Looking for ways to foster learning and bolster your baby’s brain? These 10 great activities will enhance your infant’s brain development.
From building-block basics to Baby Mozart DVDs, there is no limit to what your baby’s brain can absorb in those first years of life. But what are the most important skills and strategies parents should be focusing on to boost intelligence at a young age? Here are 10 suggestions to help make learning simple and stimulating for your baby and you.
1. Get Healthy
Getting proper prenatal care is the first step you can take to start your baby’s development off on the right foot. According to Dr. Diane Bales, an associate professor and human development specialist with the Cooperative Extension Service at the University of Georgia in Athens, women should not only take folic acid when trying to conceive, but also during pregnancy and into breastfeeding. The B vitamin helps develop the neural tube, which later becomes the baby’s brain and spinal cord and which begins developing during the first eight weeks of pregnancy.
Dr. Bales notes that prenatal vitamins, which contain folic acid and other important nutrients such as calcium and iron, are stronger dosage-wise than over-the-counter supplements, so women should not assume that picking up some extra vitamins at the drugstore is enough for a healthy pregnancy. Good prenatal care also means regular visits to the obstetrician as early as possible, as well as maintaining a healthy diet and avoiding smoking and drinking alcohol.
2. Breastfeed if Possible
Although many baby formulas contain DHA and ARA, two naturally occurring lipids in breast milk, breastfeeding is still best, says Dr. Bales. “Breastfeeding improves the physical health and immune system and accelerates development of certain parts of the brain,” she adds. Aside from providing babies with all the nutrients they need for the entire day, breastfeeding contributes to proper facial and speech development, according to La Leche League International’s book, The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. Any benefits to a baby’s speech and communication abilities automatically boost brain power.
The book also reports that babies who are breastfed are less likely to develop respiratory infections and allergies. Equally important, breastfeeding provides necessary bonding time between a mother and her baby, allowing them to touch, communicate, and simply enjoy being together.
3. Practice Belly Talk
Some research shows that babies can remember and therefore recognize a voice heard when they were in the womb, says Dr. Bales. This is why she suggests parents talk to babies before they are born—and, of course, continue this communication throughout childhood. “I really believe that babies in the womb are very, very smart,” agrees Jackie Silberg, a child development expert and award-winning children’s author, songwriter, and musical performer based in Kansas City, Kansas. Parents can read a story or talk through a megaphone while rubbing Mommy’s belly, creating a bond with their baby before he or she can even match a face to the voice.
“Babies in the womb are equipped with certain patterns and concepts [that are found] in Mozart[‘s music],” says Silberg. This factor has contributed to the success of educational musical videos like Baby Mozart, which work to improve babies’ verbal, spatial, memory, and creativity skills through fun, musical play. “You’re developing literacy and language with music. They understand even if they can’t talk,” says Silberg. “And actions and songs together use both sides of the brain,” she adds, suggesting a combination of finger plays and a favorite tune. One of the most unique aspects of using music as a learning tool is that it is enjoyable, making it extremely effective. “Music is nonjudgmental—everybody gets pleasure and joy out of it. When an adult is touching, holding, cuddling, and singing, that’s a connection,” says Silberg.
Music also has a calming effect. Silberg has found that mothers who sang songs to their babies two to three times a day while pregnant can now sing the same songs when their baby is crying in the crib to soothe them back to sleep. This certainly speaks to the influence music has on improving memory.
5. Let the Games Begin
When it comes to selecting the right games for your baby, Dr. Bales offers this tip: “Give them things that are just new enough and challenging enough. Go one step beyond what they can do.” This way, you capture your baby’s attention while still pushing him to learn and explore. Dr. Bales also says there is a certain way to play with babies that allows for more quality interaction. “Be face to face with them, and get down on the floor,” she says.
And parents shouldn’t be afraid to get silly—let your babies play with their food and make a mess. According to Silberg, “research shows that small-muscle exercises stimulate brain growth.” These muscle-moving games can be anything from playing with a flashlight (or with food!) to touching, squeezing, and holding different-shaped objects or toys. Playing peek-a-boo or holding a mirror in front of your baby’s face while talking about what he or she sees help make visual connections in a child’s brain. Silberg offers an abundance of creative ideas in her books, 125 Brain Games for Babies, Games to Play with Babies, and 300 Three Minute Games.
6. Use Love Language
“The thing I suggest most is just communication with your child as much as possible, especially when they’re younger,” says Silberg. This means everything from reading together often and having everyday conversation to using alliteration, rhyming, and reciting the alphabet. Vary tone and volume, use baby talk, and say your baby’s name often to encourage response to sounds and word recognition.
Even if your baby isn’t talking yet, he or she is taking in the language, learning new words, and making brain connections. Bilingual or trilingual families can use even more language with their babies. “Another language can be taught immediately,” says Silberg, who adds that, as long as you use all the languages often, children will pick them up easily. Just think of how many words (and languages) your child could know by the time he or she starts preschool!
7. Be Affectionate and Responsive
“You shouldn’t hold a baby too much because you’ll spoil them—that’s nonsense,” says Silberg. It’s a fact that babies need touch and human contact to feel safe. Being held and cuddled builds trust and develops closeness, both of which will stick with a child throughout life. An interaction as simple as holding your baby when he or she cries creates a lasting emotional connection. Hugging, kissing, even massaging all help build bonds and create the loving atmosphere that babies need.
8. Offer New Experiences
“Just about everything is new to babies,” says Dr. Bales, so parents shouldn’t worry about searching for new things to see and do every day because they will happen on their own. Going to the grocery store or playing with a cardboard box can be just as new and exciting to babies as going to the zoo or playing with a more expensive toy. It is important to engage all of your baby’s five senses and allow her to taste, touch, see, hear, and smell as much as possible.
9. Sign Away
“More and more, sign language is being used to teach babies to read,” says Silberg. By giving babies a sign for an object or concept in a book, you’re providing them with symbolic gestures that allow them to “read” the book, she says. This, of course, carries over into everyday life. Signing gives babies the power to communicate at a very young age when their verbal and fine motor skills are not yet fully developed. Having this alternative form of communication prevents them from getting frustrated at not being able to put into words what it is they want or need.
As a parent, you’ll already be doing a lot to boost your baby’s brain power without having to refer to other experts or techniques. You’re the best expert on what your baby responds to, learns from, and enjoys. “How you interact with the baby early on is as important as anything else,” says Dr. Bales. When you focus on forming a good relationship with your little one, both of you will grow.