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Let babies play! Study shows free play may help infants learn and develop

At a time in development when infants must acquire information about what objects are and what they can do with them, massive amounts of practice playing with a variety of objects at home is beneficial for learning. And varied exploration is adaptive.

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Photo by Shirota Yuri from Unsplash.com

The benefits of object play (blocks, puzzles, cars, dolls and so on) for infant learning and development are well documented. However, nearly nothing is known about how natural play unfolds in the ecologically valid home environment (real-life settings). Indeed, research on infant play is limited to structured tasks in child-friendly lab environments, where infants engage with predetermined objects for a fixed amount of time.

Although structured observations illuminate how infants explore, interact, and learn with novel objects under controlled conditions, they reveal little about how infants spontaneously play in their everyday environments.

A new study published in Child Development by researchers at New York University aimed to address this gap by examining infant free play outside the confines of a lab setting and pre-selected toys.

“Our findings show an essential first step in identifying the everyday inputs to infants’ natural learning,” said Catherine Tamis-LeMonda, Professor of Applied Psychology at New York University. “At a time in development when infants must acquire information about what objects are and what they can do with them, massive amounts of practice playing with a variety of objects at home is beneficial for learning. And varied exploration is adaptive. We thus seek to flip the narrative from a critique of what infants have not yet achieved to an acknowledgement of how infants interact with their natural learning environment at home.”

Study participants included 40 infants: 20 13-month-olds, 10 18-month-olds and 10 23-month-olds. Twice as many 13-month-olds were observed to enable comparisons between crawlers and walkers. Most infants were from White (75%), middle-class English-speaking families and were only children. Families were recruited in New York City through hospitals, referrals, and brochures. Mothers ranged from 27 to 46 years old and most (93%) had earned college or higher degrees and 65% worked part- or full-time. The study was conducted between December 2017 and September 2019. Families received a $75 gift card for each visit.

An experimenter recorded infants and their mothers with a handheld video camera during two home visits with minimal interference. Infants were free to interact with whatever objects were available. Object interaction was defined as infants manually displacing an object with their hands. Banging hands on a table or swiping hands on a surface did not count if the infant did not displace the object nor did touches with body parts other than the hands (e.g., kicking a ball, sucking on a pacifier) or touches to the infants’ own body (including clothing), the mother’s body, or a pet’s body.

During play at home, where objects abound and infants were free to play as they wished, babies transitioned among dozens of objects per hour in short bursts of activity, flitting between toys and non-toys alike. The short interactions added up to infants spending 60% of their time interacting with objects. Moreover, infants spent as much time playing with household objects—bins, boxes, pillows, remote controls, stools, cabinet doors, and so on—as they did with toys. Such findings provide a key to understanding how object play might facilitate everyday learning and development.

“Our research yields an unprecedented picture of infants’ spontaneous object interactions,” said Orit Herzberg, postdoctoral fellow at New York University. “Instead of viewing infant behavior as flighty and distractible, infants’ exuberant activity should be viewed as a developmental asset—an ideal curriculum for learning about the properties and functions that propels growth in motor, cognitive, social and language domains. Infants learn about the world by playing with as many things as possible, in short bursts of activity. And every object is a potential play object.”

The authors acknowledge several limitations of the research. First, infants were drawn from predominantly White, upper-middle class, educated families living in a large metropolitan area, thus the experiment was not tested in other samples, including communities where manufactured toys are rare or even nonexistent. Additionally, infants’ object interactions were only observed with their mothers present; thus whether infants’ spontaneous interactions vary by different types of social engagement remains an open question.  

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5 Steps for women to reduce their risk of COPD

Women tend to develop COPD earlier in life than men and are more likely to have severe symptoms and be hospitalized with the disease. The good news? According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk for COPD.

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If you’re a woman who tries to stay healthy, you may exercise several times per week, watch what you eat and get 7-9 hours of sleep each night. But are you listening to your lungs?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a leading cause of disability and death in the United States, takes an especially heavy toll on women. You may think problems like shortness of breath, frequent coughs or wheezing are just signs of getting older, but it’s important to pay attention to these symptoms and discuss them with your doctor.

COPD is a serious lung disease that causes breathing problems and worsens over time. It has often been considered a man’s disease. Yet more women than men have been diagnosed with COPD in the past decade, and over the past 20 years more women have died from it, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Women tend to develop COPD earlier in life than men and are more likely to have severe symptoms and be hospitalized with the disease. The good news? According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk for COPD.

Don’t Smoke

You probably already know cigarette smoking is harmful  but did you know that women may be more vulnerable to the effects of smoking? Women who smoke tend to get COPD at younger ages and with less cigarettes smoked than men. COPD is the leading cause of death among U.S. women smokers.

If you do smoke, it’s never too late to quit.

If you thought vaping was a healthy alternative to smoking, think again. Researchers are still learning about the long-term health effects of e-cigarettes, but they may contain as many, if not more, harmful chemicals than tobacco cigarettes.

Avoid Pollutants

Among people with COPD who have never smoked, most are women. Women may be more vulnerable to indoor and outdoor air pollution. Women’s smaller lungs and airways mean the same amount of inhaled pollutants may cause more damage.

Working in places like nail salons, hair salons or dry cleaners can expose you to harmful chemicals. If you’re exposed to chemical fumes at your job, talk to your employer about ways to limit exposure. Better ventilation and wearing a mask can help.

Stay Current on Vaccines

People at risk for COPD are more likely to have serious problems resulting from some vaccine-preventable diseases. Ask a health care provider about getting vaccinated against the flu, pneumococcal disease and COVID-19.

Talk to Your Doctor About COPD

Women with COPD tend to be diagnosed later than men when the disease is more severe and treatments are less effective. If you think you could be at risk, or you are having symptoms, bring it up with your health care provider. Treatment can ease symptoms and improve your ability to exercise.

Learn More to Breathe Better

Find more information on COPD from NHLBI’s Learn More Breathe Better program at copd.nhlbi.nih.gov.

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2 Steps to save a life

“By equipping people with Hands-Only CPR training, we are empowering them to spring into action if a loved one needs help, as the majority of cardiac arrests occur at home.”

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More than 350,000 sudden cardiac arrests occur annually outside hospital settings. However, a hands-on emergency intervention like cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), especially if performed immediately, can double or triple a cardiac arrest victim’s chance of survival.

According to the American Heart Association, 70% of cardiac arrests – electrical malfunctions in the heart that cause an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) and disrupt the flow of blood to the brain, lungs and other organs – occur at home, but often family and friends who witness a child, spouse, parent or friend going into cardiac arrest hesitate to perform potentially lifesaving CPR for fear of making the situation worse.

“By equipping people with Hands-Only CPR training, we are empowering them to spring into action if a loved one needs help, as the majority of cardiac arrests occur at home,” said Dr. Anezi Uzendu, M.D., interventional cardiologist and American Heart Association volunteer.

As part of its Hands-Only CPR campaign, nationally supported by the Elevance Health Foundation, the American Heart Association aims to increase awareness about the importance of bystander CPR and offers these two simple steps:

1.      Call 911.
2.      Push hard and fast in the center of the chest of the individual experiencing cardiac arrest.

Using the beat of a familiar song with 100-120 beats per minute, such as “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees, can help you stay on pace with the necessary compressions.

“Being able to efficiently perform Hands-Only CPR in the moment can mean the difference between life and death, and by following these two simple steps we can increase someone’s chance of survival from cardiac arrest,” said Shantanu Agrawal, M.D., board certified emergency medicine doctor and chief health officer at Elevance Health. “As a longstanding supporter of the American Heart Association, we remain focused on working together to improve health inequities in our communities by expanding access to training and increasing the number of people who learn and feel confident performing Hands-Only CPR to save lives.”

To find more information, watch a livestream video demonstration of Hands-Only CPR or download a first aid smartphone app, visit heart.org/CPR.

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What you eat could contribute to your menstrual cramps

Roughly 90% of adolescent girls experience menstrual pain. Most use over-the-counter medicine to manage the pain but with limited positive results. Evidence has highlighted that diets high in omega-3 fatty acids and low in processed foods, oil, and sugar reduce inflammation, a key contributor to menstrual pain.

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Despite the fact that menstrual pain (dysmenorrhea) is the leading cause of school absences for adolescent girls, few girls seek treatment. An analysis of relevant studies suggests that diet may be a key contributor, specifically diets high in meat, oil, sugar, salt, and coffee, which have been shown to cause inflammation.

Roughly 90% of adolescent girls experience menstrual pain. Most use over-the-counter medicine to manage the pain but with limited positive results. Evidence has highlighted that diets high in omega-3 fatty acids and low in processed foods, oil, and sugar reduce inflammation, a key contributor to menstrual pain.

This analysis was designed to study the effect of diet on menstrual pain and identify which foods contribute to it and which can reduce it. Research was conducted through a literature review that found multiple studies that examined dietary patterns that resulted in menstrual pain. In general terms, these studies found that diets high in omega-6 fatty acids promote inflammation and foods high in omega-3 fatty acids reduce it. The muscles in the uterus contract because of prostaglandins, which are active in inflammatory responses. When measuring the Dietary Inflammatory Index, it was found that those on a vegan diet (that excluded animal fat) had the lowest rates of inflammation.

“Researching the effects of diet on menstrual pain started as a search to remedy the pain I personally experienced; I wanted to understand the science behind the association. Learning about different foods that increase and decrease inflammation, which subsequently increase or reduce menstrual pain, revealed that diet is one of the many contributors to health outcomes that is often overlooked. I am hopeful that this research can help those who menstruate reduce the pain they experience and shed light on the importance of holistic treatment options,” says Serah Sannoh, lead author of the poster presentation from Rutgers University.

“Since menstrual pain is a leading cause of school absenteeism for adolescent girls, it’s important to explore options that can minimize the pain. Something like diet modification could be a relatively simple solution that could provide substantial relief for them,” said Dr. Stephanie Faubion, NAMS medical director.

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