Hundreds of trillions of synapses are formed in the first three years of your child’s life – whether that’s his reactions to and processing of your cold, wet glass of water, or the feeling of bright sunshine in his face, or the joy he experiences when he hears your voice in the morning, or the fear he feels when he wakes up in the dark. It is almost impossible to truly track just how we synthesize all of these first experiences, and build upon our thoughts and feelings to eventually have our own ideas and contribute to our surrounding communities. Even so, it is an observable fact that babies have an amazing ability to learn a massive amount of information and build on what they know daily!
The keys to boosting your baby’s development may have more to do with repetition, focusing on basic skills, and choosing to be intentional, than trying to teach him something completely new each day (to reach unrealistic goals) and expecting him to master skills that simply require time to build on each other.
Physical skills develop and allow your child to walk and carry objects, as well as do more intricate activities, like paint a picture, or thread beads onto a string. Jumping, dancing, clapping, climbing, writing his or her name, and fastening his jacket will all come in time, but the foundation for such movements starts with muscle strengthening and the mastering of simple skills through play.
1. Games Involving The Hands
Many nursery rhymes and traditional songs and games have hand movements (such as Pat-a-Cake, The Wheels on the Bus, or This Little Piggy). Not only will your baby enjoy learning the words and motions to these songs and games, but she will be discovering how to move each finger, and get the feeling for where her hands are in relationship to each other and her body.
2. Developmentally Appropriate Educational Toys
At three months, my baby wasn’t ready for her Exersaucer – at 5 months, it’s her favorite toy. She’s able to not only stand, but also jump in it, and move all of the different attached toys, building skills like being able to pull toys in and out of a container, stack things, turn items, and flip the pages of the little “book.” Similarly, there will be toys that are developmentally just right for your baby; if they are introduced to particular toys too young, they may be uninterested in them, find alternative ways to play with them, or the toys could even be slightly dangerous – but the right toys challenge the skills they are building on, and introduce new ideas of how they can interact with the world.
3. Textures And Mixtures
Let your baby feel different fabrics (felt, silk, cotton, wool, crocheted squares), types of paper, sand and rocks, and other collections of things. Whether it’s the way soap feels in the bath water, or the difference between felt and silk – the more your baby learns what things feel like, the more easily she can process her environment. Everything is new to her, and you’ll find that once the newness wears off, she’ll be ready to build on that knowledge!
4. Mimic / Follow The Leader
While even a newborn will attempt to mimic some actions, older babies will really get a kick out of doing what you are doing. They learn by imitation – whether it’s something you want them to copy you doing or saying, or not! Recently I told my daughter, “Mommy will splash the water… see? Now you splash it!” She did! Now she has a blast playing in the tub and pool. She likes to pretend she’s chomping food anytime her daddy is eating, especially if he exaggerates the motion. She learns new ways to play with her toys when I show her something as we lay on the floor on her rubber mats. As she gets older, I’ll keep coming up with new things to show her, and refreshing my memory about new activities to try. And the mimicking actually should go both ways – if they make a sound, you should sometimes make it back, and watch for a reaction. That’s actually one way to get your child to play the game of imitating you.
5. Respond Promptly To Cries
Even if she doesn’t immediately calm down at the sound of your voice, or you choose to let her fuss while you finally eat something – your replies and gestures let her know that her communication (crying) means something to you, and reassures her that she matters.
6. Take Advantage Of Daily Routine Tasks
These moments may seem to be constant sources of frustration – but so much learning comes with repetition. And there’s no better time to teach your child than when you’re close to their face, and pretty much guaranteed to be giving full attention. So take the time to say the same things, and follow a routine – and you’ll teach him how to know what is expected of him, and what comes next in the processes of life.
7. Model Good Reactions / Interactions
Look for teachable moments. Does your baby look concerned when another baby is crying? Address the situation! “She’s sad, but she’ll be ok, her mommy’s coming back.” Does he see you give a hug? Do you point out good sharing, or kind acts? Your baby will learn how to interact appropriately with others through what you model.
8. Calm And Consistent Discipline
Babies can be taught that something is not acceptable – such as scratching your face or biting – through calm and consistent words and actions. They can often understand and even respond with physical reactions well before they can communicate.
9. Encouragement And Praise
Tell your baby that he did a good job when he stacked the blocks, that he has been patient while waiting for his food to heat up, and that he can do it when trying out a new skill. You might be surprised how much he responds to your praise and positive attention!
10. Expose To Young And Old – Family Album
When my daughter was four months old, she completely enthralled an entire medical office, including an 84 year old man who had a full on conversation about life with my smiling, laughing, cooing child. She also really loves a particular 4 year old boy who enjoys being the big brother type, and several one and a half year old girls who hang around her. She’s been held by friends and acquaintances at social gatherings, and shown other little tiny babies at friends’ houses. Pictures will be her primary way of knowing her grandparents, so she has a baby proof album she can hopefully chew the edges of without harming the pictures inside. Exposing a child to people of all ages teaches them to value all human lives, respect others, and lays the foundation for being able to relate easily to others – even those we may have many differences with.
11. Mirror Time
My daughter loves to play with “the baby in the mirror.” She reaches for her, pats the glass, and watches both her reflection and mine as we move and talk. She sees her own smile, or sad face when she doesn’t want to get out of the bath.
12. Expect More
Expect your older baby to help clean up. Of course, she is not going to do so perfectly, but a try is good. Show younger babies what processes accompany different activities, and assume they will, after a few repetitions, know what to expect next. I’ve always told my daughter, “I’m done changing your diaper. I need to wash my hands. I’ll be right back,” and she will usually not cry unless I’m sidetracked into doing something else. I also “expect” her to know that I don’t put up with wiggling when I’m walking on the stairs. She’s almost always calm until we get to the bottom.
Have frequent conversations with your baby! She might not truly understand what’s being said, but she will absorb more than you might realize – studies have shown babies learn from their parents’ talking to them things like normal sentence structures, tones of voice, familiarization with the sounds and specific words in your native language… these are all building blocks for later communication!
It cannot be emphasized enough – reading is basically magical. There are recent studies that say people who read a substantial amount are more able to empathize with others, and also that the brain is engaged in several different areas by particular words, such as areas related to the senses of taste, touch, or smell especially.
Even before all of the things that make talking possible are in place, your baby understands (and responds to) many different words and phrases. If taught a few signs, he may talk back to you in sign language – easing the frustration of not being able to otherwise communicate hunger, thirst, and other basic needs.
16. Singing / Music
Music has been linked to mathematical aptitude; as one finds pleasing patterns in music, the brain seems to be trained to find patterns in math related problems. Singing songs is a great way to teach language, as babies seem to pick up on lyrics that rhyme, or are repeated with just one new item added each time.
17. Be Attentive
What makes a great listener? A great model of how to listen! It’s easy to always be on our phones, computers, and doing something… even just necessary chores. But if you slow down sometimes, and give your baby eye contact, and talk to them, and then take a pause to “listen,” you will instill in your baby the value of listening, and make her feel good about being listened to.
Tell your baby what you are doing throughout the day, your thoughts and feelings, and anything else that you can possibly share. He will soon pick up on what it means when you “need to do some laundry,” or are “sweeping the floor.” The more abstract things will come later on, but at least he will have some familiarity with the words for emotions and such.
Cognitive / Problem Solving
19. Everything Is A Toy
From coupons that you no longer need, to an empty plastic cup, to scraps of fabric or old shirts – let your baby explore, within reason. Create safe environments in a room or two, and let your baby have free reign for a while. Exploring is learning.
The beauty of counting is that you can count anything; the ladybugs on my nursing cover have been counted more times than I can remember. You can count fingers and toes, toys as you put them away, and flowers on the wall. The sense of numbering things will be ingrained in your baby’s mind – even if when she does start to count, she counts out of order at first.
21. Cause And Effect – Tell Before It Happens
I often tell my daughter in the morning, “I’m going to turn the light on,” right before I do. That way, she isn’t as upset about the sudden brightness. After a few times, she didn’t seem to be as startled by the change. Learning cause and effect may take more patience from you – as your baby drops your keys from the shopping cart over and over again, or cereal from his high chair.
22. Peekaboo And Hiding Objects
Babies are at first amazed that objects or people can be out of view, yet still exist (you’ll see this referred to as object permanence). This makes games like Peekaboo, or even just hiding toys under a blanket or behind your back, great fun for little ones.
23. Match Your Child’s Pace
Use transitions, telling your baby “we’re going to the store now,” and “we’re going to see so and so,” and “we’ve done with lunch, so let’s do the dishes now.” This will eventually prepare your baby for knowing how to handle transitioning from one activity to another.
24. High Contrast Graphics
Showing your baby pictures in flashcard form can help her recognize animals, letters, and even items that are associated with one another, such as rain and an umbrella. If the pictures are high contrast, your baby will be able to more easily distinguish separate features, and compare a set of cards.
25. Down Time
While activities are great, there’s one last thing you should consider that can aid in processing everything your baby is learning on a daily basis – and that’s down time. Having adequate down time allows your baby to think about what she has seen and heard.