Forget the flash cards! The best way to nurture a newborn's growing brain is with plenty of fun and games -- and tender loving care.
Are you worried that your son isn't brilliant because he doesn't like Baby Bach? Do you lose sleep over your daughter's stubborn disinterest in the alphabet?
Relax -- the secret to smarts isn't what you think. While a complex mix of genetic and environmental factors helps determine your little one's IQ, the most important influence is something that you control: the quality of the care you give your baby. Loving and nurturing your infant are crucial for optimal intelligence, says Robert G. Voigt, M.D., a developmental pediatrician at the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minnesota. It's also important to engage your child in brain-stimulating activities, like the ones listed below. Luckily, they're as fun for you as they are for him!
1. Chat him up. "There is a correlation between the number of words a child hears as a baby and his verbal IQ," says Lise Eliot, Ph.D., author of What's Going On in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life. The more you talk to him, the richer a vocabulary he'll develop. Keep your subjects simple, because he thinks in concrete terms. Talk about his truck or blanket, for instance, instead of your upcoming vacation. And if he attempts to communicate with you, elaborate on it ("Oh, you want your bottle!").
2. Hit the books. Reading stories together helps you forge an emotional bond with your child and helps her learn too. "She'll begin to grasp the basics of literacy from your reading sessions -- that there are letters and words on the pages and that you read from left to right," says Linda Acredolo, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis. And the pictures will allow your child to see things she otherwise might not, like tall ships and tigers.
When you reach the end of a book, find the patience to read it again. Each time you do, your baby sharpens her memory skills, and it's a delight for her when she can predict what's on the next page.
3. Let your fingers do the talking. Use sign language to communicate with your baby before he ever speaks. You'll be lending his intelligence a helping hand too: "Scientific data show that sign language has a positive effect on IQ and language development," Dr. Acredolo says. According to a study conducted at the University of California, Davis, babies who learned about 20 signs talked earlier and had higher IQs than those who didn't. For additional information, visit Dr. Acredolo's Website at babysigns.com, or read the book she coauthored, Baby Signs. Other resources include Baby Sign Language Basics: Early Communication for Hearing Babies and Toddlers, by Monta Z. Briant, and the Website signingtime.com.
4. Try to nurse. Kids who were breastfed as babies outperform their formula-fed peers on mental-development tests, Dr. Eliot says. And the longer babies breastfeed during the first year, the higher their IQ tends to be. Still, if you choose formula, don't fret. Studies have found that the ultimate IQ difference is just a few points, on average.
If you're using formula, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends an iron-fortified one for your baby's first year. A University of Michigan study found that children who had chronic, severe iron deficiency in infancy scored lower than their peers on cognitive and motor tests in their teens.
5. Give her time alone. If you wave toys under your baby's nose every minute she's awake, you'll wear her out before boosting her brainpower. And you certainly won't help her develop her attention span, which is crucial for academic achievement. "There is a philosophy that kids need entertainment around the clock, but they need some downtime to amuse themselves, play with toys, or crawl," Dr. Eliot says.
6. Snuggle up! Once your baby knows that you'll always meet his needs in a loving and reliable way, he'll have the drive to explore on his own. So carry and cuddle him, and make plenty of eye contact. "One thing that motivates children to learn to talk is wanting to connect with other people," Dr. Acredolo says. That's why little kids want to show Mommy a flower or point out the stars to Grandma. They want to create a bond.
With plenty of playing and snuggling, you'll do just that -- and you'll both reap benefits far beyond brain development.