Early Childhood & Blindness
First of all, to the parents of young children with visual impairment, please be encouraged that your child can grow up and live a wonderfully productive and successful life. The important thing is to love and nurture your infant, toddler, or preschooler the same as you would a sighted child. Allow your child with a visual impairment to move, explore, make mistakes, fall down and get back up again, skin his knees, run, jump, climb, and try new experiences. Stand behind your child, giving him the support and encouragement he needs to be the best he can be, whatever that is. Know that blindness is just that…blindness. It is not life-threatening and it doesn’t mean he can’t learn. He will grow up to be a wonderful, successful adult. He just needs a few accommodations to open up doors for him. Sometimes infants with visual impairments may seem to develop on a different timetable than sighted children. The key word is different and this doesn’t necessarily mean your child is delayed. If your child has additional challenges other than vision impairment, he may be delayed developmentally. But that is another topic. For the most part, even if during the very early years, there are some differences between your child’s development and that of sighted children, your child will probably catch up with his peers by the time he reaches elementary school if you allow him to experience and do a variety of activities.
Parents are their children’s first teachers and this begins at birth. When a child is born, he emerges from a safe, dark, warm, quiet place where there is no gravity and movement is free and easy. When he comes into the world it is cold and suddenly there is gravity pulling on his little body and noise. He has to learn to move against this gravity, process light, noise, and movement, which can be rather chaotic. The first person to be there for him is his mother. Here the education begins.
The first experience mother and baby begin doing is communicating and socializing with one another. For a sighted child, this involves mom holding the infant very close to her face, looking in his eyes, smiling, cooing, and talking to her newborn…and the baby responds by looking back, perhaps smiling, listening, and taking in this very important person in his life. He may even coo back. A baby with low vision may respond the same way. A baby with no vision may respond very differently, but he is still responding. He is listening to his mother’s voice, smelling her smells, feeling her touch. He may not know how to smile because he cannot see his mother’s smile to imitate it. But he is just as interested in knowing who his mother is. He may appear to be passive and uninterested, yet he is listening to his mother’s loving chatter, smelling his mother’s scent, and feeling the softness of his mother’s skin as she rubs her cheek against his. He can hear and feel her heartbeat as she lays him on her chest. He is learning about this person who will be one of the most important people in his life. He is learning about unconditional love and acceptance.
You may or may not realize your child is blind or has a visual impairment the moment he is born. If you do not know, then you will be treating your child the same as you would a sighted child anyway. If you do know right away, you may be experiencing a host of emotions that include shock, anger, confusion, disbelief, guilt, and have a myriad of unanswered questions building up inside…and you will probably cry…a lot. As you wrestle with the unknowns of why, keep in mind that your baby does not know anything different. To him, this is the way the world is supposed to be. He just wants someone to love him, touch him, feed him, accept him, change him, bathe him, hold him, and let him know he is as perfect and beautiful as he can be. As you focus on the person your baby is, instead of the vision loss, you will begin to appreciate him more for who he is.
One activity that can help with this bonding experience with your baby is to do infant massage. This is a wonderful way to include dad in the bonding experience, too. “Touching is the first communication a baby receives. The first language of its development is through the skin” (Leboyer, 1976). For an infant who is blind, touch is very important. However, some blind infants may be sensitive to touch and have a defensiveness for touch. Infant massage is a way to communicate in a positive way, through touch. It may even help your infant to learn to enjoy and not be afraid of touch, which is really important for later development and learning. Blind infants tend to communicate through their bodies, especially their hands, instead of through facial expressions (Fraiberg, 1977). As you become closer to your infant, you will learn to read how your infant communicates with you through movement and touch. As you touch, it is important to also talk to your baby, listen to your baby, and respond to your baby. Schneider (2003) shares this intimate story, “For the mother of a child with cerebral palsy, infant massage has made a world of difference in her ability to open up a line of communication with her child. ‘My baby used to just be a baby,’ she said. ‘Now he is a baby, and he has a personality. Infant massage gave him a way to express himself-giggling, or interacting in a dialogue when he had never been able to speak before’” (para. 11).
According to Lowenfeld (1981) and Lueck, et al. (2008), there are three basic areas that hinder cognitive development:
- the range and variety of experiences
- the ability to get about, and
- the control of the environment and the self in relation to the environment (p. 115 in Lueck, et al (2008).
Inadequacy of touch, smell, taste, and hearing to give important information about the environment will hinder the infant’s understanding and conceptual awareness of his or her surroundings. Touch, smell, taste, and hearing are the only senses available to an infant with a visual impairment with which to gain the important information necessary for learning. “Incidental learning takes place when sighted children visually take in what is happening around them and learn from it. A visually impaired child will miss this type of learning. Therefore, much of the learning for visually impaired children needs to be intentionally taught by the parents both verbally and tactually (Bishop, 1998). Due to the lack of visual stimulation, infants may not be motivated to reach out and explore their surroundings. Instead, they become self-absorbed by entertaining themselves through rocking, playing with their fingers, making funny noises, or other patterns of obtaining sensations (Lueck, et al., 2008)” (Biggs, 2014, p. 20).
Biggs, S. (2014). Parent involvement, an integral part of the early learning experience for blind children: A qualitative study of the mother’s experience. Available at ProQuest UMI.
Biggs, S. (2011). Infant massage for visually impaired babies. Retrieved from http://www.wonderbaby.org/blog/infant-massage-for-visually-impaired-babies/
Bishop, V. (1998). Infants and toddlers with visual impairments. Retrieved from http://www.tsbvi.edu/curriculum-a-publications/1051-infants-and-toddlers-with-visual-impairments-by-virginia-bishop#attachments
Fraiberg, S. (1977). Insights from the blind. New York: Basic Books.
Leboyer, F. (1976). Loving hands: The traditional art of baby massage. New York: New Market Press
Lowenfeld, B. (1981). Berthold Lowenfeld on blindness and blind people. New York: AFB Press.
Lueck, A., Chen, D., Kekelis, L., Hartmann, E. (2008).
Developmental guidelines for infants with visual impairments: A guidebook for early intervention.
2 ed. Louisville, KY: American Printing House for the Blind, Inc. Schneider, E. (2003). Touch communication: The power of infant massage. Retrieved from http://www.healthyfamily.org/cs/user/print/article/2