Most parents want to do everything they can to help their baby learn and develop, and there is plenty they can do to help their child grow. In fact, most parents are probably already helping baby along without even realizing it. Every song sung, every word spoken, every time eye contact is made or baby gets a cuddle serves a developmental purpose, say the experts.
"Babies need more than just food to develop normally," says Meri Wallace, a child and family therapist and author of Birth Order Blues (Henry Holt & Co., May 1999) and Keys to Parenting Your Four Year Old (Barron's Educational Series, August 1997). "Everything you do that is responsive and affectionate and loving is supporting the baby's development. The baby who is not getting that, even if she is being fed and having her diaper changed regularly, is not going to thrive or develop normally."
During the first year, baby is developing in many ways — physically, cognitively and emotionally — but in the early months the most important aspect of baby's development is a sense of confidence and connection with his parents, says Wallace. "Children will learn how to sit up and stand and walk. That's maturation; it will happen. But building this bond and a sense of self-confidence won't happen without your help," she explains.
Of course, baby will also make great strides in his physical and cognitive development during the first year, according to Dr. Robin Chernoff, director of the Family/Behavior Clinic at Johns Hopkins Children's Center. The first year will be marked by developments in fine motor skills — picking things up, moving objects from hand to hand — and gross motor skills such as crawling and walking. Although your baby will be cooing, babbling and possibly even saying a few choice words (like mama and dada) during the first year of life, language skills don't really take off until the second year. However, you'll be laying the foundation for these skills, and others, from the day baby is born.
Just how important is your role in helping baby develop? "It's vital," says Wallace. While you probably can't speed the developmental process a great deal — baby will walk when baby is ready to walk — you can certainly slow it down by failing to help baby develop. "If you keep your baby in a crib all the time she's still going to learn to walk eventually but she may do it later than she would otherwise," says Wallace. "So we know there are things we can do to make it harder for a child to develop."
But while it's important for you to help baby develop, you don't have to constantly work at it, says Wallace. Instead of setting aside time each day, work developmental activities into your normal, everyday routine. And remember to read baby's cues — if she's turning her head away she may be overstimulated and might need a break. "Listen to your baby. When she's tired try not to stimulate her; when she wants attention give it to her. And enjoy her," says Wallace.
Click here for a timeline of developmental milestones.
Birth to 6 Weeks
Below are some activities Wallace and Chernoff suggest for helping baby develop. Although we know baby can be either a he or a she, we'll refer to baby by the feminine to make things simple. Keep in mind that many of the activities below are ones you'll start doing early on and will continue, possibly with adjustments, as baby grows.
Snuggle up: At this age, you need not worry about holding baby too much, says Chernoff. "You really can't spoil a child in the first six months," she says. "You need to respond to her cues, pick her up and hold her because that's when she's developing her attachments and discovering that the world is a safe place." Of course, keep the stimulation to a minimum at night, so that baby will learn the difference between night and day — and so that you'll get some sleep.
Develop her senses: In the first six weeks of life, baby's eyesight is not nearly as good as her hearing, so you'll need to keep objects close to baby's face — eight to 12 inches away. Fortunately for you, your baby is most interested in the human face, so merely holding your face close to hers can provide stimulation and entertainment. To help develop her ability to "track" or follow objects, try holding a toy in front of or above her and moving it in an arc. You can also begin introducing textures by touching her skin with different objects — a feather, a piece of material, a soft toy, suggests Wallace.
Introduce baby to herself: Hold baby in front of a mirror and point out her eyes, nose, ears and mouth. She won't understand for a while, but labeling baby's world for her will help her later.
Sing a song: Singing is not only soothing but it also helps baby develop a sensitivity to sound. As baby gets older you can get her involved physically by moving her legs and hands in time to the music, says Wallace.
Build muscles: As baby grows her neck muscles will strengthen, although she won't gain head control until she is about 4 months old. Help baby build neck muscles by lying down on your back, putting baby face down on your chest with her toes pointing toward your toes, and lifting your head up slightly. She'll attempt to look at your face, which will encourage her to lift her head, strengthening those baby neck muscles.
Offer a varied view: Give baby a taste of different environments by changing her view throughout the day. Take her with you as you move from room to room. If she enjoys sitting in a swing, be sure to face it in different directions so she can look at new things.
6 Weeks to 3 Months
Encourage tummy time: Since babies spend all night on their backs (to reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) it's important to put them face down during the day, while you are closely supervising them. This "tummy time" will help them develop their neck and upper body muscles.
Stimulate rolling over: Babies usually roll over somewhere between 4 and 6 months of age, but you can start encouraging her to roll over before then. Try lying baby on her side on your lap and then putting a toy a few inches away, says Wallace. Make sure her arms are free so that she can roll without having them pinned to her side. Another method: lie baby on an activity mat with one arm straight down by her side. Then roll her over on that side.
Develop body awareness: Help baby develop awareness of her hands by singing "Pat-A-Cake," "The Itsy Bitsy Spider" or other songs that involve hand movements (you can make them up too). Don't forget to get baby's feet involved. Sock rattles can also help her become aware of her feet. Babies at this age are also beginning to develop recognition of facial characteristics, so keep pointing out facial features in the mirror. Some parents use flash cards with features pictured and labeled. And take advantage of bath-time fun to help baby label body parts too.
Sound identification: Record the sounds of normal activities — a dog barking, a door opening, footsteps — and play them back for baby while explaining what they are, suggests Wallace. Baby will also probably get a kick out of hearing his own laughter played back. A hand-held tape recorder is ideal for this purpose.
3 to 6 Months
Read a book: Chernoff and other doctors begin handing books out to their patients at 6 months of age through Reach Out And Read, a national early literacy campaign. Of course, it can't hurt to introduce reading sooner — just don't be discouraged if you don't get much of a reaction, says Chernoff. "Some kids are interested and some aren't, but you're also communicating something about reading books that they're picking up on," she says, adding that she'd avoid putting baby in front of a TV as entertainment. When you're reading, be sure to label things — "this is a dog, this is a cat, this is a baby" — to get baby primed for learning such words later, says Wallace. At this age books with simple pictures are best, she says.
Practice batting and grasping: Since babies are now learning to reach for objects, give them plenty to grab for. Wallace recommends blowing bubbles in baby's direction and letting her "catch" them. In the early weeks of this time period baby will probably be batting at things rather than picking them up. It's a good time for mobiles and other hanging or floating objects that are fun for swatting. A little later, when baby starts to pick things up, place toys of different shapes and textures within reach or slightly out of reach to encourage baby to pick them up.
Peek-a-boo: Baby won't begin to develop "object permanence" — the idea that something doesn't cease to exist when it is out of sight — just yet, but you can start to introduce the concept now. Try peek-a-boo: put a blanket over your face and then remove it for baby to see that you're still there. The bonus: babies at this age and a little older will delight in your antics. You can also play peek-a-boo with toys or other objects. Eventually baby will get the hang of it and begin playing it herself.
Let baby play alone: Although you're a crucial part of baby's development, helping baby may sometimes involve just letting her play by herself for a while. "Children learn a great deal from playing on their own and from exploring the world in the way that they feel driven to," says Wallace. For example, "if the child is exploring a piece of dust that is floating in the air she's learning how things fall," Wallace explains.
6 to 9 Months
Practice passing: At this age babies are getting good at picking things up, have probably developed the ability to "rake" objects with their hands, and are beginning to transfer things from hand to hand. Fine forefinger or thumb control won't be developed until about 9 months, but you can get baby started by letting her try to feed herself (finger foods, not those that require a fork or spoon). Be forewarned: it's a messy proposition and you'll need to supervise her closely in case she begins to choke.
Let her taste her world: At this age babies experience things primarily through their mouths, so it's great to give her a variety of toys that she can gum or chew. Since she can probably sit up now, an activity saucer (like a walker, but without wheels) can be a good place for baby to sit and explore toys.
Explore cause and effect: Your baby is probably gaining a growing interest in cause and effect — "I push this button and I hear a sound." Offer her an array of toys that cater to this new interest.
Practice standing: By 9 months baby may be pulling herself up to stand or may stand with assistance from you or a stationary object. Help her do this by providing a sturdy toy — a play shopping cart or activity cart — but make sure your house is baby-proofed, that stairs are gated and all objects she might pull up on are well anchored.
Share your world: "If you're excited about something, your child is going to learn about it and be excited about it," says Chernoff. Talk to your child about the things you like to do and involve her whenever possible. "This is especially true for dads, who are sometimes a little awkward with babies," she says. "You don't have to figure out what baby likes; you can share what you like." If you enjoy hiking, take baby with you. Not only will it help you continue to do the things you enjoy, but it will also give you something the two of you can enjoy together.
Make music: Even though baby probably has a room full of fun toys, she'll most likely get a big kick out of banging on a pot, pan or plasticware dish with a plastic spoon or knocking down a plasticware tower, says Wallace. Babies are also developing better control of their fingers so toy pianos and toy phones are usually a big hit and a developmental boon.
Explore emotions: Your singing can take on a new element now that baby is ready to start learning about emotions. Try singing "If You're Happy and You Know It" — you'll not only introduce the concept of happiness, but you'll also be helping to develop body awareness and fine motor skills, says Wallace.
Swim: Baby might not be ready for the breaststroke yet, but swimming "classes" offer a good opportunity to get baby used to the water and to experience the sense of floating while at the same time bonding with you and building dexterity. Plus, you'll get a kick out of seeing baby explore water for the first time. Music and gymnastics classes are also good.
9 Months to 1 Year
Learn the language: As we mentioned above, language skills won't really take off until year two, but baby is already starting to realize her ability to make sounds. By 6 months of age she was probably practicing vowel sounds and now may be combining vowels and consonants. Help her progress by repeating what she says and offering new combinations for her to try — ba ba, ma ma, da da — says Chernoff. For now they're just sounds; eventually baby will figure out that mama applies to mom and dada applies to dad.
Crawl and walk: Baby will probably crawl, cruise and possibly walk during this period. You can help encourage movement by placing interesting objects just out of reach, says Wallace. Or, spice things up by creating a cardboard-box tunnel for baby to crawl through. "That encourages them to crawl but also helps them develop spacial relationships," she says.
Stack, squeeze and snap: At this age babies will enjoy putting objects into other objects, fitting objects together and stacking them. Blocks and plasticware are a baby's best friend now. You can also cut a sponge into different shapes and let baby stick them to the side of the tub. Now is a good time to introduce zippers and snaps, although baby won't be able to master the technique for some time to come.
Keep in mind that all babies develop at their own pace and that what may be normal for one will not be for another. Your goal in helping baby to grown and learn is not to develop a "superbaby," but rather to help your child develop to her full potential. "As parents we feel tremendous pressure to do all the right things," says Wallace. "But what's most important is to help them connect to people and relate effectively to their environment." And anyhow, your baby will always be a superbaby to you.