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How Affection Boosts Brain Power

As any parent will attest, nothing is more extraordinary -- or joyful -- than the moment you realize that your baby has fallen in love with you.At 2 to 4 months, your child seems to become more intensely involved with you. She may look longingly into your eyes, flash a radiant smile at the sound of your voice, or wiggle in anticipation when she hears you approaching.

By 5 months, she has developed a wide variety of ways to express her affection. These include:

  • Responding to your smiles with a big one of her own
  • Initiating interactions with loving looks and smiles
  • Making sounds or moving her mouth, arms, legs, or body in rhythm with your movements
  • Relaxing or growing less fussy when you hold or rock her
  • Cooing when she is held, touched, looked at, or spoken to
  • Looking at your face with rapt interest and looking uneasy or sad when you withdraw in the midst of playing with her.

It's important to encourage such exchanges at every opportunity. The reasons for this go well beyond the need to bond with your baby: Those back-and-forth smiles, frowns, giggles, and body movements are helping your baby develop a host of crucial qualities -- from intelligence and language ability to a well-formed sense of self.

Most parents assume that their baby's initial spoken words are the first sign that language ability is developing. In fact, your baby's preverbal gestures reveal his growing ability to communicate. When you respond to those gestures, you nurture important aspects of his personality. You build his self-esteem by welcoming his attempts to express his needs. You show him that his feelings can be part of a dialogue. And by fostering his ability to read another person's gestures and body language, you help him tap into some primal survival skills.

Honing those skills can help your child become more cooperative and attentive when she reaches school age. A child who is adept at sending and receiving nonverbal cues may find it easier to sense when a class- mate's interest is wandering or her teacher is losing patience. Such a child can follow rapid changes in vocal tones and speech patterns and make quick judgments about what she sees and hears.

The activities that make your baby feel secure and loved also build his intelligence. By responding to his signals, you give meaning to his experiences and let him know that his actions have an impact. If he could talk, he might say, "Hey -- when I do this, she does that. The world can be purposeful and logical!" As he plays with you, he is taking the first steps toward creative and rational thinking. Give-and-take games (you offer an item, he takes it) help him grow more physically coordinated as well. He's learning that his looking, listening, and reaching skills can all work together.

Two-way communication also helps your child become empathic. As he learns that his actions and feelings have an effect on you, he starts to see you as an individual, separate from himself. His awareness of you as a caring person will lead him to respond by caring about you. And it is through mutual concern that a person's moral sense evolves.

Most likely, you've been intuitively offering your baby smiles, nonsense sounds, and funny faces. If you're already receiving chortles and grins in return, just relax and enjoy them -- and try to coax your baby into more, and longer, states of happiness. But if you're not achieving the desired response, it may help to take a more systematic approach.

All babies react differently to stimuli, so follow your child's lead. Is she more content when you're talking up a storm or when you're quiet? Does she coo and squeal to draw you to her, or wave and kick to express her love? Take mental notes on these cues -- and on what makes her shy away. Use the looks, tones, and gestures that bring your baby the most pleasure.

The results will be richly rewarding for both of you. Your child's mastery of such communication will strengthen his sense of purpose and cultivate his understanding of the world. And as his emotional responsiveness increases, your partnership will develop into a full-blown love affair. Your baby may not be able to talk yet, but his actions speak volumes.

The key to building your baby's preverbal communication skills is to make the process fun. Although each infant's response to parental overtures is as individual as her fingerprints, give these pleasure enhancers a try:

  • Talk and babble to her, using a variety of high and low pitches and soft to loud volume.
  • Offer her a range of different facial expressions while talking and babbling.
  • Massage her with a gentle touch while telling her what you are doing.
  • Gently move her arms and legs while talking to her and looking at her.
  • Rock her, fast and slow, while bathing her in smiles, words, and sounds.

If these methods don't work, experiment with your own. Remember not to exhaust your little partner; ease off if she seems overstimulated. When you do find a technique that works, add variations to keep her engaged. If peekaboo is a hit, for example, try popping up on "Boo!" in a different spot each time.

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