With a newborn in your arms, there are already so many things you are thinking about: making sure your baby is fed, kept warm enough, changed and clean, and getting enough rest. The last thing on your mind at this stage is probably education. Can your baby really learn this early? And if so, how do you “teach” baby at this age?
The answer is that your baby is learning, and at an incredibly rapid pace. Your baby is constantly learning from the moment they are born. The good news is that there is probably very little you need to do, aside from what you are already doing, to facilitate your baby’s brain development in the first few months.
It is important to understand the developmental changes that are taking place, and know that you play a fundamental role in your baby’s development, beyond physical care.
Developmental milestones most often discussed with your physician are physical milestones, not cognitive ones. However, there are very important developments, especially regarding language, taking place in your child’s brain. Baby is learning to communicate, and to understand his environment. For this to happen, your baby needs to bond with you emotionally at a deep level.
Your interaction with your baby, both physical and verbal, your prompt response to their needs, and the environment around your baby will deeply affect your baby’s bond and trust in you. This in turn will affect their relationships with the rest of the family and the outside world, now and for years to come.
During the first months your baby needs to know that you will respond to their needs. Feed them when they are hungry (rather than on a strict schedule), soothe them when they are tired, change them when soiled, and most importantly, hold them. Hold your baby often and as close to your body as possible – skin touching whenever you get the chance. This alone will take care of forming vital connections in your baby’s brain, and also help your baby grow physically. Do not be afraid of “spoiling” your baby because your baby needs you to hold them. This is when the learning happens during the first month. When you are feeding your baby, talk to them and focus on them until they are asleep. Leave the TV or cell phone for when you are not with him. Your baby is bonding with you, and learning to recognize your voice, your facial features and your smell. Don’t try to be ultra productive and reply to your e-mails while baby is busy feeding – baby needs that interaction, and it also fills you with endorphins, and gives you the strength you need during all the sleepless nights.
During the first second and third months babies already begin to act less out of reflex and more out of slight expectations they have learned. They expect the same people to hold them, they expect to be picked up when they cry, and they anticipate being fed when they hear the voice of their mother nearby. They also expect being sung to, rocked, or receiving pats on their backs after feeding or at usual times. All these familiar habits teach babies to trust their caregivers.
Learning through habits or routines is recommended that you keep these routines consistent to help your baby learn. For example, if you generally sing to your baby while you rock them, always do it so your baby learns to expect it. This is when your baby is learning to “connect the dots” and begin making sense of her world. It is also what will teach your baby that the world is a place she can trust, which is essential to her emotional development. Help your baby predict what comes next by gently guiding her schedule to adjust to an established one.
For example, rather than going to bed whenever you feel tired each night, or getting up when you wake up, regardless of what time that is, try slowly making the environment more quiet and darker at the same time each night, and you will see that in a few weeks, both your baby and you will come to adjust to that time as your bedtime.
Wake up at the same time each morning. This will be good for your hormonal balance. When you are up, hold your baby even if he is still sleeping, and try to feed her. Getting used to this morning feed will gradually establish the habit of waking up at the same time, which in turn will adjust your baby’s feeding times to a more predictable pattern. Please know that I am not suggesting you not feed your baby outside of her strict feeding times. Babies should be fed when they ask to be fed. This will take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, but it works.
The trick is to choose the start time (early in the morning) even if your baby is not asking to feed, and keeping bedtime consistent. Your baby will still feed during the night, because she is growing and needs to feed constantly. Babies are not biologically equipped to sleep through the night, and I strongly advise against letting your baby cry, unattended. Your baby needs to eat, and if you ignore her cries, you are breaking the patterns of predictability for your baby. That can affect her emotionally for life.
Other routines include giving your baby a bath at the same time each day, or going for a walk outdoors at the same time, or anything you do on a daily basis. These routines will help your child’s brain development, social development, and emotional development.
Learning through Hearing
From your time your baby was in the womb, he learned to recognize the voice of his mother, and the voices of those he has heard frequently. Listening to every sound around him plays a huge part in your child’s brain development. Your baby’s brain is busy listening, recognizing, and classifying every noise and soon enough, every phonetic sound around him. This is how your baby learns to speak. How much you speak to your baby, as well as how you do it, will make a big difference. The environment also will influence that learning.
Observe your baby to see what he is most comfortable with. Does he like an environment with loud music and busy sounds of pets, children, and plenty of conversation? Or does he like a more relaxing and quiet environment, where the only voices are of those closest to him. Every baby is different, but chances are your child will fall somewhere in between these two extremes most of the time. Even babies who love a more lively environment need some quiet times throughout the day, and vice versa. Learning to understand what your baby needs and when is a large part of your role as a parent.
All you need to do is observe. But know this; a baby raised in complete silence and never spoken to will never learn to speak, and a baby who is constantly subjected to constant noise will develop anxiety and stress. Aim for a soothing environment in the first few days, and very gradually introduce your baby to new sounds, as the weeks go by. Remember that every sound is a new experience for your child. The first time he hears a bird chirp, or a dog bark, or a certain kind of music, or a loud laugh – every one of those new sounds is contributing to your child’s development, as long as the level of stimulation is just right.
Learning through Language
Although language could fall under hearing, it does deserve its own category because this is where a parent can make a big difference. Research shows that how you speak to your baby, as well as how frequently you speak to her, has a great impact on your baby’s development.
According to research, babies prefer hearing “motherese”, which is a register most adults use when speaking to a baby. It is almost a sing-song, and the vowels are elongated: “hellooooooo! How is baaaabyyyyy todaaaaay”? Speaking to your child like this helps your child maintain her attention on you, recognize the phonetic sounds of the language or languages she is hearing, and learning to recognize words. Research shows that by six months of age, babies already begin losing the ability to “hear” certain phonetic sounds that are not used in their own language, which will help them learn to decipher words much faster. Speaking to your baby often (for example, during feeding, or when you go for a walk) and having a conversation – meaning, asking questions, sharing anecdotes, making comments in passing, just as you would to with a friend – will affect a child’s IQ and vocabulary for life. This, in turn, affects your child’s success at school and in life. Many parents, however, try to stick to simple vocabulary, do not ask their babies questions (even if they don’t answer), and do not converse. Instead, they tend to give their babies orders, or direction; “pick up please!”, or “dirty”.
It is strongly recommended that you speak to your baby from the very first day, just like you would speak to a friend or to your spouse. “Good morning to you! How are you today? Did you sleep well? You woke up a few times last night, you must have been very hungry! Are you hungry now? Why don’t we sit outside to feed you, then we can hear the birds sing, and feel the sun…” As well, even if your baby has his eyes closed, you can read stories to him, or comment on a book you are reading yourself. This will make a tremendous difference.
When you talk to your baby, try to have no other distractions around, look at your baby by holding him in front of you and to wait for your baby to respond to what you say. You will see that even in the first month, your child will begin blinking or making facial expressions, making sounds or cooing, listening attentively, or moving in response to your dialogue. By the second month, he will even imitate some of your facial expressions, like blinking, opening your mouth, and sticking your tongue out. Make sure you give your child enough time to respond to you when you talk. This is incredibly stimulating for your child, and an important aspect of his social development.
Learning through Touch
Research shows that brain development is greatly influenced by the amount of physical touch a baby receives, from holding your baby, to rubbing your baby’s back, caresses and infant massages. Studies have shown that babies born prematurely had an 80% survival rate if they received kangaroo care (meaning their bodies were in constant contact, skin to skin, to that of the mother or even another person), versus less than 20% if they were cared for in an incubator, and only held during feedings.
The same goes for your baby at home; don’t be afraid you are holding your baby too much! The closer you are to your baby, and the more physical touch your baby receives, the greater her emotional development and brain development. If you are going for a walk, why not choose a baby carrier instead of a stroller? You can stay in touch and burn a few extra calories in the process!
Learning through Sight
I once saw a movie where a man in his thirties recovered his sight for the first time in his life. Of course, the man was excited about the possibility of finally seeing the world around him, but those first few days where everything was so bright and had so many different shapes and colors were so overwhelming for him that they almost seemed unbearable. That was the first time I could truly understand how much visual stimulus a newborn is subjected to on a constant basis. Not to mention the fact that everything else is new too!
Sounds, smells, being held, carried, rocked, everything! Although sight is a beautiful thing, be aware of how much your baby is exposed to at one time. Thankfully, their field of vision is much narrower at birth, and they can only focus on things close by, but gradually, babies begin to see as well as we can. Although this naturally shields babies from excessive visual stimulus, you still want to be aware of when it gets to be too much. Bright noisy toys with lights should be kept far, far away for now. Remember also that an infant cannot turn her head, and therefore cannot look the other way when the stimulus becomes too intense. Pay particular attention to how intense the stimulus is around your baby’s crib, at least until your baby can turn her head.
Your baby is fascinated by facial features, yours and anyone’s. This is another reason to look at your baby when she is feeding – she is learning from merely observing your face. As your baby gets older, begin associating what she sees with what she hears, smells and feels. This will help her make even more connections in her brain! Again, take your cues from your baby. When she is alert and looking around, talk to her and show her different objects. See if she can track a brightly colored object held at about 15 cm, from side to side with her eyes while you move it. This is a wonderful learning exercise, and will also help her develop attention skills, which furthers her learning experiences. When your baby loses interest, the lesson is over.
As the parent of your newborn, you have a critical role to play in your baby’s early brain development. You have the responsibility of being responsive to your baby, interacting with her, providing an environment that is at times soothing and at times stimulating, and learning to understand the difference between the two. No two babies are the same, even when they are from the same family. What is stimulating for one child can be irritating for another.
By observing and interacting with your baby in the ways described above, you will know exactly what your child prefers. However, one thing remains true; all children need a deep connection with their caregiver from the moment they are born. The more you are distracted trying to fit everything into one day, the less your child has your attention, and the more you are affecting her development, on a cognitive, social, emotional and physical level.
You can find many ideas for games to play with your baby in our blog, at www.cefa.ca.
Natacha V. Beim is an early years and parenting expert, a writer, a speaker, a teacher, and the founder of the renowned CEFA Early Learning Schools (www.cefa.ca). You can reach her at www.natachabeim.com