When he's not sleeping, your newborn spends a lot of his time gazing at your face. And there's good reason. First of all, a newborn's eyes focus best at 8 to 12 inches, the distance from your face to his when you cradle him while feeding him. And babies simply prefer looking at faces. "That's probably hardwired in us," says Lise Eliot, PhD, author of What's Going On in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life. "There's a very strong survival value in making eye contact; it evokes the most caregiving." In fact, she adds, because faces are so important, a large part of our brain is dedicated to perceiving, processing, and discriminating among them.
At around 2 months of age, your baby is able to recognize your face and will begin to respond with a smile, says Tanya Remer Altmann, MD, author of The Wonder Years: Helping Your Baby and Young Child Successfully Negotiate the Major Developmental Milestones. What's interesting is that babies first learn to recognize a face by the outer features, such as your hair, chin, or head shape; as they get older, they learn to look for inner features, such as eyes, nose, and mouth. So make funny expressions, raise your eyebrows, open your mouth wide, and see how your baby responds.
The color red
As an infant, Samantha loved looking at the Coke cans I'd set out when guests were coming. It's no wonder: red is among the colors babies see best once their color vision first kicks in, at about 3 months. A newborn doesn't see in color at all, thus her early fascination with black-and-white patterns and playthings. Her color vision is fully in place by 4 months. "Young children only really detect bold, primary colors; they probably discern reds and greens best, followed by blues and yellows," says Eliot. That's one good reason to deck out the nursery and choose infant toys in primary colors rather than pale pastels. Eliot adds that even older kids, given the choice, usually opt for bright bold colors over pale ones.
Minute specks of dust on the floor, a smudge on the carpet, the little screw in an electronic toy -- why do all these little things fascinate babies? "Because a newborn can only see in black and white, he notices contrast or the edges of objects. He also enjoys staring at things such as a tiny speck or a ray of light," explains Dr. Altmann.
"Our daughter, Amelia, is fixated on a crack in our wooden floor," says Meredith Kaback, of New York City. "She would crawl over to the crack and stick her finger in it, study it, spend time with it. Now that she's walking, she'll go full throttle, notice that crack, then stop, flop down, and stick her finger in it again."
If your child loves playing drums on his high-chair tray with a spoon or relishes slapping blocks -- or trucks -- together, know that all that banging has a purpose. "He's developing fine-motor skills, and children need to do something over and over to develop proficiency," says Jenn Berman, PhD, author of The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy, Confident Kids. "Your child is learning cause and effect -- when I bang this, it makes a noise."
Your baby will get a kick out of playing peekaboo or other hide-and-seek games early on. Besides being fun, these games actually help her learn an important concept.
"Once your baby is 8 or 9 months old, she knows that when you hide behind a blanket and she can't see you, you're still there, just waiting to come out and surprise her," Dr. Altmann says. This notion is called object permanence, but younger babies don't understand it yet. Before 8 months, your infant thinks that when she can't see you, you're gone! By 10 months she'll lift the blanket to find you or the toy you've hidden. Once your child has mastered the peekaboo concept, says Dr. Altmann, she'll love initiating the game herself by hiding behind her hands or a blanket and then peeking out to surprise you.
"When my daughter Kaitlin was 7 or 8 months old, she loved to do these ear-piercing screams," says Roseanne Brill, of Westwood, New Jersey. "They sounded scary, like horror-movie screams. We'd ask, 'Who's screaming?' and she'd just smile." Yes, many babies love to have a good scream or shriek. And although it may drive you crazy, they're simply exploring their vocal repertoire. It's one of the early ways babies experiment with making sounds other than crying, which was their only way to communicate with you at first. It's also another way to get your attention and to test out cause and effect.
As one of your baby's first crib or playmat toys, a mirror is sure to intrigue. Your infant's interest in mirrors is related to his love of faces. Babies see their own face in the reflection, and they like looking at it. "At first a baby doesn't know he's the child in the mirror -- it's like he sees this baby in the mirror, smiles at him, and then he reflexively keeps smiling back at himself," says Dr. Altmann. It's not until 18 months that a baby understands that the smiling baby is himself.
Older siblings or a jumping 3-year-old at the park can make your baby light up like a thousand-watt bulb. One reason big kids are so attractive to babies is that they still have high-pitched voices, which babies prefer. (This also explains why adults tend to use a high singsong voice with infants.) "Plus, babies respond to the same cuteness cues in children that we do," says Eliot. "They still have a large head relative to their body size, big eyes, pudgy cheeks, and a broad forehead, features that are universally appealing." Older kids are also full of movement and emotion, both of which can keep an infant captivated, adds Dr. Altmann.
What is it about anything shiny and dangly? The jewelry's visual appeal sparks a baby's natural curiosity, says Dr. Altmann. "Shiny, sparkly things do catch a baby's attention, especially when they're hanging around your neck or from your ears," she says. "Jewelry reflects the light, and baby's eyes are drawn to it, usually starting as early as 4 months, around the time when his eyes start working together." During this period your infant is also beginning to reach out and grab things and even bring objects to his mouth for further exploration. So anything new and different -- and easy to tug -- will be irresistible. This also explains why babies are fascinated by drawstrings on a pair of sweatpants (dangly and easy to grab) and zippers (shiny, dangly, and that exciting up-and-down motion).
The remote control
With its many fun buttons and ability to turn on that magic picture box (aka the TV), Mom and Dad's favorite toy is bound to attract baby's interest. She gets to test cause and effect and see what happens when she presses the different buttons: the channel changes, the TV turns off, or the volume goes higher or lower. "Anything Mom and Dad use, like the remote control or the cell phone, and put out of baby's reach is intriguing," Dr. Altmann says. This curiosity may heighten at around 18 months, when children become interested in imitating what you do and revel in pretend play, like making believe they're cooking (or channel-surfing!).
Whether you wiggle your fingers up and down your infant's belly or chase your toddler and play "I'm gonna get you!", tickling provides a thrill. Kids start to respond to it by smiling and laughing at around 4 to 6 months, Dr. Altmann says. "Children like touch and getting your attention," she adds. Tickling is not on the standard developmental chart, jokes Eliot, "but it definitely is a kind of social milestone -- laughing together is really how you bond and get close."
Funny word combos
Samantha dissolves into fits of giggles when I say a word that she finds funny. It might be "okey-dokey" or "piggly-wiggly." What's the appeal? "Anytime you do something out of the ordinary, like make a funny noise, it gets kids' attention," says Dr. Berman. "The unusual stands out. Funny words and sounds are the verbal equivalent of putting a banana on your head -- kids know it doesn't go there, and they think that's hysterical."
Animals seem to have a magical effect on babies. Many of us have pets at home, and because we love them, kids get a sense that they're safe and good. And when we see a beagle or a tabby cat that's not ours, we shout, "Look! There's a dog! Say hi to the kitty!" Our enthusiasm is contagious. Living beings are also more exciting than toys. They move in unpredictable ways, they're interactive, and they stimulate all of the senses.
Gina Bevinetto Feld, a writer based in Brooklyn, just had her second daughter.
Originally published in the March 2009 issue of American Baby magazine.