1. Give your baby a good start before birth. Stay healthy while you are pregnant, and be aware that certain drugs can be destructive to your baby's brain in utero.
2. Turn up the baby talk. Respond to infant coos with delighted vocalizations, and slowly draw out your syllables in a high-pitched voice as you exclaim phrases like "pretty baby.” This way of speaking is called parentese, and the exaggerated facial expressions and drawn-out vowels help your child absorb all the sounds of our language. Remember: The areas of the brain responsible for understanding speech and producing language need your rich input.
Book Pick: Baby Shark Board Book This silly sing-along story based on a well-loved song can easily be read in parentese. Your baby will absorb the many sounds of the English language as you talk about a baby shark, mama shark, and grandpa shark, and sing the melodic “Doo doo doo!” verses in between.
3. Play games that involve hands. Activities like patty-cake, peekaboo, this little piggy, or even puppets engage your baby and capture her attention. Using your hands shows young children how we physically interact with our world — plus, hands-on activities are simply more fun for both of you!
4. Be attentive. When your young child points, be sure to follow with your gaze and remark on items or events of interest. This "joint attention" confirms how important your child's interests and observations are to you.
5. Foster an early passion for books. Choose books with large and colorful pictures, and share your baby's delight in pointing at certain images or even making noises that correspond with the book — like glub glub when you see a fish. Modulate the tone of your voice, simplify or elaborate on story lines, and encourage toddlers to talk about books. Remember that building your baby's receptive language (understanding spoken words) is more important than developing his expressive language (speaking) in infancy.
6. Build your baby's love of her own body. Stroke her tummy and hair when reading, playing, or even diapering. Studies have shown that babies who are not often touched have brains that are smaller than normal for their age, and interacting with her close-up also helps direct her attention to your speech.
Book Pick: Peek-a-Boo, I Love You! Make reading time extra cuddly and touchy-feely with this classic book, which features a sweet storyline about unconditional love. Bonus: It comes with a soft, snuggly bear for your baby or toddler to hug!
7. Choose 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. For instance, if a child stacks too many blocks without straightening them, they fall down. If he successfully stacks blocks on top of each other, he "wires in" that information.
8. Respond promptly when your baby cries. Soothe, nurture, cuddle, and reassure her so that you build positive brain circuitry in the limbic area of the brain, which is involved in emotions. Your calm holding and cuddling, and your day-to-day engagement with your baby, signal emotional security to the brain.
9. Build trust by being attentive and focused. When your child is playing, resist the temptation to check Instagram. Instead, get on the ground and spend time interacting with him. Babies who are securely attached to you emotionally will be able to invest more energy in the pleasures of exploration, learning, and discovery.
10. Give her a body massage. This can lower your infant's stress levels and enhance her feelings of well-being and emotional security. Loving touches even 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.
11. Enlist help from your toddler at clean-up times. This is a wonderful 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 smallest to largest) as part of their cognitive advancement in preschool.
Book Pick: How Do Dinosaurs Clean Their Rooms? This sweet story about a frolicsome dinosaur tasked to clean up promotes organizational skills and responsibility through loads of laughter and positive reinforcement.
12. Set up a safe environment for your crawling baby or toddler. Your mobile child will begin to understand spatial parameters and vocabulary such as under, over, big, little, near, and far, plus the relationship between objects of different shapes and sizes (those that are big versus little, for instance). He will start to establish mental maps of his environment and a comfortable relationship with the world in which he lives.
13. Sing those nursery rhyme songs you remember. When you can, add body motions and finger play (like waving your arms during “You Are My Sunshine” or miming rain falling during “Rain, Rain, Go Away”). This helps your baby connect sounds with large and small motor actions. Songs also enhance your child's learning of rhythms, rhymes, and language patterns.
14. 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, or help a highly active child safely use her fantastic energy while learning impulse control. Your acceptance will give her the comfort she needs to experiment and learn freely.
Book Pick: I Love You Because You’re You Whether a youngster is feeling bashful or bold, playful or sad, a mother’s love knows no bounds in this warm book about children’s different temperaments and moods.
15. Make meals positive. Say the names of foods out loud as your baby eats. Express pleasure as he learns to feed himself, no matter how messy the initial attempts may be. This will create pleasant associations with mealtime and eating. Battles and nagging about food, on the other hand, can lead to negative brain patterns.
16. 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 as consistent as possible.
17. 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 her 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 unreasonable, but asking a toddler not to throw sand outside of the sandbox is reasonable.
Activity Pick: Good Citizenship Flash Cards These illustrated cards take a positive, friendly approach to teaching your child that we are all part of a larger community, and that certain responsibilities come with that — from never calling someone names to recycling.
18. 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!
19. Arrange supervised play with messy materials. It can be water, sand, and even slime or goop! This will teach your child about the properties of liquids, solids, and mixtures — sensory experiences that are crucial for the learning brain.
20. 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.
As always, supervise your child's play with these toys. Some may require your help until baby is of age!
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