It's so easy to second-guess yourself in the early days (and weeks, and months, and even years) of parenting. But the truth is, it's even easier to cut yourself some slack. Every day, you're doing things that will have a lasting, positive impact on your child's development. As proof, we've come up with 10 rituals, routines, and habits that experts say will help your child grow up happier, more secure, and more socially adaptable. Next time you're having a moment of self-doubt, remember this list and give yourself a break.
1. Giving hugs and kisses and saying "I love you."
Most new moms find it hard to keep their hands off their delicious little babies and toddlers -- and that's a good thing. "Touching is as nutritious as food -- if not more nutritious," says Harvey Karp, MD, creator of the DVDs The Happiest Baby on the Block and The Happiest Toddler on the Block. "There have been studies on babies who were given food in orphanages but not picked up, and they didn't thrive. But if they were fed and touched, they did. Any kind of touching, massage, or tickling literally nurtures them."
All that touching is contagious -- hug your kids, and they're more likely to offer hugs to you, to their friends, and even to their siblings. "For me and my husband, hugging is a way of showing our kids that we're emotionally available to them," says Rachel Fox, who lives in South Pasadena, California, with her three kids, age 6, 4, and 7 months. "Rob and I started a 'family hug' tradition when our oldest child was little. Anyone can declare it's time for a family hug, and we all drop everything, lock arms, and squeeze each other tight. As a result, all three of our kids are comfortable showering each other with affection -- whether they need comfort because we've disciplined them, or because they're celebrating something."
2. Reading stories and singing songs, especially before bedtime.
The benefits here are twofold. First, hearing stories and songs is a key component to language acquisition. Barbara Bard, PhD, a speech language pathologist and professor emerita at Central Connecticut State University, is a big fan of wordless picture books (such as Good Night, Gorilla and Good Dog, Carl), which promote conversation. "You can talk to your child about the action on every page," she says. "Good reading experiences aren't about the story; they're about the way in which you talk about the pictures."
The second benefit to books and songs is that they can help form the structure of a daily routine for your baby. For instance, singing the same lullaby before turning out the lights can create a cue for your child that it's time to go to sleep. "If you incorporate certain songs into any routine -- such as singing before mealtime, bathtime, or bedtime -- it helps your baby anticipate what's coming," Bard says.
Recent research verifies this. Sleep expert Jodi Mindell, MD, partnered with Johnson's, the baby-product company, to study babies age 7 to 18 months at bedtime. They had parents follow a routine in which they gave their baby a bath, a massage, and then a few minutes of reading or singing before bed, with a 30-minute start-to-finish rule. They found that the babies fell asleep in a third of the time that it took them before the routine was implemented. As a bonus, the babies also slept for longer stretches and had shorter nighttime waking periods. "Consistency helps," Dr. Mindell says.
3. Having conversations with your baby before he can talk.
My obstetrician loves to tease my husband, Jeff, about the fact that the minute she handed Lance to Jeff after the c-section, the new dad began introducing himself and telling our son everything he'd need to know about life. It was a torrent of words, starting with, "I'm your daddy and I love you, and this is your mommy and she loves you," then winding around to things like, "Your mom's no good at math, so when you need help with your homework, I'll do that." From that moment on, we narrated everything -- changing diapers, putting away groceries. I'd start every day by telling Lance, "First we'll change you, and then we'll go for a walk, and then we'll go to the store, and then we'll come home for lunch." To this day -- he's now 3 -- when I tell him we're going someplace, he'll respond with, "And then?"
Simply put, language begets language. "Language learning begins on day one of life, with the first cry," Bard says. "It's critical that you talk to a baby. You can engage in a one-way conversation -- 'I see you're hungry! Well, wait a minute because it takes a moment to get ready' -- and you're teaching words and concepts. You're also teaching babies how to anticipate. And if you narrate the routine, it makes kids feel safer."
4. Praising baby's accomplishments.
Obviously, building up your child's confidence is a good thing. But many parents don't realize that praise is also one of the primary ways to teach a baby words. "From 8 or 9 months, the easiest way to encourage communication is to connect what your baby is doing (putting his hands together) to what you're saying ('you're clapping!')," says DeDee Caplin, PhD, a pediatric psychologist and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah and the mom of Fischer, 3, and Sabine, 6. "The child has a reference point."
5. Teaching your toddler manners.
Instilling "please" and "thank you" into your child's consciousness is great for both of you. For you, it takes the edge off all those demands a child makes. (Who can resist the request "Mama, may I please have some chocolate milk?" when it's said sweetly?) For them, "manners help integrate a child into the adult world," Caplin says. They help children understand boundaries (you can't just run up and take something without asking), and they cultivate respect (it's best to say "excuse me" before addressing someone you don't know).
Leslie Schram, of Palm Beach, enjoyed teaching "please" and "thank you" to her three children -- now 5, 3, and 2 -- not just because they're important but because they sound cute coming from a 1-year-old. "From the time my kids were learning to talk, whenever I handed them a cup or cookie, I always made them say 'please' and 'thank you,'" says Schram. "We still laugh at the fact that when Lauren said 'thank you,' it sounded like 'ding dong.'"
6. Admiring your child's artwork.
Any reinforcement you give your child for his creations is a good thing, says Lori Barrett, the founder of Thinkertots, a creative learning centers franchise based in Bayside, New York. First, "praise means a lot more coming from Mom or Dad than from anyone else," Barrett says. Second, you're not just praising an accomplishment, you're praising your child's use of imagination, which will encourage him to continue to invent new creations. "Our 3-year-old son, Jackson, comes home from preschool with artwork every day. So we opened up an art gallery in our mudroom for him," says Shaun Dreisbach, who is also mother of a 5-month-old, in Essex Junction, Vermont. "We bought frames that make it easy to change what's on display, and he can see them every day when he puts on his coat or comes home. I made little cards to hang next to each piece, with the title and the name of the artist. We even had an opening, where we placed a ribbon across the door and let Jackson cut it with his little scissors."
7. Answering your baby's cries.
A whining 3-year-old is one thing, but a crying baby is quite another. "A lot of people worry they are going to spoil their child by responding to every cry," Dr. Karp says. "None of us want spoiled children, but in the first six to 12 months it's our job to teach babies that they can feel secure and trusting of the world. Inside the uterus, they are rocked and soothed 24-7, so even if you hold your infant for 18 hours a day, it's a 25 percent cutback from the baby's perspective." Don't worry about spoiling during the first year. "There's plenty of time after the first birthday to teach them that crying doesn't always get them what they want," Dr. Karp says.
8. Making regular trips to the pediatrician.
There are lasting effects from all those well-baby visits that are, er, nothing to sneeze at. "As an adult, someone who received preventive care from an early age can have a 'RealAge' that's 12 years younger than the age on the calendar," says Jennifer Trachtenberg, MD, a mom, a pediatrician in New York City, and the author of Good Kids, Bad Habits: The RealAge Guide to Raising Healthy Children (Harper Collins). (RealAge is an estimate of your body's biological age, based on a slew of health factors.) "Those visits also instill good habits -- pediatricians use those times to talk about topics such as bike helmets and safety belts," Dr. Trachtenberg says.
There's also a benefit to being a "doctor caller," which I will readily cop to from my own early parenting days. I checked in frequently with my son's pediatrician, particularly during the first colicky six months. Yes, six months. Those conversations not only helped me cope with the anxiety of having an inconsolable child, but, in the long run, they helped establish a great relationship between our family and the wise Dr. Ostler. "You want to have a good rapport with your pediatrician," says Dr. Trachtenberg. "She needs to be someone you can relate to and who can communicate with you in a way that inspires you to use her advice."
9. Encouraging your child to interact with others.
Yep, that coffee klatch you call a playgroup is good for your baby! While a young child won't "play" with others (at least until somewhere between her second and third birthday), getting her out in the world to see and hear other kids does both of you good. "For the parent, it makes you feel like you're part of a community," Caplin says. "You also get to watch how your child behaves apart from you. The more you see your child in the context of other kids, the more readily you're able to assess if there are any developmental issues -- which you can address sooner than later."
Meanwhile, for baby, those early roll-arounds near other kids and adults make socializing a normal part of her world. "If you notice that your child is unusually timid or has a harder time separating from you than other kids her age, you can use these times as 'practice,'" Caplin says. "Let your child know that you'll be just across the room and she can wave at you whenever she needs to -- and that you'll wave back."
10. Celebrating special events as a family.
"Kids like repetition and routine," Dr. Trachtenberg says. "So rituals at holidays have a cumulative effect." Birthdays, for instance, loom large to young children, who learn at an early age to anticipate all the elements: lit candles, the "Happy Birthday" song, cake, presents. It doesn't have to be their own birthday for them to get excited -- in fact, they're fascinated that mommies, grandmas, and uncles have birthdays too.
Even babies grasp the specialness of holidays. "As long as you make activities age-appropriate and don't expect little ones to sit longer than their attention span will allow, these will be positive family experiences for them," Dr. Trachtenberg says.
Nicole Shmuelov, of Plainview, New York, says her 1-year-old daughter, Ariella, seems filled with eager anticipation by the time they sit down for Sabbath dinner. "We usually have family and friends over, so the meals bring her closer to them," says Shmuelov. "The other benefit is that everyone wants to hold and play with the baby, so I actually find time to eat!"
Bari Nan Cohen is a mother of one (soon to be two) in Park City, Utah.
Originally published in American Baby magazine, February 2007.
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.