What Parents Can Do – Birth to 6 Months

Whether you are breast-feeding or bottle-feeding your baby, changing diapers, giving a bath, or softly singing as you rock your baby to sleep, know that this is a special time!

These everyday moments, these simple loving encounters, are providing essential nourishment. Just as their bodies need food to grow, science now tells us that the positive emotional, physical, and intellectual experiences that babies have in the earliest years are equally necessary for the growth of a healthy brain.  Here are some ways that you can enhance your baby’s brain development:

Hug and cuddle your baby.  Make feeding time a special time.  Being held and cuddled frequently is extremely important in the building of baby’s sense of self-worth and will encourage them to try new things.

Hold your baby when feeding. The baby’s vision is most clear at about 10 inches–the distance between your eyes and hers when feeding.

Providing stimulation for a baby’s vision is very important.  Expose babies to bright colored pictures, moving objects, and toys.  Hang mobiles over the crib and play area.  Provide crib gyms, and objects for them to grab at or kick.

Talk and sing to your baby during bath, feeding, and play time. When your baby makes a sound, repeat it.  Smile and talk about the things you’re doing together.  Hearing your voice helps your baby begin to learn language.

Read aloud to your child.  Babies enjoy cuddling on your lap, looking at colorful picture books, and hearing the rhythm of your voice. Introduce cardboard or washable cloth books with brightly colored pictures.  At this point, your baby might enjoy chewing the books more than being read to!

Provide an environment rich with sound.  Help infants learn to identify and name such things as a vacuum cleaner, radio, clock, tea kettle, or doorbell.

Play music during the day.  Expose your baby to many different musical selections of various styles. If you play an instrument, practice when your baby is nearby. But keep the volume moderate.

Provide interesting objects for infants to feel, touch, mouth, and explore.  Keep easy-to-swallow objects out of infant’s reach.

Play peek-a-boo.  It teaches that you come back when you go away.

Respond to your baby’s needs and do not worry about spoiling your child at this stage.

Have your baby’s hearing checked.   Babies with hearing problems don’t get the language experience they need. If your baby has a hearing loss, he or she may need a specialist’s help. The earlier hearing problems are identified and corrected, the better.

And remember that brain development begins before birth. Nutrition makes a big difference in brain development even before the baby is born. Women who are pregnant should eat nutritious foods, avoid alcohol and other drugs, and have regular prenatal care to help ensure that their babies are born healthy.

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Human beings are unique among the world of animal species.  Most life comes into this world genetically programmed for survival; cattle stand and walk within minutes if not hours of being born; most birds are flying within six weeks of hatching; and other species are born with teeth and claws.  We all have experienced the fun of watching a kitten at play stalking and attacking a sibling or a ball of yarn as if it was some prey in the wild.  I once had an Australian Shepherd dog that I would take jogging with me.  Even as a pup, it would lower its head and “snake” back and forth as though nipping at the heels of the cattle it was bred to herd.

Humans, on the other hand, come into this world almost completely defenseless.  A blob of flesh with no teeth, almost blind, and it seems that all a newborn can do is eat, poop, and cry.  It takes a baby some time to learn how to roll over, then to crawl, about ten to twelve months to learn to walk, and about a year to learn to say a few words.  And we celebrate every milestone!  The key point here is that the baby is “learning” these things.  Some parents feel they can accelerate the process and try to “teach” their child to talk or walk.  If they are intense about it, they find that it can be like the old saying about “teaching a pig to sing” – it just annoys the pig and frustrates you.

The fact is children are learning at a rapid rate.   They are using all their senses: seeing, listening, tasting, smelling, and touching, to learn about the new world they are in and the people that occupy it.  As they do, they are strengthening neural networks or neural pathways and forming new ones.  The development of networks is going on mostly unseen by parents and caregivers, but happening none the less.  It is common to hear parents proudly boast about their child who “just started to talk” and right away they were saying eight to ten new words.  The reality is the child had learned those words and many more but hadn’t yet to possessed the oral skill to be able to voice them.

Sometimes I think that God has a sense of humor.  He gave humans the greatest anatomical gift imaginable, the human brain, and then sat back and watched in amusement as we tried to figure out how to use it.  And we, seeing ourselves as physical beings, another species of animal, have learned a great deal about our bodies and our physical world, but only recently have we begun to focus on understanding the workings of the human brain.

Last week, I was studying at a picture of the human eye on the wall of my eye doctor’s office and was intrigued by the detail in the display.  All those “tiny” parts – lens, muscles, blood vessels, and nerve systems – will keep functioning to supply blood and send signals to the brain, for our entire lives.  We continue to make discoveries and increase our knowledge of how to keep our bodies running smoothly and how we can combat illness and disease.  However, the brain, that marvelous gift, has remained a mystery.

Until the last century or so, all that we knew about the brain we learned from autopsies and experiments on animals.  Recently, because of advances in technology and the transition to the “information age,” we are beginning to study and learn more and more about the enormous capacity of the human brain and how it works.

One of the major outgrowths of this learning is the discovery of how important the first few years are for establishing the foundations for all future learning. The implications that has for early childhood development and our responsibilities as parents is tremendous.

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