"Stimulating your child's brain during this time and providing situations where they can explore helps them to learn things that get them in touch with their environment," says child and adolescent psychologist Robert Myers, Ph.D., founder of the Child Development Institute and assistant clinical professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine. "Doing developmental activities with them also bonds parents to their child and makes them a better observer, so when they go to the pediatrician, they can give the doctor good information about where the child is developmentally."
To help get your creative juices flowing, we rounded up some simple, development-promoting activities suggested by three leading child development experts. Read on and get inspired!
What to do: Sing and talk to your child using exaggerated tones of voice. Watch your baby's facial expressions and see how he reacts to different pitches.
Skills learned: Language development
Materials needed: A small, soft, colorful toy, like a sponge ball or stuffed animal.
What to do: While your baby is lying on her back, hold the toy in front of her face and, if needed, wiggle it slowly or gently touch her with it to get her attention. Then move the toy from side to side, and encourage her to follow along with her eyes.
Skills learned: Visual tracking, visual development
Materials needed: Music
What to do: Put on one of your favorite songs and, while holding your baby securely to your chest, gently move around together in time to the music.
Skills learned: Listening. "This also encourages an interest in music and strengthens bonding with the parent, which is important for emotional development," Dr. Myers points out.
What to do: Next time your little one is having a meltdown or resisting a nap, sing him a lullaby in a soothing voice. Don't remember any of the classics? No problem—you can find song lyrics online or just make up your own.
Skills learned: Listening, emotional regulation
Materials needed: Baby-safe mirror
What to do: Show your baby her reflection in the mirror, then ask, "Who is that?" Repeat with your own reflection and a sibling's or a stuffed animal's.
Skills learned: Visual, social, and emotional development
6. BABY SIT-UPS
What to do: If your baby has good head control, lay him on his back, place your hands under his arms, and gently guide him into a sitting position. As he gains muscle tone and strength, do these sit-ups by holding his hands and slowly bringing him to sit.
"Just like adults' muscles strengthen when used over and over, the same is true with babies," explains Roni Cohen Leiderman, Ph.D., dean of the Mailman Segal Center for Human Development at Nova Southeastern University, and co-author of Let's Play and Learn Together. "In fact, as your baby develops strength and balance, he may begin pulling himself up faster than you are guiding him."
Skills learned: Motor skills, head control
What to do: When your baby is in a quiet and alert state, undress her down to her diaper and lay her faceup on a soft towel or blanket in a warm, quiet room. Working in sections as her tolerance allows, gently but firmly stroke her legs, arms, and belly. "We want to make sure babies are touched often and gently," Dr. Leiderman says. "That touch is how babies thrive."
Skills learned: Body awareness, bonding
8. FOLLOW THE LEADER
What to do: See how many actions your child can imitate in a row by tapping the table, opening and closing your hands, clapping, and waving. Tip: Start with something your baby is already doing, like banging a fist on the table.
Variations: Increase the challenge by adding new and more complex movements, but pay attention to your baby's reactions. Scale back if she seems frustrated—the activity should be fun.
Skills learned: Imitation, back-and-forth conversation, memory
What to do: Lay your baby belly-down across your lap, and place your hands around his midsection so he's fully supported. Then gently lift him up and move him up, down, back, and forth, like a rocket jetting into space. For extra giggles, add sound effects. "Babies like the element of surprise and learn through it," says Dr. Leiderman. "They are also seeing the world from a different perspective, and there's a gleeful aspect to that."
Skills learned: Body movement and stimulation
Materials needed: Tissue paper
What to do: Tuck one or two sheets of new or used tissue paper under the cushion of a sofa or upholstered chair so that it hangs down to the floor like a curtain. Remove baby's socks, and place her on her back, with her feet against the tissue and her knees slightly bent. "If she's slow to start kicking, gently rustle the paper with your hand or tap her feet against it," suggests Rachel Coley, occupational therapist, author of Begin With a Blanket: Creative Play for Infants, and founder of CanDoKiddo.com.
Skills learned: Body awareness, cause and effect, sensory integration, chin tucking
11. GRABBING BASKET
Materials needed: Empty paper towel or toilet paper tubes cut into 1- to 2-inch rings, a low basket or a shallow pan
What to do: Fill the basket or pan with the paper tube rings, and place it in front of your baby while she's in tummy time, propped on a pillow, or sitting on your lap with hands free to play. Encourage her to push and bump her hands up against the rings or use use the wall of the container to help her grasp them.
Variations: Swap out the cut tubes with ribbon strips or bath puffs to provide a different tactile sensation. (Always keep eyes on your baby and keep her within arm's reach when using ribbons.) Golf balls are another fun filler, as they make a great noise when placed in a metal pan.
Skills learned: Grasp and release, tactile stimulation, hand-eye coordination