Ever notice how your baby's eyes brighten when you play a familiar CD or sing a lullaby? That's because music is much more than just a diversion for a child. A hefty stack of research shows that rhythm and melody help spark memory, imagination, language skills, and reasoning ability. Songs can also calm young kids by reducing their stress-hormone levels. But enough about science. Best of all, music is a great way to bond with Mommy and Daddy.
Babies: First Notes
Music helps you communicate with your baby, build his sense of security, and soothe him. * Just sing. Don't worry if it's off-key: Your baby loves the sound of your voice -- especially when you make eye contact.
* Match his pitch. When your baby coos, echo his voice in a slightly exaggerated, musical way. Older babies may start to mimic your melodic "ahhhs" and "babas."
* Mark time with music. Make up fun little songs to let him know it's bathtime, naptime, or time for a feeding. This will give a comforting structure to your baby's day.
* Make some noise. Hand him an egg shaker or a rattle so he can create his own sounds.
* Get him moving. Bouncing your child on your lap as you recite nursery rhymes will help improve his balance. Also try tapping his legs to the beat of a tune to develop his sense of timing.
* Gotta dance. Play salsa, rock, hip-hop -- or whatever type of music you like -- as you sway, spin, and step in time with your baby.
Toddlers: Tune Time
Active songs and musical games (such as "The Hokey-Pokey" and "Open, Shut Them") expand a toddler's vocabulary, teach her to cooperate (try singing "It's Time to Clean Up"), and help her use her body and mind in perfect harmony.
* Get classy. Sign your child up for a music playgroup. The best ones use tunes as a way to get kids to dance, jump, and be active.
* Beat it. Give her sturdy toy instruments and toddler-friendly objects to play with (such as wooden spoons and light pots). Have her clang, strum, and scrape them to make sounds of varying pitch, volume, and length.
* Update your playlist. Kids this age go for songs with a surprise ending (such as "Pop Goes the Weasel"). They also love memory-building songs like "Old MacDonald" and "Bingo" -- and may even start joining in by age 2.
* Mix it up. Once your child knows a tune, slip in an incorrect word or phrase (such as finishing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" with "Life is but ice cream"). She'll get a thrill (and a giggle) from correcting you.
* Hear it live. Take your child to see a kids' performer in concert, where no one will mind that she toddles around as she listens.
Preschoolers: Start Making Music
Give your kid lots of opportunities to move and groove, and ask him how different types of music make him feel.
* Have him repeat a beat. Slap your thighs or tummy to create a rhythmic sequence, then let your preschooler try to mimic it. You can also tap on a table or hit plastic plates together like cymbals.
* Make a scene. Play classical music, and have your child act out a scene to match the mood. He might pretend he's a horse galloping (during a fast stanza) and then mimic falling asleep (as it winds down).
* Get hands-on. Let your child touch and experiment with different instruments -- whether real or kid-size -- to pique his interest. See how many ways he can "play" a guitar (tapping, plucking, strumming), and ask how he would use it to make a jumping or tiptoeing sound.
* Play "whisper and shout." Invite your preschooler to sing a song two ways -- first as if he's small and shy, then as if he's huge and full of energy. The contrast will help him gain confidence in his singing ability.
* Hear the colors. Have your child paint or draw a picture, then use toy instruments or noisemakers to translate its theme to music.
* Check out the classics. Attend a young people's concert so your child can discover how orchestral sounds come together. If the setting is kid-friendly (and the musicians give their permission), let him go onstage afterward and see the instruments up close.
Grade-Schoolers: My Tunes
By the time your child starts elementary school, she has distinct musical tastes -- and is ready to start learning to play an instrument.
* Change the station. Expose your child to varied styles of music (reggae, New Age, classical) to expand her horizons and help her develop her own taste.
* Find her voice. Ask your child to sing to you -- or, if she's hesitant, with you. Find things to compliment ("I like how clear you sound") so she doesn't feel self-conscious about her voice.
* Get involved. When your child starts playing an instrument, put away your cell phone and pay attention when she's practicing. Encourage her to stay focused, and be specific with your praise ("I see you're holding your bow firmly -- nice job!").
* Give her some freedom. Establish a regular playing schedule, but let her decide what she wants to work on first (such as fingering and scale exercises).
* Think improvement, not perfection. Give your child modest goals so she can see progress. Ask, "Can you hold that note one second longer?" or "Can you play another bar next time without stopping?"
* Let her make her own music. Have your child compose a short piece as you write down or record the notes. Collect the songs in a binder or on your PC so your child has a record of her work.
Expert sources: Mike Blakeslee, senior deputy executive director of The National Association for Music Education; Lynn Kleiner, founder and director of Music Rhapsody, an early-childhood music program in southern California; Lili Levinowitz, PhD, director of research for the Center for Music and Young Children, in Princeton, New Jersey; Sister Patricia St. John, EdD, founder and executive director of Carondelet Music Center, in Latham, New York; Philip Sheppard, cellist and author of Music Makes Your Child Smarter.
Fill a butter container with Cheerios for a simple noisemaker.