The human brain has 100 billion nerve cells, all of which are present at birth but have few links between them. Babies’ brains develop by creating an intricate network between these cells.
Research shows that there are certain types of experiences you can give your baby to build those lasting connections. And the good news is, they’re all easy to do.
IF YOUR NEWBORN COULD TALK, HERE’S WHAT THEY’D ASK YOU FOR TO HELP BUILD THEIR GROWING BRAINS:
Progressively complex high-contrast images
Decades of research show that time spent looking at high-contrast images is important for a baby’s cognitive development. Until about the fifth month, babies use their eyes as a primary source of information for how the world works. Once your baby’s eyes start to coordinate, they’ll be drawn to high-contrast images.
Some tips for developing your baby’s eyes:
- Start with simple images about 12 inches away from your baby’s face (about the distance from your wrist to your elbow). Hold the images steady and try not to switch them until your baby looks away, a sign that they’re losing interest. You may notice your baby staring at the images for many seconds, even minutes at a time.
- When they lose interest in an image, change to a new one and eventually switch to more complex images as their eyes grow stronger.
- You can help promote visual tracking by slowly moving an image back and forth horizontally in front of their face to help them practice following a moving object with their eyes. This is an important skill later for reading, writing, and hand-eye coordination.
- Offer high-contrast images in the car, during tummy time, and during alert “play” times for the first 14 weeks.
Protection from multiple, jumbled noises
A newborn’s nervous system truly doesn’t have a filter: they can’t screen out anything that their eyes see, their ears hear, or their skin feels. Several sound sources at once —even a typical coffee shop atmosphere with music playing, several people talking, traffic noise, etc.—can easily overstimulate and confuse a baby, causing them to shut down. Your newborn prefers the sound of one human voice at a time and calm, rhythmic tones.
Help to stretch out from the womb position
After all that time in the womb, it’s important for new babies to stretch out of the fetal position and use their muscles in new ways. Offering a variety of positions throughout the day can help your baby avoid flat spots on their head, help their brain start to understand where their body is positioned in space, and build strength. Baby carriers, car seats, baby swings, and strollers are amazing and very necessary at times, but try to give your baby some time on a flat surface every day.
Some tips to avoid flat spots and help your baby gain strength:
- Occupational therapists recommend turning your baby’s head from side to side to avoid a flat spot forming and neck muscles tightening. Here’s a video from Rachel Coley, a Pediatric Occupational Therapist with advanced specialized training in infant neurodevelopment. Most babies can’t hold their head pointed forward: it flops to one side or the other. Babies are generally born with a preference for turning their head to one side—matching their position in the womb—so it’s important to help your baby learn to turn both ways.
- Side lying is also good for your baby, and is usually less frustrating than tummy time can be. Lying on their side helps your baby build strength in their back and belly, and also encourages them to bring their hands together—an important developmental step.
Here’s how to do it:
- Roll up a blanket and use it to prop your baby on their side, supporting their back (always with your supervision).
- You can put black and white cards in a standing card holder in your baby’s line of sight for something to engage them.
- Eventually, switch to the other side—and repeat.
- Babies also enjoy lying on their backs with their heads to one side. Be sure to switch sides occasionally by gently turning their head.
Low lights when awake
After 9 months in the dim light of the womb, a newborn’s eyes take a few weeks to adjust to more intense light. In low light and when awake, newborns will open their eyes and look around the room for a few moments. This early looking helps them practice working both eyes together (it’s common for a newborn’s eyes not to look in the same direction) and also exercises their pupillary reflex, where the pupil gets bigger or smaller based on different amounts of light. You can help develop your baby’s brain-eye connection by gradually varying the intensity of the light (avoid strong lights, such as direct sun). You can use a dimmer switch, a low lamp, or curtains when your baby is alert.
Skin-on-skin time can feel inconvenient sometimes, but it’s worth it. It offers a huge array of benefits to your baby: better digestion, temperature regulation, weight gain, improved immunity, improved sleep, and even brain growth. There are benefits for parents as well: feel-good hormones are released when you and your baby have direct skin contact.
Here are some tips and ideas for skin-on-skin:
- Feeding time is a great opportunity for skin-on-skin time. Strip your baby down to a diaper, take your shirt off, and use a blanket over your shoulders for warmth. Before you get undressed, try to remember to use the bathroom, get a glass of water, your phone, a book, or anything else you want handy in case your baby falls asleep and you want to relax together.
- Try taking a bath with your baby. Make sure to have towels ready on the floor within reach before you get in, and someone to help you and your baby get out of the bath if possible. A space heater in the bathroom can give you a little extra warmth—just make sure it’s as far from the tub as possible.
- If your baby enjoys massage, your light touch with coconut oil is great for skin-on-skin contact. Massage for babies is most calming from the center of their bodies out, so start with your baby’s chest and move out to legs and arms. Try a space heater in the bathroom after a bath, and use dark or older towels under and around your baby. Sometimes the massage oil can stain fresh white towels.
- Skin-on-skin works great for dads, moms, and even supervised siblings. If you’re feeling down, worried, or anxious—and what new parent isn’t sometimes?—skin-on-skin contact will release oxytocin, a natural antidote. If they’re awake, this is also a great chance for tummy time!
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that supervised tummy time for full-term babies start in the first week, as soon as the umbilical cord stump falls off. Some babies love it, but (alas!) it’s not a happy time for others. (In a poll of Lovevery Instagram followers, 52% said their baby’s tummy time reaction was 😄while 48% said it was more like 😩).
Either way, you’re not alone. Keep trying even if your baby doesn’t like it—tummy time is essential for building the muscles and coordination needed for rolling over, crawling, walking, reaching, and playing.
Some tips for more enjoyable tummy time:
- Slowly roll your baby onto their tummy with arms tucked under their shoulders.
- Newborns like to have their head to one side while on their belly, mimicking their position in the womb. Prop some black and white cards in a standing card holder.
- Like in this video of Steph and Ayesha Curry’s baby, Canon, offer black and white images in the card holder on The Play Gym.
- Periodically, move your baby so their head rests on the opposite side: head turning helps avoid flat spots and tight neck muscles.
- As your baby gets stronger, place the card holder in front of them so they can see the images when lifting up their chin— and eventually their chest.
- For newborn babies, success is 3 to 5 minutes at a time, 2 to 3 sessions a day. If they seem to be getting tired or start crying, it’s time for a break.
- Supervise your baby on a blanket on the counter (with your hand on their back), bend down to talk to them, and see if they try to lift their head to look at you.
- Put your baby on your chest on their tummy facing you and softly talk to them to try to encourage them to lift their head.
- Put your baby, belly down, on your thighs and gently rub their back.
- Holding your baby upright over your shoulder while gently supporting their head also strengthens their neck and back muscles.
The sound of your voice
It’s awkward to talk to someone who doesn’t talk back yet, but the research is clear—there’s a direct link between a child’s intelligence and the number of words spoken to them. In the first few months, your baby is constantly listening to the intonation, rhythm, and patterns of your voice. Even though they can’t understand what you’re saying yet, their brain is laying the groundwork for acquiring language.
Some tips for talking to your baby:
- Try the reading position above—your baby is more likely to take an interest in the book you’re reading if they can see your face, too! Also, this position helps to support awkward, slumpy little bodies with your legs.
- Go on a “house tour.” When your baby is awake, facing forward if possible in a wrap, or with their head turned to the side in a carrier, walk around your house and talk about what you’re seeing and experiencing. House tours are often a favorite activity for the first year.
- Talk aloud to your baby about what you’re doing together— just narrate your day. During changing time, talk face to face.
- Make eye contact and respond to their cues. If they start to coo or vocalize, talk back. “Serve and return” communication is a well-studied element of a child’s brain development.
- Sing to your baby, even if you don’t think you have a great voice—your baby will love it because it’s you. Babies tune into singing even more than talking.
- Talk in the slower, higher-pitched, sing-song voice that tends to come naturally when speaking to babies. Babies are pre-programmed to tune into higher tones, and learn more from the stretched-out vowels in “baby talk.”
- Tell your partner, your baby’s grandparents, and other caregivers how important talking is to your baby’s developing brain. Encourage them to find ways to talk to your baby, too—the more words your baby hears, the easier their language acquisition can become later on.
- For more ideas on what to talk about, check out the Talking Topics book from The Inspector Play Kit.
Exploration of new sounds
Around 4 weeks, your baby will likely start to show more interest in a variety of sounds and patterns. Help them build more lasting neural networks by exposing them to sounds from real life, rather than the pre-recorded sounds made by electronic toys. Experiment with sounds that are high-pitched, low-pitched, slow-paced, lively, soft, etc, introducing just one sound at a time.
When your baby is alert and the room is quiet, make simple sounds in their field of vision: tap on the glass, rattle your keys, snap your fingers. These everyday noises are routine for you, but they’re brand new (and therefore interesting) to your baby. Try to involve your baby as much as possible, talking about what you’re doing and what they’re seeing, even though they won’t understand what you’re saying quite yet.
Some sound-exploring ideas to get started:
- Tear or crumple up paper in front of your baby.
- Pour dry pasta into a pan, tap a spoon against a bowl, or make other common cooking noises.
- Turn a doorknob, ring a doorbell, and open or close the blinds or windows.
- Play and dance along to music.
As with other forms of stimulation, be sensitive to your baby’s reactions. If they’re unhappy, it’s time to take a break.
Ways to discover the world around them (around 8 weeks)
Research has shown that if you put black and white patterned mittens on your baby’s hands, they may begin to notice them several weeks earlier than they would otherwise.
Hand discovery is an important step on the path to hand control.
- You can get black and white patterned mittens or make your own by tying a piece of cloth with a black and white design loosely around their palm.
- Lay your baby on a plain blanket with no other high-contrast visuals in view.
- Place the black and white mittens on your baby’s hands while they’re lying on their back or side, or during tummy time.
- See if they start to notice their hands. If not, you can gently move their hands into their line of sight.
And for breastfeeding parents, one bonus baby brain tip: try to give your baby Vitamin D drops every day, dripping a drop onto your nipple before feeding or onto your baby’s pacifier (Vitamin D is essential for healthy development and sufficient amounts are not found in breast milk).
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