Making the Most of Your Baby's First Year

An infant laying on it's stomach

Babies come into the world ready to learn everything they can. Their brains are wired to help them understand and make sense of the world. Researchers (Galinsky, 2010) have found, for example, that babies have:

  • Language sense by four months. Babies can pick out patterns of sound from their native language amidst a background of many sounds.
  • Number sense by six months: Infants can tell the difference between a large group and a small group of objects.
  • People sense by six months: Babies can tell who is helpful and who is not and prefer the helpful ones.

So how do we keep our babies' young brains active and stimulated without overdoing it? Being ready to learn doesn't mean that faster or earlier is better. In fact, taking time to first connect with your baby enhances her learning potential.

Slow down. One of the things that is hardest for most of us in our fast-paced world is slowing down and enjoying these early months and years. Much of what makes a good life for a baby are long, slow times of gazing into each other's eyes, connecting, holding, rocking, smiling, talking and offering calming touch.

For most of us, these kinds of very human and in some ways simple interactions are very different from our typical "plugged-in" mode of constantly checking our smart phones, having every minute scheduled, and rushing from place to place. But it is exactly what babies need.

Babies can teach us to re-connect with a slower pace because that is what they require of us. For some of us, this will be a welcomed change. For others of us, following this pace may feel challenging.

Here are more tips for enhancing your child's brain development in this very important first year of life.

Birth - Three Months

  • Name everything: As you walk around holding your baby, name everything you see. "There is the refrigerator. And I see some bananas. And there is our cat, Fluffy," etc. Your child will get used to the rhythm of your voice and will begin to make the connection between the words you say and what you are describing.
  • Sing and recite rhymes: Most of us have songs or rhymes in our heads that we learned as a child. This is a great time to pull them out. It doesn't matter how good your voice is, it just matters that it is your voice. While your child is on the changing table or you are rocking her to sleep or just holding her and playing, recite nursery rhymes ("Baa, baa black sheep" or "Pat-a-cake") or sing songs ("Bingo" or "Head, shoulders, knees and toes" or "The Farmer in the Dell"). Make eye contact, emphasize rhyming words, and generally have fun together while you do this.

Three - Six Months

  • Dance: Put on some music and dance with your baby in your arms. Dance fast; dance slow (and say, "now we are dancing fast, and now we are dancing slow.") Dance to classical, jazz, pop and children's music.
  • Elevator game: Say, "Now we're going to play the elevator game. Let's go up (raise him up a little) and up (raise him a little more)" and so forth. "And now we are going down, down, down (slowly)...and when you get all the way down, you get a kiss." Kiss him and tell him you love him.
  • Reach and grab: Put safe toys just out of your baby's reach while she is on her tummy on the floor on a quilt and encourage her to get the toy puppy, etc. This will both help her eye-hand coordination and spur her towards independent movement.

Six - Nine Months

  • Prepare for mobility: By now your child is probably sitting and is trying hard to be mobile. During this time, he may start crawling and maybe even cruising (standing and walking around holding on to furniture). You must be sure your house is baby-proof by now.
  • Hide and seek: Partially hide yourself behind a piece of furniture or behind a halfway open door. Use your voice to help her find you ("Where am I? Can you find me?") This game helps your baby develop "object permanence" where she understands that things she can't see still exist.
  • Cushion climb: Put the couch cushions on the floor and encourage your baby to climb on and off the cushions while you safely supervise. This will improve his locomotion and balance.
  • Follow the leader: Imitate your baby's actions. If she moves her head to one side, you do the same. If she sticks her tongue out, you follow. Imitation is an important way to learn and it also teaches your baby that she is powerful and can influence what you do.

Nine - Twelve Months

  • Water play: Your baby has probably been enjoying his bath all along, but water play may become even more important and fun at this age. Include a set of plastic measuring cups with your child's water toys. Set up a bin of water outside on a warm day and let him experiment with pouring, splashing, making waves, etc. Join in the fun!
  • Sound explosion: She may be making lots of sounds now and is probably stringing them together. When she pauses, repeat back the sounds she just made as if the two of you are having a conversation with nonsense words. Real words aren't too far behind. First words are often a little hard to decipher. Sometimes you think, "That sure sounded close to 'bottle' but I'm not sure!" Assume it was the word you thought and respond appropriately. Also don't worry too much. Some children start to use words before one year of age, but many others do not.
  • Read: Make sure that reading books is part of your daily routine. Choose primarily chunky board books and stop when he loses interest. It is also ok to let him hold, chew, look at and try to turn pages of the book on his own.

All of these activities and the many more games and routines special to you and your baby that you create on your own, will help build your baby's language, number and people senses. Slow down, relax and enjoy this really important year.

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An infant laying on it's stomach