Sure, the little guy in the bouncer appears to be, well, just sitting there. But don't be fooled: His mind is going a mile a minute. During their first 12 months, babies absorb information, explore, and experiment almost nonstop -- and in the process, build the neural connections needed for a lifetime of learning.
What geegaws and field trips are necessary to spur him along? Lucky for you, exactly none. The most ho-hum day is already naturally jam-packed with noggin-nourishing opportunities.
"You don't need special videos and flash cards, or expensive classes," says Susan Heim, coauthor of Boosting Your Baby's Brain Power. "If you encourage it, almost anything you do with your baby can be a teaching moment."
Wake Up, Sleepyhead!
Your baby probably saw you just a few hours ago (sigh!), but she's still thrilled when you pop up again. "Babies need to see the same face consistently and predictably; it helps wire their attention system," says Jill Stamm, Ph.D., author ofBright From the Start.
Flash a big grin
Your baby's brain is equipped with mirror neurons, special cells that help her observe and then imitate what you do. Smiling back is one of its earliest victories.
Belt out a tune
By 3 months, she'll love to zero in on your lips, tongue, and teeth. When you sing "Wake Up, Little Susie," you show her how words are formed -- so one day she can start blurting out her own.
Play "guess what I have"
Wrap a stuffed animal in a blanket and encourage your baby to explore it: "What could this be? It feels soft." While she's watching, reveal the hidden treasure: "Voilà! It's Giraffe!" Not only will this teach her to put certain senses together, but joint attention -- when your baby looks at the same thing you do -- is a critical cognitive milestone.
To your tot, any object can be a science experiment. In one recent study at Tulane University, 6- and 10-month-olds were allowed to play with hard or soft cubes on a variety of surfaces. Older children soon figured out that the hard cubes zoomed fastest across a slick plastic tray. And all babies realized that the loudest sounds came from banging a hard cube against a hard surface (which they did, again and again). As long as the objects are baby-safe, dig into your toy box -- or think outside it.
Hand it over
Anything from socks to car keys provides new textures, sizes, and weights. Exploring a variety of items can improve your baby's understanding of how objects differ.
Help him make things happen
Once your baby sees that pressing Elmo's buttons gets the giggling going, he'll figure out that other buttons can create exciting results -- a process psychologists call "transfer." So pass over an old cell phone and watch him press away.
Create a drumming station
An empty oatmeal container, a metal bowl, and wooden spoons will make for satisfying clatter -- and instant gratification -- that will encourage him to play on.
Share Your Load
You may be tempted to burn through chores like laundry while your baby is napping, but she loves to watch you in action. "Some people call this the couch-potato theory of instant learning -- just by observing, babies learn a lot," says Emily Bushnell, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University.
If you're tickled that your tot plays peekaboo behind a towel, cheer and grin so she'll do it again. When babies get results, they're more likely to repeat an action.
"Knowledge is reinforced if babies get a chance to do something themselves," says Bushnell. So when you're wiping up a spill, try putting your baby's hand on yours so she can get a sense of the movement. Then you can give her a clean rag and let her go to town.
Don't feel guilty about letting your baby hang out nearby while you read a magazine or just relax. "A lot of parents get the idea that they need to stimulate their baby twenty-four seven," says Stamm. "But your baby's brain needs the opportunity to work through all the new information." By showing signs he's had enough -- fussing, turning away from you -- he's essentially saying, "My brain is full." For now, let him be.
During downtime, ditch the toys and songs and let your baby just absorb the world at his own speed.
Go back to nature
On a sunny day, move to the backyard. It'll give your baby plenty to look at, but the sounds -- birdsong, the wind frisking the leaves -- will relax him.
Grab a Board Book
Your baby is far more interested in gumming the pages than reading about Max and Ruby, but simply hearing the melody of language boosts her vocabulary and helps her connect words with their meanings.
One recent study showed that by age 18 months, babies are stockpiling words they hear you read from books. You can reinforce what she learns from books by taking Have You Seen My Duckling? to the duck pond or saying good night to the moon after narrating the story.
When you pretend to wail along with the baby in the book, you not only make reading more entertaining, you help your little one figure out where words and emotions meet. (Just be ready: She might burst into her own tears in sympathy.)
Make it personal
Tuck photos of your baby in an album and tell a homespun yarn to accompany them, like, "Once upon a time there was a little girl who hated strained peas..." The familiar faces will fascinate her.
Watch The Wiggles
Let's be honest: Despite recommendations that babies be TV-free, most get at least a glimpse. That's okay, says Judy DeLoache, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. "Putting your baby in a safe situation in front of the TV for fifteen or thirty minutes isn't going to matter. What has a detrimental effect is parking her there for a long while." Plus, you can make tube time work for her.
Make it a double
In one study, DeLoache found that viewing the same educational video five times a week for a month didn't boost 12-month-olds' vocabulary. What did? Being actively taught the new words by their parents. So echo what she sees on the tube.
Answering Dora the Explorer's questions out loud may feel silly, but your baby will find your antics far more interesting than the flat screen.
Splash in the Bath
A new study from Northwestern University shows that even 5-month-olds know the difference between liquids and solids -- and there's no better place than the bath to explore water's splashable, pourable scientific properties.
Spill it out
Stock an older baby's bath with measuring cups and old yogurt containers so he can see what happens when his cup overfloweth.
Make it colorful
Fill up a plastic water bottle, then add a few drops of food coloring. Tape the lid on and let him shake and shimmy it to highlight the water's wavy movement.
Dig into Dinner
In a 2008 study at the University of Oslo in Norway, 12-month-olds who saw someone place a spoonful of banana on the back of another person's hand were surprised. Babies are primed to pick up on patterns, and they notice quickly when something's different.
Go super silly
Pretend you're zooming the applesauce into your baby's ear or sucking back her milk yourself. Expect to get a bigger laugh the older she gets: Six-month-olds will notice, but it's not until 12 months that babies find a strange situation funny.
Plucking steamed peas or Cheerios from a cup is a boost for your baby's fine motor skills -- and when she drops them over the side of the high chair, remind yourself that she's just exploring cause and effect.
It's during sleep that your baby's brain does the heavy lifting, storing all its information in logical places. This is a big reason that babies doze so much. There's tons of stuff to process!
Early on, try reading the same story frequently. It might bore you, but odds are your baby will find it relaxing and comforting, and "the repetition helps the brain's neurons make important connections," says Heim. Your baby will be demanding fresh tales soon enough.
Tuck her in and say good night
She'll wake up refreshed -- and ready to learn all over again.
Freelance writer Melody Warnick is raising two smarty-pants girls in Iowa.