Babies are brain builders – they’re brains aren’t fully developed at birth, but grow and change based on what they can detect about what’s happening around them. It’s important to know what parents can do to help their babies learn, as parental interaction is the first and most important source of information about what a baby’s new and confusing world is all about.
A stressful home makes for a stressed-out baby. Babies are often described as little sponges, soaking up experiences as fast as they can. A home where parents argue constantly or where infants experience neglect can profoundly impact an infant’s development. Conversely, a home filled with love and nurturing is set up to take advantage of a baby’s inborn desire to learn, test, and discover.
Language development begins at birth. Most parents naturally use a sing-song voice accompanied by big facial expressions (called “parentese”) when talking to their infants, and this helps babies learn what communication is and what language can do. It also encourages social interaction—parentese engages a baby’s interest and encourages them to try to respond. These interactions are the building blocks of language development.
Babies have many ways of communicating their needs. Crying is the most obvious, but babies will also rub their eyes, fuss, or turn away when they are overstimulated. Some babies love a lot of play while others have a more placid temperament. Each infant has individual traits, and parents pick up on what babies indicate they enjoy and what they don’t.
Babies wake up at night, and parents respond. Eventually, however, parents need to teach an infant to sleep through the night. This is one of the more challenging and sometimes distressing ways parents help babies learn. There are many different methods of sleep training, and parents need to find the one that works for their baby and themselves.
Providing safe toys and household objects to explore gives babies the chance to indulge their inborn explorer, develop their motor skills, and learn with all their senses. What parent hasn’t turned a saucepan and a wooden spoon into a drum? (sometimes to their regret, but try to focus on the baby’s delight!)
Additionally, demonstrate the meaning of words while you say them. For example, lift the baby up while you saying “uuuuuupppp” in a rising tone, and do the reverse for down. This combines sound, motion, and speech to help a baby understand that words correspond to sensations or objects.
Babies also need toys that are interactive in a way screens are not. Blocks, rattles, and pop up toys allow infants to develop motor skills and discover that their actions can cause a reaction. They begin to realize ‘if I shake this thing, it makes a sound’ or ‘if I bop this button, a happy face pops up.’
Providing an environment full of opportunities for safe exploration coupled with lots of talk and interaction with your baby is the groundwork of learning and cognitive development. If your infant doesn’t seem to respond to you or sensory stimulation (like loud noises, soft textures, etc.) or seems extremely oversensitive or inconsolable, contact your pediatrician for an evaluation.