Did you know that babies learn faster during their first year of life than at almost any other time? Helping your baby make the most of this wonderful learning period gives them a good foundation for their later development.
So here are 10 important things you can do with your baby before they can walk or talk, to help set them up positively for later learning.
1. Make eye contact
Even the very youngest baby instinctively responds to eye contact – when a baby is seven hours old he’s already interested in his mother’s face and may even mimic facial expressions! Looking into your baby’s eyes is a beautiful way to develop a strong emotional bond between you both.
As your baby gets older, you can begin to play games such as ‘Peep-Bo’, which helps him begin to understand the concept of hiding things, and will also produce a storm of delighted giggles.
2. Rock your baby
Rocking your baby is an instinctive way to love and soothe her when she’s upset. This regular motion mimics the mother’s movement when baby was in the womb. Research has shown that rocking your baby helps to calm their heart rate, helping her to become calmer.
If your baby needs frequent rocking, try using a baby sling. Babies in rural Africa are tied to their mothers’ back (no buggies!), and rarely cry unless they’re wet or hungry.
3. Singing and music
We sing to babies instinctively, both to comfort them when they’re being rocked and also to entertain them. Don’t worry if you think you can’t sing! Babies respond well to all voices and they don’t make judgements about the quality of your voice!
Nursery rhymes are a great way to start, and there are lots of children’s songs you can use too. These can be a fantastic way to introduce other kinds of learning. For example, counting songs help develop maths skills, and as your baby learns to join in, his language skills will be improving too.
But don’t limit yourself to ‘children’s music’. My kids were brought up on a diet of genres which included classical, rock and pop, gospel, and much more. Variety is the spice of life!
4. Baby talk
Talking to your baby is absolutely critical from the moment she’s born. She will already be familiar with mum’s voice, and possibly dad’s too, so hearing a familiar tone will help soothe her and attract her attention. The sing-song nature of this baby talk actually helps babies begin to distinguish the different sounds in our language.
Of course, talking to your baby is invaluable in helping her language development. The more she hears you talking, the better her own language development will be.
5. Let them move
Your baby also needs lots of opportunity to develop physically. You can encourage this by giving your baby opportunities to explore movement. For example, let him squirm without his nappy for a few minutes at changing time. As he gets older, give him time laying on the ground, to encourage strong muscle development and his sense of his own body.
Put plenty of brightly colored toys within reach so he can practice reaching and grasping. And don’t forget to model physical actions such as stacking blocks or hitting a pan with a wooden spoon, so he learns to experiment physically.
Activities like swimming will also help your baby to develop physically, as well as giving him a sense of freedom he can’t get when he’s ‘earthbound’.
6. Share a massage
Our sense of touch is a wonderful way to communicate wordlessly and build a close bond. Unhurriedly rubbing baby lotion or gentle massage oil into your baby’s skin is superbly soothing for both you and your baby.
Touching and stroking release ‘feel-good’ oxytocin into the bloodstream, which slows the heart rate and is deeply relaxing. So taking a little time after her daily bath will make a world of difference to your baby’s sense of wellbeing and your own.
The National Childbirth Trust has a helpful guide to getting started with baby massage, or look for local classes.
7. Read to your baby
Reading to your baby can begin before they are born. My daughter-in-law read to her unborn baby from the moment she knew she was pregnant. My granddaughter is now six years old and she’s a complete bookworm.
Reading to a small baby helps them get familiar with how books work – how to turn the pages, how to focus on the picture or text, and eventually they’ll realize that all those black squiggles actually mean something. Books can be used to explore the world around them, prepare them for events like starting kindergarten, and process feelings such as anger or grief.
And of course, learning to love books and stories is a great foundation for building their own reading and language skills too.
8. Model social skills
As your baby grows, it’s important to help them develop the social skills they need, such as sharing, interacting with others, and communicating. The best way to do this is through modeling that behavior yourself.
Spend lots of time playing with your baby, including things like giving and taking toys, working together to build a block tower, or games to encourage copying. This helps him understand that play can be a shared activity.
Learning to share takes time, but let your baby see you sharing with them, such as eating a bowl of fruit together, taking turns to throw a ball, or letting him have his own spoon at mealtimes.
9. Let them experience new textures
When babies are tiny, they need to experience a safe and soothing environment. But as they grow, they also need to learn about the different tactile experiences the world can offer. So let your baby explore different textures by giving her a chance to play with a wide variety of objects.
Let her touch an ice cube, wrap them in a warm towel, or seat her on a sandy beach. Scoop, splash or dribble water over her at bath time, and in time, let her play with containers and splash for herself.
Provide toys made with fabric, soft fleece, wood and plastic, and encourage her to feel. Let her hear different sounds – my baby son was once rendered helpless with laughter as I tore sheets of paper. Rub sandpaper together, bang pan lids, and shake rattles. Sensory play like this is crucial to babies’ physical development, as well as their vision and hearing.
10. Offer a variety of foods
Exploring different textures also extends to food. Once your baby is old enough to eat solid foods, give him as much variety as possible. There’s a world of difference between slurping smooth oatmeal and crunching apple slices. Crispy breadsticks, smooth fruit puree and buttery avocado all help your baby experience different sensations.
Just think of the wonderful variety of textures among the different fruits and vegetables. Within reason, try to give your baby as much variety of taste and textures as possible – you may be surprised at what they enjoy!