Thinking outside the toy box

How to interact with baby at every age and stage.
By Angela Braden

If you’ve gone so far as to leave the hospital with your baby, you’ve already gotten the message (hopefully loud and clear): You are your baby’s favorite thing. Still, there’s such excitement around growing this little bundle into the happy, smart person he’s to become, it’s tempting to go all out with toys, gear and gadgets to give him every brain-building advantage.

Parents’ zeal to stimulate and nurture baby’s brain development is well founded. Your little one’s brain grows from 25 percent of its adult size at birth to 60 percent of its adult size by the time his first birthday rolls around. But many parents are puzzled about how to best interact with their tiny humans during this critical time. “How much of what I say does he really understand? What sort of play will enhance his development, and what toys are best for each stage?” Good news: When you play with your baby, the things you do naturally are precisely the best brain boosters around.

mom-baby-playing-2Toy of the year goes to … the human being
Scientists are increasingly studying babies’ development through the relationship they have with mom and dad. As it turns out, sharing joy is key to the attachment relationship between baby and parent, which provides a critical and secure base for all types of learning, says Allan N. Schore, PhD, of the University of California Los Angeles School of Medicine. Schore says that some of the first circuits the brain builds are those that govern emotions.

During the first 18 months of life, baby is experiencing what scientists like Schore consider “the brain growth spurt,” which lays the foundation for much of baby’s social and emotional intelligence later in life. In addition to more than doubling in volume, parts of the brain are actually forming after birth. “The genes are programming well into the first year; they don’t stop at birth,” says Schore. This means that in fundamental ways, your interaction with baby shapes his developing brain, learning and budding personality.

Tiffany Field, PhD, director of the Touch Research Institute in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Miami School of Medicine, emphasizes how much of that vital social stimulation comes from early face-to-face interactions. “In the first five months, babies will learn all the critical rules for social interaction through this type of [face-to-face] play,” she says. “The relationship [with parents] is the foundation for all learning.”

Rebecca Parlakian, MA, a child development specialist at the nonprofit think tank Zero to Three in Washington, D.C., suggests a great way to harness the power of this relationship bond through play: “Make figuring things out a joint experience.” For example, instead of over- demonstrating a toy, take turns with it. When it’s baby’s turn, show interest in what he does with the toy. Then, go through the discovery process yourself during your turn. “What happens if I bang these two blocks together? Let’s see … Oh, that makes a noise—wow!” Interaction with parents adds rich layers to baby’s experience with objects.

Cultivate a creative mind
In addition to emphasizing social and emotional development, experts stress the importance of nurturing creative thinking in children. But how can you nurture a future creative spirit—a flexible, inventive mind—starting in babyhood?

Playtime is a good place to start. Experts suggest favoring toys that baby can play with in different ways. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, PhD, director of Temple University’s Infant Language Laboratory and author of Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Children Really Learn and Why They Need To Play More and Memorize Less, explains that when the toy only performs for the baby, there’s not as much creativity going on. “Babies are the most creative souls in the world. They’re constantly exploring and discovering,” says Hirsh-Pasek. She explains that, through play, we help children discover the world from a secure base, and we give it meaning. Then, we hope they never stop discovering and creating!

Here’s how your interactions with baby help fuel brain development throughout the first year …

Play fuel
0-3 months: The magnetic human face
Babies are attracted to faces at birth. In scientific experiments, they consistently prefer to look at faces over other interesting items. And they don’t just look. They gaze deeply, often even imitating facial expressions.

When baby is well-rested and invites you in with his gaze, try making various playful expressions with your face about 10 inches away from his. (Newborns can’t see very well at greater distances.) Pausing in between to simply observe baby will give him a chance to express himself and will introduce the incredibly important idea of taking turns in communication. It will also give you the chance to easily gauge when your little one has had enough excitement for the moment.

Baby may try to copy your expressions or come up with his own, which you can then copy. Even if he doesn’t seem to be that aware, you can bet he’s taking in a tremendous amount of information, especially emotionally.

Around six to eight weeks, the most glorious emotional communication of all—the smile—may come right back to you. And when it does, there will be no doubt about what emotion he’s expressing. (Don’t worry too much if the smile comes a little later; although, if you haven’t seen it by the three-month mark, it’s worth mentioning to your pediatrician.)

3-6 months: Connections and games
Babies begin to associate words with expressions and feelings based on interacting face to face. At three to six months, babies also love to practice grasping objects. You can retrieve and offer a toy of interest and pass it back and forth for baby’s grasping pleasure.

When your little guy begins to scoot around a bit, place an interesting object slightly out of range, and let him wriggle to get it. Experts believe the mental process of seeking out an object—physically moving toward it and (victoriously) retrieving it—is valuable for the developing brain. It involves focus, motivation, perseverance and cause-and-effect, not to mention major motor coordination! Parlakian says toys like soft foam blocks and toys with a lot of texture encourage exploration at this stage. Rattles especially prove fascinating for their cause-and-effect component. It’s just plain fun to make things happen. Peekaboo games provide rhythm, predictability and the idea that objects are still there when you can’t see them.

6-9 months: On the move
Face-to-face interaction is still important, though it may take a dive now due to a significant surge in motor skills. Brain development, however, does not wane. Hanna Alonim, PhD, director of the Mifne Center in Israel, explains the cognitive (thinking) interplay occurring once baby becomes more mobile: “The movement stimulates the neurons and the neurons’ development helps the baby to control the movement,” she says. Field says it’s important not to stress over developmental charts during this time but instead to trust baby’s lead when a change in focus occurs. This is the time when thorough babyproof- ing around the house is key, Field points out, so baby can go all out in exploration mode.

9-12 months: Coach, observe, narrate
Babies this age are “how stuff works” connoisseurs. “They’re active explorers and problem solvers using sensory exploration,” says Parlakian. Good toys for this stage include a pull toy with a string and blocks in a bucket, both of which satisfy the older baby’s interest in making things happen using their burgeoning motor skills. “Their cognitive and motor skills are working together differently at different times,” says Parlakian. This makes following baby’s lead important. Let him play his way. “Don’t just show him one way to use the toy,” says Parlakian. Experts call this “child-led play,” a factor in fostering a future innovative thinker. When applying this concept to babyhood, Parlakian explains that the best way to interact is primarily by coaching, observing and narrating his play.

Word fuel
0-3 months: Your voice as an instrument
Babies begin to recognize voices while inside the womb, but after birth, those familiar patterns and tones are suddenly a lot clearer and more interesting. They’re coming from a living, moving person! This means baby loves to hear you talk. At just a few days old, he prefers human voices to other sounds and his mother’s voice over other voices. Baby begins to coo around two to three months, which may even be expressed as a sort of singing or humming if he’s enjoyed a good bit of melodies in his short life so far. So go ahead, and open up. Babble can go both ways! Voice your thoughts and feelings to your little one— it will be music to his ears.

3-6 months: The emotional seeds of language
In the first year, babies are laying the foundation for cracking the language code,” says Parlakian. In addition to talking directly to babies, language skills can be fostered by songs, rhymes, reading, music, storytelling and simply observing conversation with others throughout the course of the day. In the early months, babies rely on matching tone with emotions to understand what’s going on, which is why experts encourage parents to hone in on their baby’s emotions. Parlakian suggests giving baby a “You’re frustrated with this diaper change” here and a “You’re so excited to pet the dog!” there to really boost both learning language and understanding emotions.

6-9 months: Processing power
By seven months, studies show that babies understand the emotional meaning of voices through adult-like mental processes. On brain scans, a small region within the temporal lobe, which is involved in comprehending language, retaining visual memories and processing sensory input, responds more strongly to angry voices than any other sound (a good reason to take any arguments out of baby’s earshot). But the frontal cortex, which will later handle functions like decision-making and planning, is more attuned to joyful tones—just like in adults.

The cognitive advances in the second half of the first year are extraordinary. According to Hirsh-Pasek, “Eight-month-old babies are budding statisticians.” They can pick up different sounds, put them in order and recognize common themes among words in their native language. (For example, certain sounds typically follow others, like consonants and vowels.) This is a great time to start labeling things for baby and using lots of repetition when you do—just remember to give baby his turn to respond.

9-12 months: Keep the conversation going
Get comfy in that rocking chair. Because babies can pay attention longer now, they may enjoy reading or talking about picture books for extended stretches. This lengthened verbal play is priming your little one for some real cognitive prowess. When researchers Betty Hart, PhD, and Todd R. Risley, PhD, tracked the sheer number of words spoken (or read) to babies starting at 7 months of age, they found some startling correlations. Those on the higher end (whose parents spoke to them a lot) had broader vocabularies at age 3. The more words heard in babyhood, the more brainpower seems to stick with the child for the long haul.

Touch fuel
0-3 months: Hands on

Most of the time for a newborn baby, healthy interaction simply equals “emotional regulation.” Regulation is the term developmental scientists use to describe what happens when your little one gets upset, you comfort him, and he returns to an even keel.

Parents’ natural regulation instinct primarily involves touch (you pick up, hold, caress, etc.), and science shows you have good reasons to be this touchy-feely. Researchers have found that soothing touch changes babies physiologically, lowering their stress levels and their heart rates, which is critical for being in a present state of mind for learning. Premature infants who were massaged, for example, showed signs that their nervous systems were maturing more rapidly. The massaged babies became more active and more responsive than babies who were not massaged.

Field explains that massage stimulates the vagus nerve, which, she says, “slows down the heart, so the baby can pay attention.” In Field’s research, premature infants who were massaged grew nearly twice as fast as those who were not massaged. It appears this physical growth effect is mirrored by brain development as well. “In our follow-ups, we found that infant massage resulted in enhanced cognitive development later,” says Field.

3-6 months: Skin as a social organ
Soothing touch and the emotional regulation that comes with it continues to be important until babies can soothe themselves, explains Parlakian. Skin-to-skin holding (affectionately called “kangaroo care”) is extremely beneficial throughout the first six months of life. Research by Theodore Wachs, PhD, a psychologist at Purdue University, showed that babies who experienced more skin-to-skin holding had an advantage in mental development in the first six months of life.

It’s important to gauge baby’s responses here too. “By three to four months, you start to see their temperament emerge,” says Hirsh-Pasek. “This is your best guide to every aspect of interaction with your unique baby.”

6-12 months: Rough-and-tumble play
Babies do become more externally geared as the year progresses, but Field says it’s clear: “Kids need a daily dose of touch throughout childhood.” In her book The Science of Parenting, Margot Sunderland, PhD, argues that physical interactive play is like brain fertilizer for older babies: “The emotion-regulating areas in the brain’s frontal lobes are stimulated by physical play.” Sunderland recommends slightly boisterous games. Blowing raspberries on his tummy, tickling and play- ing “airplane” (lifting baby and flying him through the air) all offer this type of brain-building touch-play.

While smart toys and gear certainly have their place, the most powerful playthings are the face baby sees gazing down at him, the voice he recognizes from the womb and the cozy (and later, rousing) physical contact that literally helps him grow. “Babies come out creative and curious. Our job is to nurture a passion for life and exploration,” says Hirsh-Pasek. “The parent’s role early on is that of a coach.” So set aside the flashcards, summon your silly side, and play on!

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