What do babies like? Being held, hearing your voice, and a nice dose of breast milk or formula obviously top the list. But what about the ceiling fan, pop music, or that zebra-print artwork on the wall? We talked to experts about why certain things are so captivating to babies -- and how you can join the fun.
When a baby is born, he can focus only about 8 to 12 inches in front of his face, and his eyes can't move from side to side. However, by 4 months, when his eyes can work together and he can track a moving object from left to right, anything in motion will capture his attention, notes Mary Ann LoFrumento, M.D., medical director of the newborn nursery at Goryeb Children's Hospital, in Morristown, New Jersey. Combined with his improved hand-eye coordination, he'll be able to reach out and explore objects with his hands and mouth. As he continues to grow, he'll learn about cause and effect as he bangs toys together and figures out, for example, "If I push this button, I hear music."
Play Along: Move a toy slowly up and down and right to left in front of your infant. By 3 months, he'll have no problem following along.
Babies like lullabies but they also dig music meant for us older folks, so don't be surprised if your cutie kicks her legs when she hears a Katy Perry song. Music can either be soothing or exciting to a baby, especially the rhythm and the repetitiveness of the chorus, says David Saltzman, M.D., a pediatrician at Lake Shore Pediatrics, in Lake Shore, Illinois. It also helps your baby's language skills by introducing her to new words and sounds. Plus, that wiggle she does when she hears her song is a positive sign: "It means her body, ears, and brain are working together to find the rhythm," explains Dr. Saltzman.
Play Along: Once she can sit up unassisted, give her a toy piano, or a wooden spoon and a pot, so she can make her own tunes. If she babbles, respond in a singsongy voice. There's nothing like a mommy-baby duet!
Your baby looks around at everything, but it probably seems that certain colors are of particular interest. A red barrette, a black-and-white blanket, or a polka-dot shirt may hold his attention. While it was once believed that newborns respond only to black-and-white patterns, we now know that they can see colors, says Dr. LoFrumento. For the first few months they are drawn to high-contrast primary colors, such as red and green, and other bold patterns. Their vision improves between 4 and 6 months, when they're able to appreciate pastels and colors of different hues.
Play Along: Print out patterns such as a bull's-eye, a checkerboard, or circles of various sizes and colors. Hang them where your baby can see them, and switch images every few days so he doesn't get bored.
Even if you don't have a pet at home, your baby probably lights up when she sees a dog or a cat. Her outstretched arms and squeals of glee mean she's eager to touch and explore the little furball. Babies are interested in part because animals' faces look similar to a human face, and because of the way they move, says Marsha Gerdes, Ph.D., a child psychologist at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
Play Along: Read books or buy toys that feature animals. You can also appeal to your baby's animal attraction by crawling on the floor and barking like a dog or mooing like a cow. She'll get some good laughs and may even try to imitate you.
Don't freak out if your newborn spends a large chunk of time just staring at his fist. Curiosity about his own body is a part of a baby's natural development. "Besides the initial feeling of wonderment that an infant experiences, the actual mastery of a physical skill, like using his hand to grip a pacifier, can be very rewarding," says Dr. Saltzman. As your baby gains more control of his body, usually by 4 months, he'll touch and examine other areas like his ears, his genitals, and, eventually, his yummy toes. These explorations improve hand-eye coordination and help him discover the power of different parts of his body (when he bats objects with his hand or pumps his legs to kick off his socks, for example).
Play Along: Give him an early start on body awareness by sitting in front of a mirror, and pointing out the different parts of both your faces. Don't forget the silly expressions!
Originally published in the March 2015 issue of Parents magazine.