Selecting toys that promote physical, social, and mental development for blind babies and children
Babies and children with vision impairment or blindness have a completely unique set of developmental requirements which often go unmet. Consequently, milestones for a blind child are often significantly delayed compared to the development of a sighted child. Appropriate stimulation of other senses and proper intervention can be crucial. It is well documented that infants with visual impairments have a similar level of variability of skill acquisition as sighted children, and careful attention to the sensory input given to the blind child can be useful to help make up for visual losses.
Not any noisy toy is beneficial for a blind baby - toys that appropriately stimulate other senses must be selected or it is simply meaningless noise with no source. Tactile, motor, and auditory cues must work together in order to give the child appropriate input about their surroundings. The toy should also provide information about the interaction with it, including location, cause, and source of the sound.
It is also often difficult for blind babies to comprehend causal relationships in the world around them. Consequently, the motivation to act can be absent or delayed compared to the development of sighted children. It important that blind babies have toys that assist them in better understanding the role that they themselves play in influencing, manipulating, and controlling their environment.
Blind babies can sometimes be hesitant to explore their environment due to a fear of what they cannot see - consequently, blind kids may be lacking some of the natural incentives for environmental exploration. Toys must therefore be carefully selected to encourage physical development in a way that encourages blind babies to safely explore. Toys that encourage self-initiated mobility are especially necessary in order to help blind babies learn to raise the body onto the arms, raise to a sitting position, pull to a stand, and begin to walk on their own. Blind child also need interactive toys to allow them to observe the physical consequences of their actions in a non-visual way. It is of particular importance to expose blind babies to toys that help them understand spacial relationships (bigger, smaller, inside, outside, etc.)
Subtle social cues that are communicated visually, such as facial expressions and gestures are unavailable to the blind infant, often making social interaction more difficult for them. An additional focus on toys that promote social play may help to preserve and promote development of social skills including recognition, communication, and the forming of interpersonal relationships.
Lastly, if a child is not completely blind but has limited vision, they can often benefit from visual stimulation from high-contrast toys such as mobiles or arches. Research has shown that red, white, and black are the easiest colors for young eyes to discern. It is also important to remember that babies must be held, cuddled, rocked, carried, touched, and talked to in order to encourage proper development - the parents is as important a learning tool as any toy can be.
There are a multitude of eye conditions and diseases that can cause a child to be visually impaired. Unfortunately, ocular and vision problems in infants are a major contributor to developmental delays. However, with diligence and effort on the part of parents, doctors, and visual therapists, many children are able to drastically improve their vision over time.
Some of the most common eye problems in childhood are:
Cortical Vision Impairment (CVI): A visual impairment that arises from a brain injury, preventing the eyes and brain to communicate properly. It is difficult to diagnose CVI because as the physical structure of the eye and optic nerves appears normal. It the leading cause of low vision in children, although it is possible for some children to improve greatly with diligent effort.
Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP): immature vasculature in the eyes that is usually observed in babies born prematurely. New blood vessels in the eyes may form, potentially causing retinal detachment or even blindness. Some cases may resolve by themselves, while some need extensive intervention or even surgeries.
Optic Nerve Hypoplasia (ONH): damaged, immature, or a lack of the optic nerve; it may also present with cerebral or endocrine problems. The small or pale optic nerves do not function properly, causing include vision, nystagmus (repetitive, uncontrolled eye movements), and strabismus (eye misalignment).
For many of these disorders, early detection and immediate intervention are essential in order to decrease the risk of lifelong visual impairment and other developmental delays. To stimulate the child's visual development, try selecting toys that are not only visually appealing but simple in form and high contrast in color. Experiment with different color toys and different light sources to determine what is easiest for your child to see, and present toys one at a time to prevent over-stimulation. If you decide to utilize toys that create noise, the toy must appropriately convey the source of the noise and the cause and effect relationship between the action and the noise - otherwise, it is just useless sensory information. Select baby board books that feature simple pictures and highly saturated colors.
Working with a low vision infant requires additional patience and understanding on the part of the parent - but be vigilant! Many visual impairments can be resolved or improved over time with diligence and hard work. Most importantly, be sure to consult with a pediatric ophthalmologist (you can ask your regular pediatrician to refer you to one if you do not have one).