun tactile toys designed to be placed directly on your baby's body to encourage body exploration and movement, including crossing midline.

    Toys make sounds when they shake, so your baby can learn that they can create noises when they move their hands or feet. This activity not only encourages body awareness but also introduces the concept of cause and effect, teaching your baby that they can manipulate their environment.

    Once your baby is comfortable reaching for the toys while they are attached to their body, try taking the toys off and holding them a few inches away from your baby. Encourage your baby to reach and move a bit outside their comfort zone!

  2. Toys with Multiple Textures

    Exploring toys with multiple textures can help blind infants discriminate between objects. Help your baby touch things that produce different tactile sensations and find out which they prefer. The Multi-Sensory Taco from Melissa & Doug is a great early toy because it includes differing textures, and some of the pieces make a crinkle sound. The toy allows your baby to place objects in or take them out of the taco shell.

    Sensory mats are another fun way to introduce new textures to your baby. Mats are great for tummy time, or you can place the mat under your baby's feet while they are in a baby jumper. We have a set of these sensory bean bags with different textures, and we absolutely love the quality and durability of these touchable pieces. As your child grows, this also doubles as a fun sorting or matching game!

  3. Toys That Combine Touch and Sound

    If you are trying to encourage your baby to explore more freely, large piano mats are enticing musical toys that lie flat on the ground and are great for crawling or reaching babies. Use a glue gun to add different textures to each piano key, and you've got an appealing multi-sensory musical play spot!

  4. Toys That Vibrate

    If you prefer vibrating toys that stay in one place, the Hug and Tug Musical Bug can hang from a car seat or stroller, encouraging reaching and exploring in a safe place. The bug plays music and vibrates for 90 seconds after being pulled, making it a great cause-and-effect toy and also coaxing your baby to reach out again when the music stops.

  5. Hanging Toys That Make Sound

    Simple mobiles or baby gyms are designed to motivate babies to reach and feel more comfortable exploring away from their bodies, which can be difficult for blind babies to master. Baby gyms that also include sounds, like the Wooden Hanging Activity Center available from Amazon, combine both reaching and sound prompts, making it perfect for blind and low-vision babies and toddlers.

For more toy ideas with links to specific products, visit https://www.wonderbaby.org/articles/multisensory-skills-blind-babies

Reference

Gori, M., Campus, C., et al. "Multisensory Spatial Perception in Visually Impaired Infants," Current Biology, November 2021. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/s0960982221012513

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