Countless products exist claiming cognitive benefits for young children—mostly in the form of educational videos. But there is little, if any, proof that these products do what they claim. Research shows that so-called educational DVDs can actually significantly decrease language development in infants and toddlers. In fact, “educational” screen time can have harmful effects on a young child’s physical and developmental health. Even background television can adversely affect cognitive development.
So how should parents seize the opportunity to foster growth and enhance their child’s learning, if not through learning videos and apps? With attention and interaction.
Keep close contact
Parents who practice attachment parenting (which often includes baby wearing during the day and co-sleeping at night) may do so out of convenience or a desire to bond with their baby, but there are many physical and emotional benefits to keeping your baby close throughout the first year of life.
Being consistently close to your child means responding quickly to her needs. When a parent responds to their baby, day and night, the baby will learn to expect the caregiver’s soothing and cuddling, love and responsiveness, and become securely attached to her parents. In short, a foundation of trust is established.
On the other hand, a crying baby who is ignored may become stressed, and a stressed-out baby’s brain produces an abundance of the chemical cortisol, which can slow brain development.
Close contact with your baby also means your child can see your face. Newborns can see a distance of around 8–14 inches, and they want to see you. Research shows that when babies watch an action performed, the motor region of their brains activate, as if the babies themselves performed the action. When babies actually copy actions, they learn by imitation, but they also start understanding how and why other people behave.
Talk to your baby
Chat with your baby, even from birth. Whenever possible, use actual words and sentences, not made-up baby talk, which some experts believe stifles language acquisition.
When you talk to your baby, chat about everything you’re doing—making your lunch, changing her diaper, writing your to-do list. Describe the colors and shapes surrounding you, or count, or spell. For infants, the emphasis is simply on saying words, interacting with each other, and allowing them ample opportunity to hear your voice.
The greater variety and frequency of words you say, the better. A mid-1990s study followed 42 families of different socioeconomic backgrounds, observing children ages 1–2 for over two years. At age 3, children who had heard more words spoken at home had a greater vocabulary and higher IQ scores.
Another way to enhance your child’s vocabulary is to use sign language when speaking your everyday talk. One study showed that children exposed to early sign language had IQ scores that were 8 to 13 points higher than non-signers. (You can read more about signing with your baby here).
Allow time for free play
Many experts agree that unconfined, freeform play is essential for vocabulary growth, cognitive flexibility, self-control, better memory, and creativity—things that are not aided by flashcards, DVDs, television programs, or fancy electronic toys.
Once babies have head control, they can be placed in a safe environment on their bellies for tummy time, which beyond opening opportunities for brain growth also develops upper body strength and the motor patterns that will later help them crawl, sit, stand, and walk. Older babies who can manipulate their environment—stacking up and knocking things over, digging in sand, playing with water, pushing objects around—quickly begin learning how things function.
From birth to age 2, babies are engaged in the sensory-motor stage: using all five senses, babies explore their world, eventually becoming adept at circular reactions. A circular reaction is when a baby repeats an action to elicit a particular response they like, for example, shaking a rattle in order to hear the noise they know it makes or throwing a favorite toy out of their crib so mom will hand it back to them, over and over.
By engaging in this process, babies begin to understand the concepts of under, over, near, and far. Cause and effect.
Read aloud as often as possible
Reading aloud to babies increases their future vocabulary and the chance they’ll be early and enthusiastic readers themselves. There’s no need to wait for any indication that your baby is “ready” to look at a book. You can start reading aloud right away. Reading anytime—even your morning paper—reinforces the development that happens when you simply talk to your baby.
While reading rhymes helps to build phonemic awareness—knowing that words are made up of individual sounds—books with no words are just as beneficial. As you identify objects and describe actions on the pages of picture books, it helps children learn that words have meaning and are connected to specific people, places, things.
It’s okay if your child is more interested in chewing the book than looking at it—she’s still showing interest so continue to encourage her.
While there’s no research that supports playing classical music to your womb will make for a smarter baby, there is evidence that early music exposure can aid in brain development.
You can instill a love of music early in your baby simply by playing it and making it. If something makes a noise when you shake it, call it an instrument. Encourage your child to bang on pots and pans and clap her hands; sing nursery rhymes instead of just reading them.
For thousands of years the human race has produced intelligent people, even geniuses, without the aid of specific “educational” products. The power of the parent-child relationship and the many interactions that come with it should not be understated. Turning off the TV and tuning into your child will make her smarter.
Does breastfeeding make your baby smarter? Click here to find out.