You know when your baby is just lying around doing nothing much in particular? Or when he sticks out his tongue for fun? He's not just goofing around -- he's learning! Babies' brains develop quickly during the first 12 months, and they're absorbed in acquiring a new skill or understanding from their interaction with you and from their surroundings. Find out more about how your baby learns, and what you can do to help him.
How babies learn
Babies learn through all their senses, by:
Listening to you. Your voice is the sweetest sound to your baby, and just hearing you talk teaches him a lot -- how language works, what words mean, how people interact, and more. Since he prefers the voices of people he cares about to those of strangers, your words have great power to teach.
Watching the world go by. Even when you're in the car or at a store, your baby is learning. She sees the shapes and colors all around her, and starts to make sense of what objects are and how they work.
Touching everything. Does your baby seem to pick up everything in sight, peer at it, turn it around, shake it, put it in his mouth, then take it out and look at it again? What seems like random child's play is actually the way babies learn about everyday objects, starting as young as 1 month. They want to know how new objects look, feel, sound, smell, and taste. They're also discovering the effect they can have on something (does it make a funny noise when it's shaken?) and how things differ (metal feels colder and smoother than wood).
Playing. One of the most important ways babies learn is through play. Picking up blocks, shaking a rattle, banging trucks &-- all these things are fun, but also major brain-boosters. A baby's job is to figure out how the world works, and playing is how she does it.
Taking some time out. Downtime is crucial to a baby's development. His brain needs quiet time to process everything it's taking in. Especially in the first few months, babies need breaks to avoid overstimulation.
What's your role?
There are many ways you can boost your baby's learning (no educational videos or special tools necessary!).
Talk about what you're up to. By narrating your day ("Now we're getting in the car." "I see a yellow truck!"), you're stimulating your baby's brain, helping her learn language, and showing her how to connect words with objects. Don't feel silly -- it may seem like you're talking to yourself, but she's hanging on every word.
Have a conversation. Try letting your baby talk back, too. His response might be just a grunt or a grin, but even babies as young as 3 months old can hold up their end of a nonverbal conversation. You might make an observation about the state of his diaper, wait for a kick or a wiggle or a gurgle in reply, then answer, "Do you really think so?" or "I had no idea!" You do something and your baby does something, and even very early, he begins to grasp the rudiments of conversation skills and turn-taking.
Read together. Books are fun for babies (bright colors, spines to chew), and they teach them much more than the words on the page. Thanks to reading, your baby will come to understand how books work, that they tell stories, and that stories have a beginning, middle, and end. Keep your book time short (babies can handle about five to ten minutes), and let your baby play with the book if that interests her more -- babies learn by touching as well as hearing.
Stick to a routine. By following a similar pattern each morning (eat breakfast, get dressed, get on shoes to go), your baby learns what to expect, making him feel safe and smart. It's great for his growing brain to have consistency, but if you need to make a change, just give him a little warning, like "We'll have one more sip of juice and then it's time to go." Even if he's too young to really understand, it'll help him learn how to shift gears, an essential skill to have as he gets older.
Let your baby explore. Since babies learn through play, yours needs things to pick up, bang around, squeeze, and more. That doesn't mean you have to own a ton of toys, though: A wooden spoon is as fun as something you'd buy in a toy store. Just make sure you have a variety of safe objects with different textures and functions that she can experiment with. And let your baby take the lead -- she'll have more fun that way.
Provide some breathing room. Keep an eye on your baby for signs of overstimulation. He might start to fuss, or just look away from whatever new thing you're offering. Let him be. Even staring at the ceiling fan or the way the sun shines on the wall is interesting to a baby.
Simple learning games
Get on your baby's eye level and try one of these games. They teach cause and effect, memory skills, and social skills.
Up my little baby
With your hands grasped firmly around his chest and back (not his arms, which could dislocate a shoulder or an elbow), pull him from a prone to a sitting position and back again, accompanied by a singsong refrain of:
"Up my little baby comes
Down my little baby goes
Peek around, have you found
Baby's wiggly toes?"
At the end of the rhyme, give his tootsies a tickle. Substitute your child's name for "baby," and he'll really pay attention!
Whoops, golly, golly
Beginning with the pinkie, say "golly" as you gently touch the tip of each of your baby's fingers. When you get to the index finger, say "whoops!" and slide your finger down the side of her index finger and up to the tip of her thumb, which becomes "golly" again. Then backtrack quickly, sliding down the inside of the thumb and up the index finger with another "whoops!" bringing the game to an end with "golly, golly, golly."
Clap your hands
As you clap your baby's hands together, chant:
"Clap your hands, one, two, three
Play a clapping game with me
Now your hands have gone away
Find your hands so we can play!"
On "gone away," hide his hands under his favorite blanket, and on "find your hands," pull them out again.
Build a mountain of sofa cushions, then let your child topple them over. Scattered cushions and pillows also make a fine obstacle course for a crawler to navigate on her own, or follow-the-leader style.
Hide yourself (someplace near and pretty obvious, or your baby may get concerned) or a favorite object ("Where's bunny? Is he under the table? No. Is he under the sofa? Look! There he is!").
Your family's everyday life provides a great education for your baby. Babies don't need expensive toys or advanced classes to learn about the world. You are his first and most influential teacher -- and a baby's classroom is wherever he goes.