Software for babies? Many software companies advertise new products to the infant and toddler market. But how young is too young? Here's an age-by-age breakdown of when and how to introduce children to computers.

From Birth to 18 Months

To babies and young toddlers, the computer is a mystical, magical busy box, full of music, noises, colors, and buttons. They enjoy chewing the mouse cord, leaving fingerprints on the screen, and banging on the keys. However, they're too young to make the connection between their actions on the keys and mouse and the actions on the screen. There's little reason to provide a computer for babies.

18 Months to 3 Years

Children at this age begin to notice that they can have an effect on the pictures on the screen (though this can vary considerably among children), but they still don't have the essential eye-hand and perceptual skills to effectively use the mouse. Consequently, the software you pick will have to be responsive to when toddlers move or click the mouse or to their presses on the keyboard.

Age two and a half can be a real turning point for many children when it comes to computer use. Not only can they sit for a bit longer, but many also have the fine-motor control necessary to use a mouse. Look for software with repetitious songs, a large, responsive cursor, and a variety of activities to choose from.

3 to 5 years

This is the best age for initial computer use. Children now have the ability to expertly manipulate the mouse, provided they've had the time to practice, and can use a variety of software. Electronic storybooks are a wonderful choice, as well as simple simulation programs such as the Putt-Putt series from Humongous.

5 to 6 Years

By the time they reach kindergarten, children with prior computer experience are experts. They can use pull-down menus to launch programs, negotiate complex menus, and use the computer for simulations and art projects or even for reference. This is a time when solid computer activities can play a valuable role in supporting a school's curriculum.