You may think that the early months with your baby are all about feeding, sleeping, and diapering. But you have countless interactions every day that teach him about love, attachment, security, trust, empathy, language, and even math. "Babies are like little learning machines, picking up everything around them," says Gail Gross, Ph.D., Ed.D., a family-and-child development specialist in Houston. If that sounds like a lot of pressure to live up to, relax. You don't need to load up your child's schedule with enrichment activities. Odds are you're already providing priceless experiences without even realizing it. Check out all of the opportunities he has to learn from you and what you can do to make these moments even more meaningful.
Nursing or bottle-feeding is a primary way to bond. By cradling your baby and nourishing her, you're letting her know she's loved and protected. Your presence reassures her and helps her adjust to the unfamiliar world outside the womb. In fact, the connection you forge during feeding is as vital to your infant's well-being as the nutritional benefits of the food itself. "Research shows that a baby who forms a close attachment with a parent is more receptive to learning and processes information better," says Dr. Gross.
TRY THIS At feeding time, sit in a quiet room and focus on your infant. Hold her close (a newborn can only see things clearly up to 10 inches away), cuddle her, and talk or sing to her. Ask other caregivers to do the same so that your baby is always in a warm and loving environment.
Your baby's brain will learn more when you stretch out real words, articulate them clearly, and say them in a somewhat high-pitched, melodic tone, says Renate Zangl, Ph.D., author of Raising a Talker: Easy Activities for Birth to Age 3! Hearing parentese makes his brain light up in a way it doesn't when he hears regular speech. In fact, a study by the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, in Seattle, found that young children whose family often used this speech style with them knew twice as many words by age 2 as those whose parents didn't. Of course, once your toddler begins to understand words and starts talking, he no longer needs for you to speak to him that way.
TRY THIS You probably talk in parentese naturally with your baby, but there are ways to make it even more effective. Keep your words simple and speak in full sentences as often as possible to help him learn about words and sentence structure. Repeat phrases slowly and clearly, as it takes lots of repetition to build early word memories. "Babies learn to understand and talk by watching and listening to you," says Dr. Zangl. "Get up close and exaggerate your mouth movements as you stretch out your 'ooos' and 'eees.' He can hear the sounds and see how they are formed." Look for ways to insert his name into stories and songs. Once he knows it, you'll have an easier time getting his attention. Also, pause to give your baby a chance to respond, whether by cooing, smiling, or kicking his feet. Then reply to him; he'll be thrilled to be engaged in "conversation."
Helping With Hygiene
Putting a fresh diaper on your baby can give her a sense of order, security, and routine. The same goes for bathing her and brushing her gums. These are opportunities to give her early cues for taking pride in her body. "Every task that involves touching and bonding also enhances your child's emotional development," says Dr. Gross.
TRY THIS When changing or cleaning your baby, take the time to narrate what you're doing. A quick round of "This Little Piggy" on the changing table can make the chore more interactive and fun.
Doing your best to maintain an even tone of voice in stressful situations gives your little one a lesson in how to regulate his emotions. "Babies are sensitive to their parents' facial expressions," says Kirsten Cullen Sharma, Psy.D., codirector of the Early Childhood Clinical Service at the Child Study Center at NYU Langone Medical Center. "If they see you looking fearful or upset, they may mimic that behavior."
TRY THIS Your child learns the phrase "Uh-oh" early on and can connect it to the fact that a mistake has happened, says Dr. Sharma. Use it to acknowledge a mishap and laugh it off. You might say, "Uh-oh, that was silly of me to drop that cup. But I can clean it up easily!"
Sharing Family Mealtime
"When you include your baby in meals, it reinforces that she's part of the family," says Kristen Yarker, R.D., a child-feeding expert in Vancouver, British Columbia. Once she starts eating solids, letting her explore with her hands instead of solely spoon-feeding her teaches her that food doesn't need to be controlled by an adult and that you trust her to listen to her hunger cues, says Yarker. You'll also be helping her discover through multiple senses (touch, smell, taste, and sound), which makes the act of eating more enjoyable and may help offset picky-eating habits.
TRY THIS Even if your infant isn't ready for a high chair, you can hold her on your lap during family meals. Resist the urge to help out when she is eating (even if she makes a big mess). Figuring out how to get foods of various shapes and textures into her mouth will improve her fine motor skills. When she's ready for the high chair, pull it up to the table. Avoid forcing her to take "just one more bite;" doing so could inadvertently teach her to eat in order to please others. Instead, give her a selection of healthy choices and let her decide what she wants and when she's done. Be sure to talk to her at the table. You can name different foods and describe how they taste, or chat about anything you like. The point is to let her know that mealtime is a social experience.
Whether you're out for a leisurely stroller walk or your baby is strapped into a carrier for a serious hike, the way you behave on these outings influences how he feels about the outdoors and physical activity, says Dr. Sharma. If you huff and puff or seem irritated by the trek, your baby will learn that it's not a pleasurable thing to do. But if you show that you're invigorated by the fresh air, he'll internalize that being in nature and getting exercise is fun.
TRY THIS When you're outside, try naming the things you see, such as leaves and rocks, and let your baby touch them. If you don't have time to stop and observe, talk to him about how much you enjoy the colors and smells of the flowers. This will help him appreciate these things too.
Hugging Your Partner
Showing affection in front of your baby lets him know that family members treat each other with warmth and kindness. The more he sees you embracing your partner, cuddling a sibling, or petting the dog, the more likely these behaviors will become part of his repertoire.
TRY THIS Don't be shy about letting your child see you kiss or touch each other. Say "I love you" regularly, and avoid fighting in front of him so he learns that your home is a safe, caring place. "You're teaching your child values by how you act in front of him," says Dr. Gross.
Research shows that music can improve your child's mood and boost her concentration. It may also help foster mathematical understanding: Elements such as melody and beat offer opportunities to internalize patterns, sequences, and counting.
TRY THIS Dance to a song while cradling your baby, or tap her back to the beat to reinforce the rhythm. Break out some baby instruments, such as a xylophone, maracas, and a drum, and play them together while she works on her motor skills.
Watching you leave can be tough for your baby, particularly when separation anxiety first kicks in around 6 to 8 months or peaks again at 15 to 18 months, says Richard So, M.D., a pediatrician at Cleveland Clinic Children's.
TRY THIS When you need to go out or leave her at Grandma's, don't sneak away or your child might feel abandoned. Instead, say, "Goodbye. I'll be home soon," suggests Dr. So. Keep your bye-byes brief. When you return, give her a hug and say, "I told you I'd be back. I missed you. I will always come back for you." Start this routine early, even if your baby doesn't exactly understand your words yet. She'll still get used to the routine, and while it won't eliminate her anxiety right away, over time she'll realize that goodbye doesn't mean forever.