A healthy and happy baby, that’s what all parents want. But secretly, many of us also hope our little bundle of joy grows up to be whip-smart, too. Did you play Mozart to your belly during your pregnancy? Decorate the nursery with stimulating shapes and colours? Before the educational benefits of Baby Einstein videos were debunked by studies, many parents turned to TV screens for baby entertainment with a side of enrichment. But there are easier, and more instinctual, everyday ways to make sure your baby is learning.
We can’t promise you’ll have a tiny genius on your hands after trying these ideas out, but we do know that any little thing done to support your baby’s brain development is beneficial. (And don’t worry, it isn’t time to break out the flash cards—yet.)
If you want your child to be an engaged and enthusiastic learner, help him develop optimal levels of dopamine in his brain, says child psychotherapist Margot Sunderland, director of the Centre for Child Mental Health in London, England, and author of The Science of Parenting. The way to do that is to have lots of time at his level (playing down on the floor or on the bed) and to use energetic commentary.
If your child is bopping away in a bouncer you might say, “Wow! You’re jumping so high! Look at you go!” offers Sunderland. “If you just remained silent, the dopamine would very quickly fall in the child, and they’d probably give up,” she says. Children who have built up ideal dopamine levels also develop stronger resilience against depression later in life.
Don’t forget to move around with your little one. “Physical play develops cognitive functioning,” explains Sunderland. “It helps program the frontal lobes for concentration and attention, and develops new growth in the hippocampus, which is a memory system in the brain,” she explains.
But how do you roughhouse safely with a wee baby? Sunderland suggests lap or rocking games and songs like “Roly-Poly,” face-to-face games like peekaboo, hand games like patty cake and flying your little one airplane-style above your head.
Explore in tandem
When possible, choose activities that you can play together, advises Sunderland, rather than traditional toys you hand off to the baby for solo play. She also recommends sensory, stimulating items such as a discovery treasure box filled with feathers, or a bin of bubbles. Try filling a plastic tub with water and bath soap and then enthusiastically popping bubbles together.
“Babies learn best from one-on-one human interaction,” says Ashley Merryman, co-author of NurtureShock: New Thinking about Children. However, when a baby gets a new toy, she suggests, let her explore it alone for a few minutes before you jump in. “It’s about investigation and self-exploration,” she says.
Both of our experts agree that reading to your child from a very young age will help develop a host of skills, including emotional vocabulary and building empathy. (It’s never too early—the American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends that paediatricians counsel all parents to read to their babies from infancy.)
Teaching little ones to name their feelings and reflect on them will help develop the stress-regulatory pathways in the brain, adds Sunderland. (This is key for stopping a child’s urge to lash out when he or she’s upset—very important during the tantrums of the terrible twos.) Reading together, says Sunderland, is also a great way to bond with your child, reducing aggression and anxiety.
How does this work during storytime? It’s simple, says Merryman. When reading together, try labelling the characters’ emotions, which helps kids see things from another person’s perspective. So, if a person or animal in a picture book looks happy, mention it, and then smile at your baby.
Expert tip: Taking a break from all these stimulating games and toys is also important. Sitting quietly with a few toys in a playpen is good rest for the brain, but it doesn’t replace sleep. “Sleep is when your brain processes what you have learned into long-term memory,” says author Ashley Merryman.
A version of this article appeared in our October 2014 issue with the headline “Smarty Pants,” p. 70.