50 Simple Ways to Make Your Baby Smarter

Experts believe that the first years of a child's life are a prime time for learning, but it can be hard to think of new ways to stimulate them. Let these fun—and scientific—activities inspire you.

mother playing with baby on changing table
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Stimulate Baby's Vision

1. Make eye contact. Take advantage of those brief moments when your newborn's eyes are open, and look right into them. Infants recognize faces early on—and yours is the most important! Each time they stare at you, they're building their memory.

2. Stick out your tongue. Babies as young as six months old can imitate simple facial movements—it's a sign of very early problem-solving.

3. Let them reflect. Have your baby stare at themselves in the mirror. At first, they may think they're just eyeing another kid, but they'll love making the "other" baby wave their arms and smile.

4. Encourage comparisons. Hold up two pictures about 8 to 12 inches away from your baby's face. They should be similar but have one small difference (perhaps there's a tree in one, but not the other). Even a young infant will look back and forth to figure out the distinguishing features, which prepares them for letter recognition and reading later on.

Chat Them Up, Make Them Laugh

5. Blab away. Have "conversations" with your baby and leave short pauses where they would speak. Soon they'll fall into the rhythms of your chat and begin filling in the blanks.

6. Go gaga. Babies really tune in to their parents' silly cooing and high-pitched baby talk.

7. Sing songs. Make up your own verses for kid-friendly tunes ("This is the way we change your diaper, change your diaper, change your diaper..."). Play Bach, the Beatles, or Britney Spears. Research links an understanding of musical rhythm to a facility for math.

8. Clue them in. Say "I'm going to turn on the light now" before flipping the switch, or "I'm going to run the bath" before turning on the faucet. Doing so teaches a child cause-and-effect.

9. Tickle their toes. In fact, tickle them all over. Learning to laugh is the first step toward developing a sense of humor. And telling your child "I'm gonna get you" before chasing them, or playing "This little piggy" (followed by a tickle under the chin) teaches them to anticipate events.

10. Pull a funny face. Puff up your cheeks and have your toddler touch your nose. When they do, poof! Have them pull your ear, then stick out your tongue. Make a funny noise when they pat your head. Repeat each routine three or four times, then change the rules to keep them guessing.

11. Joke around. Point to a photo of Uncle Frank, and call him "Mommy." Then tell your child that you were being silly and laugh at your "joke" to build their budding sense of humor.

Strengthen Your Bond

12. Breastfeed/chestfeed, if possible. And do it for as long as you can. Some studies suggest that schoolchildren who were nursed as infants have higher IQs. Nursing also gives you extra time to bond with your baby by singing, talking, or simply stroking their hair.

13. Make the most of diaper time. When you change baby's diaper, narrate what you're doing; it teaches them to anticipate routines. Name their body parts or clothing items as you go along, too.

14. Turn off the tube. Your baby's brain needs the kind of one-on-one interaction that no TV show, no matter how educational, can provide.

15. Take a rest. Spend a few minutes every day simply sitting on the floor with your baby—no music, bright lights, or playtime tricks. Let them explore, and see where they take you.

Get Physical

16. Be a playground. Lie down on the floor, and let your baby climb and crawl all over you. You'll help boost their coordination and problem-solving skills.

17. Build an obstacle course. Strengthen your baby's motor skills by placing sofa cushions, pillows, boxes, or toys on the floor and showing them how to crawl over, under, and around them.

18. Move to the music. Teach baby to twist and shout, do the funky chicken, or twirl like a ballerina.

19. Play "follow the leader." Crawl through the house at varying speeds. Stop when you come to an interesting place to play.

20. Follow their lead. As your baby gets older, they'll be more creative at thinking up things for you to do. Let them direct you into making silly noises, crawling backward, or laughing.

Change the View

21. Take a tour. When you go for walks with baby, narrate what you see. Saying, "That's a little dog," or "Look at those big trees!" or "Did you hear that fire engine?" helps build their vocabulary.

22. Go shopping. Bring baby on your next supermarket trip. The grocery store is a place of wonder for them, with so many entertaining faces, sounds, and colors.

23. Switch the scenery. Move your baby's high chair to the other side of the table. You'll challenge their memory of where things are placed at meals.

Be Silly Together

24. Surprise them. Every now and then, delight your baby by gently blowing on their face, arms, or tummy. Repeat your breaths in a pattern, and watch them react and anticipate.

25. Play Three Card Monte. Grab a few empty plastic food containers, and hide a small baby toy under one. Shuffle the containers, and let your child find the prize.

26. Play peekaboo. Your hide-and-seek antics do more than bring on the giggles. Your baby learns that objects can disappear and then come back.

27. Pick it up. Even if it seems like your baby repeatedly drops toys off their high chair just to drive you nuts, go fetch. They're learning and testing the laws of gravity. Give them several pieces of wadded-up paper or some tennis balls, put an open bucket under their seat, and let them take aim!

Teach Texture

28. Grab a tissue or two. If your baby loves pulling tissues out of the box, let them! For a few cents, you've got sensory playthings that they can crumple or smooth out. Hide small toys under them, and thrill your tot when you "find" them again.

29. Get touchy-feely. Keep a box of differently textured fabrics, such as silk, terry cloth, wool, and linen. Gently rub each cloth on your baby's cheek, feet, and tummy, describing the way it feels.

30. Feel your way. Walk around the house with your babe in arms, and help them touch random items—a cool window, soft laundry, smooth plant leaf, and other safe objects. Label things as you go.

31. Play with food. Once baby is eating solids, serve textured foods (cooked peas, cereal, pasta, chunks of cantaloupe). It will engage their senses and help them practice their pincer grasp.

Teach Language and Numbers

32. Echo Sesame Street. Dedicate each week to a letter of the alphabet. For instance, read books that start with A, eat A foods, cut snacks into an A shape, and write A on the sidewalk with chalk.

33. Count everything. How many blocks your toddler can stack. How many fingers and toes they have. The number of steps in your house. Do this often enough and soon your child will join in.

34. Read books. Babies as young as 8 months old can start to recognize the sequence of words in a story, if it's read to them repeatedly. This then readies them to learn language.

35. Tell tall tales. Choose your child's favorite story, and swap in their name for that of the main character.

36. Go to the library. Take advantage of story time, puppet shows, and other educational activities, and walk with baby down the rows and rows of books.

Make Memories

37. Compile a family album. Include photographs of relatives near and far, and flip through it often to build your child's memories. When Grandma calls, show kids her picture as she's talking to them.

38. Create a zoo book. On your next visit, take photos of favorite animals to include in an album. Later, "read" it together, naming all the familiar creatures or adding animal sounds and stories.

39. Spotlight them. Show baby videos of their first bath, their efforts to roll over, or time spent with Grandpa. Narrate what they see so you can help them build language and memory.

40. Play the mugshot game. Take close-up photos of important people in your child's life. Print two copies of each photo to make a set of cards. Lay them face up on the floor, and help your little one match pairs. As they get older, make the game harder by starting with the photos face down.

Tips for Toddlers

41. Expand on stories. Point out details in the pictures, and ask your toddler questions, ranging from the abstract ("Why do you think they don't want green eggs and ham?") to the concrete ("Have you ever seen a white dog?").

42. Play in the rain. Jump in puddles. Sit in wet grass. Make it fun to learn about wet and dry.

43. Let them be the boss (sometimes). Build your toddler's confidence by regularly giving them a choice between two things. ("Do you want a red bowl or a blue one for breakfast?" "Are you wearing a dress today, or pants?") They'll learn that their decisions matter.

44. Dress up. Let your toddler play with Dad's old shirts. Dig out unused winter hats and scarves, or orphaned gloves. Play pretend together, and see where your child's imagination leads.

45. Revisit former favorites. Get out your toddler's old rattles and mirrored baby toys. You'll be amazed at the new ways they'll find to play with them.

46. Talk about feelings. Cuddle up at bedtime, and ask your child what made them happy or sad that day. What made them angry—or proud? This exercise helps them recall the day, understand past tense, and label their emotions. (Then keep this activity going... until they head off to college!)

47. Hunt for bugs. Look at pictures of harmless insects (ladybugs, crickets, butterflies) in a book or magazine, then go find some outside.

48. Choose hues. Pick a color, and ask your toddler if they can spot it when you go on a walk or car ride together. Then let them pick a color for you to hunt.

49. Put them to work. Toddlers can help sort laundry into darks and whites. They may even be able to pick out which clothes belong to them.

50. Fill up cups. Gather several cups or plastic containers of different sizes, and let your child pour water from one into another during bath time. Sometimes they'll pour too much; other times, too little. Talk about which cups are bigger and which are smaller.

Copyright © Reprinted with permission from Parents magazine.

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