In this special ‘5 Ways’ post, I’m going to examine a few different ways you can help with your babies brain development. I’m not going to write about whether you should breastfeed or bottle-feed. Nor am I going to tackle the conversation surrounding DHA. In both of these cases, there are plenty of readings to support or refute the position.
What I’m going to suggest are easy things you can do at home or on the go no matter what your choices are in the above-mentioned circumstances.
1. Talk to your baby and mimic them
The easiest thing to do to help your baby’s brain development is to talk to your little. As you go about your day, tell your little one what you are doing. Point out things and converse with them as if they were older and could understand you. Babies learn by listening to these sounds and the way you speak. Eventually, they will begin to repeat your sounds.
Let me give you a quick couple of examples.
One, I was walking in the woods with my little in the front carrier. While he was staring off at the canopy, I was going down a hill. It has been raining for 24 hours, which means the slope is wet and slippery with the leaves and debris. I decided to cross back and forth and turn sideways. It was the crossing back and forth that I focused on for our conversation. Today, I explained to my little the term ‘tack’. I explained what it was when it is used, and why I was doing it even though we weren’t sailing. Sure, my little wasn’t really listening and he is far from understanding a word I’m saying but it’s the sounds I make and the way I talk about things that will help him build language.
Two, because I love to cook, I also do a lot of talking while I cook. Placing the little is a safe chair, remember distance from cooking and hot surfaces is important here, tell the little all the steps you are taking. I always add a story about the meal – maybe why it’s a favorite or why I’m trying this new recipe. By explaining these additional pieces around ‘the why’ I know my little will learn more about how we talk to friends and family in an appropriate manner.
Now, there is one more step in the talking to baby practice. You also need to teach the baby to mimic your sounds. The easiest way to do this is to come to where they are at. Repeat their cooing, their oohs and ahhs. By repeating them you not only converse with them but give them the confidence they are doing the right thing and show them how to repeat what they hear. You may find as I have that your little is quite the conversationalist and they smile non-stop with the reward of their parent making the same sounds.
When the baby is old enough to start to put words to things acknowledge their successes and add to their sounds. For example, your little might point at the family dog and say ‘doe’. As a parent your response should be something like: ‘yes, dog’. Giving affirmation and gently correcting their language by adding the final sound. Realize that the initial attempt wasn’t the little mislabeling the dog as a female deer, they simply don’t have all the sounds in their brains connected yet. Through repetition of the correct word, they will build a better vocabulary.
2. Play with them
Even on the days when they are too young to truly understand it is important to integrate play into their lives. Get a few toys a play mat or even just a large change cloth for them to play on. When you are doing the all-important tummy time, take some time to lay them on their back and play with toys.
Speaking of tummy time, as the little gets used to tummy time show them the moves they should be making and don’t forget to encourage. I’ve found that laying beside my little and lifting my head helps him to see what he should be practicing. Just the other day we lifted our heads together. When he was tired and his head fell, mine did too. We rested for a moment, then we tried to lift again – and he followed my lead (although it was delayed – be patient).
I have a play mat with hanging toys. It is important to let the baby lay under the toys and choose to ignore or play. Too often when a baby is disinterested we take them from the situation and try something else. Let them be. It may seem like they are bored to us. Two things here – one, they may be over-stimulated and need to adjust; and, two, they need to learn to be bored. A recent study has shown good brain development and outcomes in letting kids be bored. By not forcing entertainment on children we force them to be creative and find value in things.
Plus, I think it will help in the long run. When your baby is older they will stay longer at different tasks instead of flittering between things or demanding more and more entertainment – I will say at this stage that is my impression, I’ll have to update you in a few years.
3. Play instrumental music (or any music)
This has been a long-standing idea. The Mozart movement made this a household idea many years ago. At the time, it was thought that even playing music with headphones against your belly while pregnant was a valuable aid in brain development. And I’m not discrediting the idea.
But let’s say you forgot while you were pregnant or you don’t have Mozart music available. I say it’s okay to play whatever instrumental music you might have. I have found that even ‘upbeat’ music with lots of percussions does not delay my baby’s ability to fall asleep. The key is to keep it at a low volume. I’ve played the classics, but also Celtic and African music. And I’ve done stringed music like Bond and other instrumental bands.
One little precaution here… in the title of this section I did say any music… personally, I would hesitate to play rap or heavy metal, maybe even hard rock. But there are plenty of varieties of music with vocals that would still be fine. I once read even while pregnant it is great to sing along to the music you are listening to – I did a lot of that since I’m a car-singer. I’m also an eclectic music listener. My iPod is loaded with music from country to soft rock to independent artists and lots of stuff in between. Yes, here I even have some rap, heavy metal, and hard rock.
4. Get out there
I hear lots of friends complain (gently) about how they can’t wait until their kids are older. They’ve stopped doing the things they love. Now, I’m not talking sky-diving or scuba-diving with your little, but I am saying don’t let having a little stop you from being active and out there in the world.
I’m a single mother, so if I’m doing something outside of the workday, my little is coming with me. We grocery shop together, where I explain what we’re getting and why we need it. We go for hikes in the woods, sometimes I talk; sometimes I let him look at the canopy and silently enjoy the trip. We go for drives, to meetings, to outings, and everything in between. Having a baby shouldn’t stop you. Remember that everything your little is safely exposed to will help them develop their own interests and sense of self.
Clearly, I’m also very comfortable with people around me thinking I’m crazy – talking to myself. I know I’m helping my little one and that is more important to me than what others think. Besides I personally find it keeps the little one more engaged and therefore less fussy while out in the world. I think sometimes being fussy is really just about wanting attention – they won’t be fussy if you are already talking to them and engaging them.
5. Read to your little
Hopefully, this idea is not new. I think we’ve all heard that reading to kids helps them with development. What if you don’t have a library of children’s books or the funds to fill a bookshelf? Then read whatever you have.
While on maternity leave, I wanted to read some of the non-fiction books I have in my pile of ‘to read’ books. So, I read these aloud while my little fed. Reflecting on the first idea in this blog, my little is hearing me talk and the calmness of my voice soothes him while he feeds. For me, I got to actually finish a few of the books in my stack. In some ways multi-tasking – don’t get distracted by reading, check on baby to make sure they are still feeding or if they need to change positions.
If you do have access to younger reading books them read them. Remember to read with extras. What does that mean? Read the story written on the pages, but before you turn the page point out the pictures the events that were described as they are shown in the images.
If you take nothing else away from this post, remember to talk to your little. The metacognition of vocalizing your thinking will help your baby to develop their own sense of self and get better at learning as they grow.