At birth, your baby's brain contains 100 billion neurons (as many as there are stars in the Milky Way)! During his first years, he will grow trillions of brain-cell connections, called neural synapses.
The rule for brain wiring is "use it or lose it." Synapses that are not "wired together" through stimulation are pruned and lost during a child's school years. Although an infant's brain does have some neurological hard wiring (such as the ability to learn any language), it is more pliable and more vulnerable than an adult's brain. And, amazingly, a toddler's brain has twice as many neural connections as an adult's.
When you provide loving, language-enriched experiences for your baby, you are giving his brain's neural connections and pathways more chances to become wired together. In turn, he will acquire rich language, reasoning, and planning skills.
- Give your baby a physically healthy start before he is born. Stay healthy while you are pregnant, and be aware that certain drugs can be destructive to your baby's brain in utero. Many children who were drug-abused in the womb struggle with severe learning problems and suddenly act with unprovoked aggressive behaviors. Studies have also revealed that cigarette smoking during pregnancy causes lower fourth-grade reading scores.
- Have meaningful conversations. Respond to infant coos with delighted vocalizations. Slowly draw out your syllables in a high-pitched voice as you exclaim, "Pretty baby!" This talk is called "parentese." The areas in the brain for understanding speech and producing language need your rich input.
- Play games that involve the hands (patty-cake, peekaboo, this little piggy). Babies respond well to learning simple sequential games.
- Be attentive. When your baby points, be sure to follow with your gaze and remark on items or events of interest to her. This "joint attention" confirms for your baby how important her interests and observations are to you.
- Foster an early passion for books. Choose books with large and colorful pictures, and share your baby's delight in pointing and making noises — say, the animal sounds to go along with farm pictures. Modulate the tone of your voice; simplify or elaborate on story lines; encourage toddlers to talk about books. We recommend these books for sounds and wordplay. Remember that building your baby's receptive language (understanding spoken words) is more important than developing his expressive language (speaking) in infancy.
- Use diaper time to build your baby's emotional feelings of having a "lovable body." Stroke your baby's tummy and hair. Studies have shown that babies who are not often touched have brains that are smaller than normal for their age. Also, when diapering your baby, you are at the ideal 12 to 18 inches from her eyes to attract attention to your speech.
- Choose developmentally appropriate toys that allow babies to explore and interact. Toys such as a windup jack-in-the-box or stackable blocks help your baby learn cause-and-effect relationships and "if-then" reasoning. If a baby stacks a big block on a smaller one, the top block falls off. If he successfully stacks a small block on a bigger one, he "wires in" the information.
- Respond promptly when your baby cries. Soothe, nurture, cuddle, and reassure him so that you build positive brain circuitry in the limbic area of the brain, which relates to emotions. Your calm holding and cuddling, and your day-to-day intimate engagement with your baby, signal emotional security to the brain.
- Build trust by being attentive and focused. Babies who are securely attached to you emotionally will be able to invest more life energy in the pleasures of exploration, learning, and discovery.
- Use body massage to decrease your infant's stress and enhance her feelings of well-being and emotional security. Loving touches promote growth in young babies. Research has shown that premature babies who are massaged three times daily are ready to leave the hospital days earlier than babies who do not receive massages.
- Enlist help from your toddler at clean-up times — a good way to practice categorization. Toddlers learn that stuffed animals have one place to go for "night-night" time; cars, trucks, and other vehicles also have their special storage place. Children need to learn about sorting into categories and seriation (placing things in order; for example, from littlest to biggest) as part of their cognitive advancement in preschool.
- Set up a safe environment for your crawling baby or toddler. Spatial learning is important, and your mobile child will begin to understand parameters such as under, over, near, and far. He will be able to establish mental maps of his environment and a comfortable relationship with the world in which he lives.
- Sing songs such as "Itsy Bitsy Spider" and "Ring-Around-the-Rosy." The body motions and finger play will help your baby integrate sounds with large and small motor actions. Songs also enhance your child's learning of rhythms, rhymes, and language patterns.
- Match your tempo to your child's temperament. Some children adjust easily to strange situations, some are bold and impulsive, and some are quite shy. Go with the flow as you try to increase a shy child's courage and comfort level. Help a highly active child safely use his wonderful energy while learning impulse control. Your acceptance will give him the comfort he needs to experiment and learn freely.
- Make meals and rest times positive. Say the names of foods out loud as your baby eats. Express pleasure as she learns to feed herself, no matter how messy the initial attempts may be. This will wire in good associations with mealtime and eating. Battles and nagging about food can lead to negative emotional brain patterns.
- Provide clear responses to your baby's actions. A young, developing brain learns to make sense of the world if you respond to your child's behavior in predictable, reassuring, and appropriate ways. Be consistent.
- Use positive discipline. Create clear consequences without frightening or causing shame to your child. If your toddler acts inappropriately, such as by hitting another child, get down to his eye level, use a low, serious tone of voice, and clearly restate the rule. Keep rules simple, consistent, and reasonable for your child's age. Expecting a toddling baby not to touch a glass vase on a coffee table is not reasonable. Expecting a toddler to keep sand in the sandbox and not throw it is reasonable.
- Model empathic feelings for others. Use "teachable moments" when someone seems sad or upset to help your toddler learn about feelings, caring, sharing, and kindness. The more brain connections you create for empathic responses and gentle courtesies, the more these brain circuits will be wired in. This helps not only with language and cognitive learning, but with positive emotional skills, too!
- Arrange supervised play with messy materials, such as water, sand, and even mud. This will teach your toddler about the physics and properties of mixtures and textures, liquids and solids. During bath time, the brain wires in knowledge about water, slippery soap, and terry towel textures. Sensory experiences are grist for the learning brain.
- Express joy and interest in your baby. Let your body language, your shining eyes, your attentiveness to babbling and baby activities, and your gentle caresses and smiles validate the deeply lovable nature of your little one.