Every parent wants to give their child the best start in life. But when it comes to a baby's brain development, forget the high-tech gizmos, language flash cards, and "required" hours of classical music. It turns out that the things babies need most -- attention and affection from parents and caregivers -- come naturally in most families. "Most good parents who provide a healthy, sensitive environment are doing just what they should be doing," says Rick O. Gilmore, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Penn State University. As for "extras" like music appreciation: "If you like Mozart and want to play it in your home, great. If you like Garth Brooks, that's great too," he says.
Babies do need exposure to language, says Dr. Gilmore. Simple things like talking and reading to your baby -- which most parents do naturally -- can be a good way to introduce your child to language. But if, for example, you're reading to your baby and she's not enjoying it, stop. "There isn't a quota that has to be filled," he says.
One thing parents should do: Be sensitive to your child's interests and needs. Some kids like a lot of stimulation -- from activities, reading, games -- while others don't. By observing your child, you can gauge his capacity for stimulation. Also keep in mind that infants are sensitive to the degree to which their parents are responsive to them, says Dr. Gilmore. "Generally speaking, during the first few months of life, parents should try to be as responsive to their babies as possible -- within practical limits, of course." So comfort your baby when she cries (you don't have to worry about "spoiling" her at this age), but don't beat yourself up if you can't be available to your child every second of every day. "Try to make time for yourself," adds Dr. Gilmore. "Your mood and health are important for your baby's development."
Overall, your best strategy is to provide a safe, loving environment that encourages your child to explore on his own -- an important way for him to learn about the world around him. According to a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2002, toddlers who physically explore their environment, engage socially with other children, and verbally interact with adults are likely to have better scholastic and reading abilities as teenagers compared to less engaging toddlers.
Interestingly, the study's authors -- researchers at the University of Southern California -- suggest that these children create their own stimulating environment that, in turn, facilitates their cognitive ability.
One final bit of advice: Follow your instincts. "Do the very best you can to provide a safe, caring environment," says Dr. Gilmore. "We have instincts that guide our behavior; follow those best instincts and your baby will do just fine."
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