SEOUL: They are barely one to three years old, but already, they’ve been enrolled in a highly sought-after cooking school in Seoul meant for toddlers.
As they carefully dice carrots, shape rice balls, and dust flour onto fish fillets with their tiny fingers – helped by their mothers beside them – they aren’t training to become junior master chefs.
No, the idea is that they will improve their motor skills. And, “the child is able to see the colours of the ingredients, and taste and touch them. This stimulates the five senses,” explained cooking instructor Ms Kim Haeyeon. The interaction during the process also is supposed to exercise their language skills.
So popular is this class that all spots were snapped up within 10 minutes of it being opened for online bookings.
Parents in South Korea and Singapore are shelling out billions just to help their babies develop faster and hit their milestones earlier, as the episode How To Raise A Super (Advanced) Baby discovers. (Watch it here.)
In South Korea alone, parents spent around US$3 billion (S$3.95 billion) in 2014 on enrichment classes and tuition, including English, ballet and cooking lessons for babies and toddlers. More than US$500 million dollars was spent just on kids below two years of age.
But can you really hack a baby’s growth with all these classes – and do they actually benefit junior in the long run?
YOUR BABY, A CLEVER LINGUIST?
At the tender age of four, Yesul already speaks English fluently – like the rest of her friends at Konis Montessori kindergarten in Seoul, where monthly fees are a hefty US$1,200.
She started learning English when she was just three at the private kindergarten which boasts its own specialised method of teaching English through more active and fun ways.
South Korean parents spend thousands a year on English-language lessons for their pre-school children. Some even hire native speakers just to play with their babies in English.
Ms Yeon Sook Lee, the kindergarten’s director, said a child is most sensitive to language when he is between 2.5 to 3.5 years old. But in December, the government called for a ban on teaching English to children below nine - concerned that it would stress out pre-schoolers and hamper their ability to speak Korean.
Ms Choi Hyun Joo, a researcher with the pressure group World Without Worries About Private Education, said: “When English or other foreign languages are taught, that can lead to the drop in thinking skills. As a result, they are unable to express themselves in Korean."
However, some experts say the opposite - that babies are more able to pick up various languages when they are just a few months of age, and that they lose that ability as they get older.
Babies under a year old can actually tell the difference between all 800 sounds that comprise all the world's languages, pointed out Dr Leher Singh, director for the National University of Singapore’s Infant and Child Language Centre.
Contrast that to adults, who can differentiate only about 40 different sounds.
“The human mind, when the baby is born, is able to take up multiple languages,” she said.
WATCH: Language learning explained (2:17)
NOT TOO YOUNG FOR THE SPA?
Another popular parenting trend in South Korea: Spas for children.
Spa Day started offering treatments for babies in 2014 due to customers’ requests. Young ones make up around 15 per cent of their clientele and each 20-minute session costs around US$35, as much as an adult facial.
Therapist Lee Hyung Sun said the massage stimulates a baby’s facial muscles and lymph nodes, boosting the immune system and helping with blood circulation. It also helps in emotional development, she added. “I think babies can be under a lot of stress too. We can make them feel at ease.”
Watch: What parents say (2:26)
But Ms Eudora Tang, a senior physiotherapist at the National University Hospital's Rehabilitation Centre, advised parents to do the massages themselves – it will help them bond with their child.
“You wouldn’t want your child to be touched by strangers for such a long period. It is better for the parents to be the ones doing that,” she said.
Baby spa treatments have also made their way to Singapore. One spa here offers not just massages and haircuts for babies as young as a month old, but also water-training sessions, which are purported to help with a baby’s motor skills, sleep and balance.
The water-training involves a specially-designed neck float wrapped around a baby's neck to keep the head above water.
Ms Tang, however, noted that a baby only develops neck control at around three months old; “before that they’re pretty floppy”.
Good neck control “is necessary” before exposing a baby to such activities, to ensure that the neck can support the head and that the float does not cause any harm, she added.
GETTING THEM TO WALK EARLIER?
Some parents send their babies to a chiropractor, hoping it would result in their young wards crawling and walking earlier.
Chiropractic Solutions Group in Singapore, for example, sees 10 to 15 babies a week, and baby Aidan is one of their youngest patients – he just turned 11 months and has been under their care since he was only one month old.
His father, Mr Farhan Mislam, brought him in when Aidan couldn’t stop crying every evening for two to three hours. He suspected it was colic. After the first chiropractic session, “his cries became less frequent within a couple of days”, said Mr Farhan.
He also claimed to have seen a vast improvement in his son’s mobility after these sessions: Aidan began crawling at nine months, compared to friends’ children who started at around a year old.
However, spinal manipulation like moving, wiggling or tapping the joints, is a controversial treatment – especially for children.
In 2016, an Australian chiropractor was suspended for cracking a four-day-old baby’s back and neck – a treatment that was deemed dangerous and unnecessary by other medical professionals, chiropractors included.
Dr Charmaine Teo, a paediatrician with the Singapore Baby & Child Clinic, said there is “no clear evidence” to suggest that going for chiropractic sessions can boost a child’s development.
She added: “We do know that there are anecdotal cases, reports of children who have undergone such practices and perhaps their parents feel that there are improvements.”
Babies typically begin to crawl when they are between six and 10 months old; and most take their first steps between nine and 12 months of age, although some take a little longer.
SIGN LANGUAGE FOR BABIES
As for speech development, babies should be saying their first words by 12 months of age. But there's a group that claims that it's possible to find out what a baby wants in a more efficient way.
At Baby Signs Singapore, kids between six and 18 months learn how to communicate what they want through signs, a method developed 25 years ago by two American researchers.
For example, instead of whining or crying, they can use a simple gesture to tell the care-giver that they’re hungry.
Instructor Melanie Horner said that signing is about using simple gestures to communicate the needs and wants of a baby, and it may help the child develop his speech sooner.
But just because baby hits his or her development milestones earlier, does that have any impact on his or her adult life?
“That’s a great question, and I think most scientist would tell you they don’t know the answer. There just haven’t been enough studies,” said Dr Anne Rifkin-Graboi, a principal investigator at the Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences at A*STAR, who has spent 15 years investigating babies' cognitive development.
“We know that the brain resources we use to accomplish a task at one age, may not necessarily be the same ones that we use at another age,” she said.
“Instead, you want to focus on really enjoying the milestones when they happen – and encouraging your child to enjoy them as well.”
Watch this episode of How to Raise a Super (Advanced) Baby here.