How To Choose The Best Developmental Motivator For Your Child With Down Syndrome

You may have noticed at one point in today’s video Noah was motivated by a paper towel…yep, a paper towel. It’s a lot like playing with the box that the toy came in rather than the toy itself. Thank goodness I have these at home. I don’t seem to be using them for cleaning, so motivating my child it is…!

Motivators are essential in Noah’s therapy and development. They help turn hard work into play, core work into entertainment, and frowns into smiles. And most importantly help them to meet their developmental milestones!

Let Your (Child’s) Eyesight Be Your Guide

jiminy cricket picture

Let your child’s eyesight be your guide!


One of the most important tips on how to select the best motivators for your child is understanding how your child’s vision development directly effects the motivators you should choose.  At birth, an infant will only be able to focus on things about 8-10 inches from their face (about the distance your face is when you are holding them). This translates into faces being the best initial motivator.

Infants can see color, but they are more entertained by strong contrasts such as black and white. These will be the best toys to help with motivation. You will notice several toys in the baby aisle have strong contrasts. You will also be able to find sensory books that are only black and white.  Noah really enjoyed those and I did notice that he focused on them with more intensity than the brightly colored books.

Around 3-4 months of age you may notice that they are much more interested in things that are brightly colored and toys that make noise. Now you get to start breaking out the lights and action for motivation.

Our occupational therapist recommended sitting in a dark room with lighted toys such as one of our favorites the light wand and going from side to side to help Noah stay focused and work on tracking. We have found it to be quite the motivator for other tasks now as you have seen us use it to try to get him to move forward as well.

Motivators Are Great…umm…Motivation!

cookies with sprinkles motivation down syndrome children

Cookies make a GREAT motivator!

One of the best things you can do for your child to help them make the most of their therapy sessions, and hit their goals, is finding out what motivates them. It may be you, it may be lights, music, or even your family dog.  Every child is different, and what works for one child, may not necessarily work for another.  You will eventually find something that your child loves (like our wand for Noah), and that is the one you have to save for the big wins like helping them get through a task they don’t enjoy doing or motivating them to move forward.   One of our friends just discovered that their child would crawl forward if his mom threw him up in the air once he got to her. That is a pretty awesome motivator that I may have to try myself.

What motivates your child?  Do you have an ultimate motivator?  What has (and hasn’t) worked for you?

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  1. Anything red is Joshua’s motivated, from the time that he started therapy and even now, if there is anything red around I have to let people know to be careful cause that’s what Joshua likes.

  2. My little Ellie is strongly motivated by the iPad and food. Yes, the iPad. We got a cheap refurbished iPad and have a ton of apps on it. Signing Time! is also a big motivator as well. Ellie uses PECs (picture exchange communication) for the iPad and Signing Time!. Most of her signs are for food items–cracker, raisin. When learning how to walk, food was such a big motivator that I had her push a box to her high chair. Each day I would move the box further and further away from the high chair. Ellie, being motivated, would push that box as fast as possible. Now, she walks and runs all over the place.

    • Noah's Mom, MD says

      You continue to have the best ideas 🙂 What is picture exchange communication?

      • Abby, PECS is a system of teaching your child to exchange a picture for the item they want. So the give you the picture of the cookie to tell you that they want a cookie. As they get more “sophisticated” language you can make sentences with the picture symbols. Put together 3 or more to say I + want+ cookie + please. And your child will use this as a stepping stone between the symbolic stage of language development and the verbal stage. Most research shows that this system helps children with any type of developmental delay develop verbal language. I encourage you to look into it as Noah is now more tan 12 months and getting ready to make some of his own decisions. Initially, take his favorite treat…say Cheerios, and get a picture that is about 2″ x2″ or 3″x3″ ( whatever you think is easy for him to manipulate). You can even cut out a piece of the box. While he’s sitting in his highchair you and your husband will both need to help him…one of you next to him, hand over hand show him how to touch the picture (eventually, he will pick it up and give it to one of you). The other parent will say “you want cherrios!” And quickly give him one. The important thing is to correlate Noah touching the picture with getting the reward. As a speech pathologist since 1995, I’ve seen this work with kids as young as 14 months with down syndrome, autism, fetal alcohol syndrome and cerebral palsy. It does not hamper their ability or desire to speak. It truly does encourage it! Best of luck to you!

        • I am so starting this!!! Thank you so much for the excellent instructions. He loves puffs like they are going out of style so we will start with those 🙂

          • Scott and Vanessa says

            Abbie, at what age did you introduce Noah to the iPad. Do you recommend it? Is it worth the money? THey seem so very expensive.

            • We had an iPad long before Noah so he has seen it since he was born and I would say that around 8-9 months he started being entertained by it. I think it is probably one of the best tools for children with speech delays as there are some apps to help them communicate. And I have yet to see a child who is not completely entertained by one. That being said, the iTouch can use the same apps and provide the same entertainment it is just smaller and cheaper. I have seen some people get insurance to pay for iPads… 🙂 I also don’t think it is essential for Enzo right now so you can continue to think about it 🙂

    • Scott and Vanessa says

      @Anna Theurer, do you think the iPad is a good investment? At what age would you recommend getting one. Enzo will be 9 months soon. We are doing signing right now – well, we’ve been doing it for 4 months now. We know that is something he loves to watch. Please let me know what your thoughts are on the iPad.

  3. libby Holmes says

    Reuben loves the string that comes out of the toy!!! strange?!!?!?! maybe he knows if he gets to the string he can pull te toy the rest of the way!

    • Noah's Mom, MD says

      Noah loves the string too!

      • Christina Day says

        that’s funny, I was just reading this post today (new mom) and Hudson, our 7 month loves all kinds of string also. He is always pulling the strings on my hoodie. The other kids joked about buying him all different lengths and thicknesses of ropes for his birthday because he is so fascinated with them. 🙂

  4. Holy cow Emmie was so tough to motivate when she was little!!! She still is at three!! She needs things that keep her moving, music was the best motivator! Now that she is older she is motivated with toys like stringing beads, and magnetic puzzles that keep her little fingers busy. She has no interest in dolls:( But loves books. Go figure she’s a book worm! And like Anna said, Signing time!! Rachel Rocks!!

  5. Isaac loves food and iPad. Sarah it is music.

  6. Becky Johnson says

    Signing Time was/IS awesome! Our Gabby love it to this day and I swear this was what helped her communicate from the start. One of our main hopes for Gabby was that she would be able to communicate effectively with the people around her and I am putting a lot of faith in her early start with sign language. Today she speaks quite clearly and is mostly understood by those not in our family. So I highly recommend it! The other motivator in our house is music. The image that comes to my mind was when we were working on the pre-crawling gross motior skills like getting up onto hands and knees, we were struggling with this one for a long time and then one day it just happened that we had a children’s CD on and “Row, row, row your boat’ came on. Up she went and started rocking back and forth. From then on we started incorporating music into her sessions. Siblings and family members are also a great motivator. As soon as Gabby started rocking to the song, we all got up on our hands and knees and rocked with her. She loved it!

    • Scott and Vanessa says

      Gabby is so smart! I loved reading your comment. Enzo is also a big fan of music! He loves it! He’ll stare at us when we sing. He’ll smile. When we stop, it’s almost a shock to him that we even THINK to stop singing to him. How dare we…HA! It’s so cute!

  7. Alison Nolan says

    Just to say that we have recently completed the “Hanen Course” – “It Takes Two To Talk” – we found it excellent in help us find out what motivated Conor, help us to follow his lead, add language to interactions, adjust every day routines and give us various strategies to facilitate communication. If you are given the opportunity we would recommend this course but in the meantime they have tips for parents at the following webpage

    • Thanks for sharing this. I haven’t heard of that before, but I’ll certainly be checking it out.

      How does the course work? Do you go somewhere to take the course, or is it on DVDs? What all does the course teach you, and how much does it cost.

      • The “It takes two to talk” course that we did was ran over a three month period by trained speech and language therapists. Initially, they come to your home and video you interacting with your child (pre-course), and there are two further video session over the duration of the course at defined stages and there are 6 – 8 evening theoretical sessions. The course covers
        1. how to recognize your child’s stage and style of communication so that you know which steps to take next
        2. how to identify what motivates your child to interact with you so you’ll know how to get conversations started
        3. how to adjust everyday routines to help your child take turns and keep interactions going
        4 how to follow your child’s lead to build his confidence and encourage him to communicate
        5 how to add language to interactions with your child to help him understand language and then use it when he is ready
        6. how to tweak the way you play and read books with your child to help him learn language
        7 how to change the way you speak to your child so that he’ll understand and learn new words
        During the evening sessions, you get to watch prepared videos with examples of parents and kids interacting, set plans /goals for the week and give feedback on how things went or didnt go (there are approximately 5 other families also on the course and it is great to interact with them as well)

        Pre-course, I would have said the thing I thought would have been worst about the course was the videoing but ultimately it was the best as it was easy to see what improvements you could make to facilitate communication during play time etc (and see the clear improvement over the duration of the course – before and after!!)

        Hanen organisation is a Canadian based charity but we did the course in Ireland through our early intervention providers. There is a textbook too which is clearly written and with picture examples and useful tips!

  8. Rick Smith says


  9. Scott and Vanessa says

    Enzo is pretty much motivated by anything and everything. Put something new in front of him and he is engaged! Sing to him and he will stare lovingly into your eyes. Sign something and he will just smile. Sing and sign and he is over the moon! It’s so easy to get our little guy to do something! We love his enthusiasm and his motivation!

    Noah is rocking! He’s so smart. It looks like he would be happy playing with anything, even if it is the box that the toy came in! That’s a smart boy!

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