A month-by-month guide to the toys and games that help build brainpower—without overstimulating your little one's senses.

By Irene Daria-Wiener

Birth to 1 month

To keep your baby entertained and give him a leg up on learning, you may have bought him a stack of educational videos, a shelf full of pop-up books, and the latest electronic toys. After all, you figure, giving your child a smart start in life can't hurt. But the truth is, overstimulating your baby can backfire. In fact, pushing toys and activities that are beyond an infant's capacity may raise his level of the stress hormone cortisol, which interferes with the brain's ability to function well, says Parents adviser Craig Ramey, Ph.D., coauthor of Right From Birth: Building Your Child's Foundation for Life.

But there is an easy way to ensure that your little one gets the right amount of stimulation: Follow his cues. Studies show that babies are preprogrammed to seek out exactly the activity they need, so fill your home with sights and sounds appropriate to his age, and let him decide what captures his interest.

What Your Baby Learns: Newborns depend on you completely, so the most important thing your infant learns in the first four weeks is to trust you, says Alison Gopnik, Ph.D., coauthor of The Scientist in the Crib.

Brain Boosters: Give your child your undivided attention, gentle words, and a loving touch, and respond quickly to her cries. Providing security will help your infant understand that her world is a safe place.

Keep in Mind: Your baby has been snug inside your womb, and the outside world is totally unfamiliar. Don't expose her to too much external stimulation, like bright lights and loud noises.

cute baby smiling
Credit: Shannon Greer

1 to 3 months

What Your Baby Learns: He's starting to grasp that people and things exist, and they are separate from him and from each other. He'll be able to follow moving objects that are close by, and identify where certain sounds -- such as your voice -- are coming from.

Brain Boosters: Place a mobile over his crib, put him tummy-down on a gym mat to play, and let him look into a nonbreakable mirror: He'll be captivated by anything that moves. At around 8 weeks he'll start to notice checkerboard patterns.

Keep in Mind: Toys with lots of lights, bells, and whistles probably won't be much fun for a baby at this age, so keep playthings simple. Competing noises (such as a vacuum cleaner and the stereo) may also stress him out.

4 to 6 months

What Your Baby Learns: She's figuring out that her actions cause predictable responses: When she shakes a rattle, it makes a noise; when she smiles, you smile back. She's also developing the ability to take in information received from two senses at the same time (such as seeing you talk to her as she listens to your voice).

Brain Boosters: Give her a chance to make things happen. She'll be fascinated by small items she can grab -- plastic keys, soft balls with bells inside them. She also likes listening to music as she plays and will gravitate toward toys that make noise and light up.

Keep in Mind: Make sure visits from friends and family are short: Four- to 6-month-olds enjoy some social interaction, but they can get overstimulated by too much of it. You should also try to maintain a consistent daily routine to prevent fussiness.

7 to 8 months

What Your Baby Learns: His fine motor skills improve greatly at this age, and he'll insist on examining anything he can get his hands on, Dr. Ramey says. It will also dawn on him for the first time that words have specific meanings; he'll begin to understand the most common ones he hears.

Brain Boosters: Give him lots of textured toys that he can manipulate and hold. Begin telling him the names of as many items as possible as he plays with them.

Keep in Mind: Telling him "no" too many times will hinder his love of exploration. So be sure to put away any dangerous or breakable objects, and make your child's environment as baby-safe as possible.

9 to 12 months

What Your Baby Learns: She'll integrate all her senses and motor skills to discover how things work, says William H. Staso, Ph.D., author of Neural Foundations: What Stimulation Your Baby Needs to Become Smart. In addition, her word comprehension will explode during this time.

Brain Boosters: Mobile and extremely curious, your baby needs to be able to explore without restriction. Let her open and close cabinets, empty drawers, and dump toy buckets (with your close supervision); these activities will expand her ability to process information. Also, improve her vocabulary by narrating while you play with her ("We're building a tower with blocks") and by reading to her often.

Keep in Mind: Experts say that the high-pitched singsong tone moms use naturally to communicate helps babies learn how to talk and comprehend.

Parents Magazine