Now that you’re responsible for raising a tiny human, you not only want to keep her safe and healthy, but you also want to see her thrive and reach her fullest potential. Thankfully, children are biologically built to learn (and fast!), so nature is on your side.
Baby might be a tiny lump that sleeps half the day away, but she’s growing every minute. At birth your newborn’s brain contains 100 billion neurons, and in the first year alone she’ll forge trillions of neural synapses (aka brain-cell links). By fostering their formation, you’re helping your babe’s brain make connections in reasoning, language, social interactions and more. It sounds like heavy-duty science, but even during the earliest months, there are simple ways you can give your tot’s budding brain a boost.
Your bitty bean might not be able to offer much more than a spit bubble in response to your chitchat, but don’t let her lack of loquaciousness keep your lips zipped. Striking up a conversation with baby long before she’s able to “talk” back is a research-proven way of bolstering early childhood development.
“Speak to your children as often as you can,” encourages John Medina, author of Brain Rules for Baby: How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five. “It is one of the most well-established findings in all of the developmental literature.”
Talking to young children has been linked to an increase in writing, reading and spelling skills. It has also been correlated with higher IQ levels—even when controlling for other variables, such as income. Studies show that the more words those tiny ears hear, the better (both in terms of variety, like nouns and adverbs, and sheer number).
But aside from a broad vocabulary, what you discuss doesn’t much matter. So, get in the habit of speaking up around your little one, even if it’s just to read her your to-do list. If you’re at a loss for topics of conversation, try these tips …
- Explain what you’re doing as you’re doing it. “Looks like it’s time to change someone’s diaper. Let’s go to the nursery to get you all cleaned up.”
- Incorporate numbers by counting. “How many steps will it take us to get upstairs? One, two, three …”
- Point out objects and people. “What a bright blue bird in that big oak tree! Can you see the bird on that branch?”
It might feel a tad silly at first, but rest assured you aren’t talking to an empty room. That babe in your arms is listening.
Encouraging your little linguist to communicate by giving her lots of attention and positive feedback is equally important. Make eye contact as you chat, and if she babbles back at you, reciprocate. You can imitate her sounds and laughs—even her facial expressions to show her that you’re listening. By mimicking her, you’re teaching her the back-and-forth flow of a conversation.
Baby is learning a lot more than book smarts. She’s figuring out how the world—and even her own body—works. How does she conduct all these little experiments? Through play.
Playtime is an essential building block for infant development. It teaches basic reasoning (If I push these blocks over, they tumble to the floor), gives little ones the opportunity to harness motor skills and promotes empathy for others. Who knew you were doing so much more than having fun?
Build those mini muscles together by practicing for upcoming physical milestones. An easy way to remember the timeline is to think about things happening from head to toe: head control, pushing up with arms, grasping toys, rolling over, sitting, crawling, standing and walking.
Begin with floor play, which the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests introducing as soon as you get home from the hospital. Tummy time sessions can last for three to five minutes to start, but stretch them out longer as your baby gets the hang of lifting her wobbly head. Moms can join in, too! Lie on your stomach as you talk to and smile at her.
You can also use her favorite toys to motivate your stationary babe to get a move on. Put high-contrast items, which will capture her attention, just out of reach, then step back and let her try to maneuver her way closer.
When it comes to toys, look for age-appropriate options that encourage open-ended play (i.e., imaginative play). A crinkly, soft book or noisy rattle will entice her to practice reaching and grasping. Shape sorters (or a container and some blocks) train tots to put objects in and take them out, a task they’ll happily repeat again and again.
As your sprout grows, remember that the best teaching tool in your arsenal is yourself. “As a parent (and as a teacher), I would think of yourself as [your] child’s greatest plaything,” says Patricia Kuhl, PhD, professor and co-director of the Institute of Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington. “Your voice, your face … your actions are what intrigue them most. They have a natural curiosity for the things that humans do.”