Some parents, without ever reading a book about or taking a course in infant stimulation, seem to have an easier time than others initiating learning-playing activities with their babies. And some babies, because they are unusually responsive, are easier to engage in such activities. But any parent-baby team can be successful at leaning-playing with a little guidance.
The areas to nourish and encourage are:
The sense of taste
Right now you don’t have to go out of your way to stimulate this sense. Your baby’s taste buds are titillated at every meal on breast or bottle. But as baby gets older, ‘tasting’ will become a way of exploring, and everything within reach will end up being mouthed. Resist the temptation to discourage this – except, of course, when what goes into the mouth is toxic, sharp or small enough to choke on.
The sense of smell
In most environments, the keen smelling apparatus of infants get plenty of exercise. Thereís breast milk, dad’s aftershave, Rover scampering nearby, the flowers on your walk together, the chicken roasting in the oven. Unless your baby shows signs of being overly sensitive to odours, think of the various scents as additional opportunities for your baby to learn about the environment.
The sense of sight
Though it was once believed that babies were largely sightless at birth, it’s now known that they can not only see but can begin learning from what they see right from the start. Through their sense of sight, they learn very quickly to differentiate between the objects and human beings (and between one object or human being and another), to interpret body language and other non-verbal cues, and to understand a little bit more every day about the world around them.
Decorate your baby’s room or corner with the goal of supplying stimulating visual surroundings, rather than satisfying your own esthetic. When selecting wallpaper, sheets, wall hangings, toys or books, keep in mind that babies like sharp contrasts, and that design that are bold and bright rather than soft and delicate are more appealing (black-and-white and other colour-contrasting patterns are favoured for the first six weeks) or so, pastels and other colours later).
Many objects, toys among them, can stimulate baby visually (but to avoid confusion and overstimulation, provide only one or two at a time during play sessions):
- Mobiles. Figures on a mobile should be fully visible from below (the baby’s perspective), rather than from the side (the adult’s perspective). A mobile should be no more than 30 to 38cm (12 to 15 in) over the baby’s face, and should be hung to one side or the other of the child’s line of vision, rather than straight above (most babies prefer to gaze towards the right, but observe your child to discover a preference).
- Other things that move. You can move a rattle or other bright toy across baby’s line of vision to encourage tracking of moving objects. Take a field trip to a pet shop and position baby in front of a fish tank or bird cage to view the action. Or blow bubbles for baby.
- Stationary objects. Babies spend a lot of time just looking at things. This isn’t idle time, but learning time. Geometric patterns or simple faces in black and white, hand drawn or store-bought, are early favourites – but baby will probably also be fascinates by everyday objects you wouldn’t glance at twice.
- Mirrors. Mirrors give babies an ever-changing view, and most love them. (They especially enjoy looking at and socializing with the ‘baby’ in the mirror, having no clue yet who that baby’s is.) Be sure to use safe baby mirrors; hang them on the cot, in the carriage, beside the changing table.
- People. Babies delight in looking at faces close up, so you and other family members should spend plenty of time in close proximity to baby. Later, you can also show baby family photos pointing out who’s who.
- Books. Show baby simple pictures of babies, children, animals or toys and identify them, The drawings should be clear and sharply defined without a lot of extra (for a baby) detail. Boldly illustrated board books are perfect for this.
- The world. Very soon your baby is going to take an interest in seeing beyond that little button nose. Provide plenty of opportunity to see the world – from the pushchair, pram or car seat, or by carrying your baby face forward. Add commentary, too, pointing out cars, trees, people, and so on. But don’t ramble non-stop during every outing; you’ll become bored, and baby will start tuning you out.
The sense of hearing
It’s through hearing that infants learn about language, about rhythm, about danger, about emotions and feelings – and about so much else that goes on around them. Auditory stimulation can come from almost any source.
- The human voice. This, of course, is the most significant type of sound in a new infant’s life, so use yours – talk, sign and babble to your baby. Try lullabies, nursery rhymes, nonsense ditties you create yourself. Imitate animal sounds, especially ones your baby regularly hears, such as the barking of a dog or the meowing of a car. Most importantly, play back for your baby the sounds he or she makes.
- Household sounds. Many young babies are captivated by either soft or lively background music, the hum of the vacuum or the blender, the whistle of the kettle or the splash of running water, the crinkling of paper, or the tinkling of a bell or wind chime – through they may become fearful of many such sounds latter in the first and second years.
- Rattles and other toys that make gentle sounds. You don’t have to wait until your baby is able to shake a rattle independently. In the early months, either do the shaking yourself, put the rattle in baby’s hand and help shake it, or attach a wrist rattle. Coordination between vision and hearing will develop as baby learns to turn towards sound.
- Music boxes. You’ll be surprised at how quickly your baby will learn to recognize a tune; especially nice are music boxes that have visual appeal, but if one is placed within reach, be sure it doesn’t have small pieces that can be broken off and mouthed by your baby.
- Musical toys. Toys that make music and also provide visual stimulation and practice with small motor skills (such as a bunny that moves and makes music when baby pulls a string) are particularly good. Avoid toys that make loud noises that can damage hearing, and don’t place even moderately noisy ones right by baby’s ear. Also be sure that the toys are otherwise safe for baby.
- Children’s tapes and CDs. Try to give them a spin before buying to be sure they’re good listening. Infancy is also an ideal time to start exposing your child to classical music (play it softly during playtime in the cot, or during dinner or bath time), although many babies seem to prefer the livelier rhythms of rock, pop or country music. Always watch your baby for reactions to music; if he or she seems disturbed by what you’re playing, turn it off. Also, protect your baby’s sense of hearing by keeping the volume down.
The sense of touch
Touch, though often underrated, is actually one of a baby’s most valuable tools for exploring and learning about the world. It’s through touch that a baby learns the softness of mummy and the relative hardness of daddy, that rubbing a teddy bear feels wonderful, that rubbing a stiff brush doesn’t feel so good, and most important of all, that those who take care of him are loving – a message you dens every time you bathe, change, feed, hold or rock your baby.
You can provide more varied touching experiences for your baby with:
- A loving hand. Try to learn how your baby likes to be handled – firmly or lightly, quickly or slowly. Most babies love to be caressed and kissed, to have their tummies tickled or razzed by your lips, to have you blow gently on their fingers or toes, They love the difference between mummy’s touch and daddy’s, the playful way of sibling hugs them and the expert ease with which grandma rocks them.
- Massage. Premature babies who are massaged for at least twenty minutes daily gain weight faster and do better overall than those who aren’t (whether it’s the massage or the fact that they’re handled more is unclear); babies who aren’t touched at all don’t grow at a normal pace. Discover the kind of strokes your baby enjoys most, and avoid those that seem to annoy.
- Textures. Try rubbing a baby’s skin with different textures (satin, terry cloth, velvet, wool, fur or absorbent cotton) so he or she can get to know how each feels; later encourage independent exploration. Let baby lie tummy down (while supervised only) on surfaces with different textures; the living room carpet, a terry towel, grandma’s faux fur coat, dad’s wool sweater, mum’s corduroy jacket, the marble-topped coffee table – the possibilities are limitless.
- Playthings with textures. Offer toys that have interesting textures to baby. A plush teddy bear and a coarse-haired stuffed doggy; hard wooden blocks and soft stuffed ones; a rough wooden bowl and a smooth metal one; a silky pillow and a nubby one.
Small motor development
Right now your baby’s hand movements are totally random, but in a couple of months, those tiny hands will move with more purpose and control. You can aid in the development of purposeful movement by giving your baby’s hands plenty of freedom; don’t keep them swaddled or tucked tightly under a blanket. Provide a variety of objects that are easy for small hands to pick up and manipulate, that don’t require fine dexterity. And since young babies usually won’t grasp objects that are directly in front of them, offer these objects from the side.
Give your baby ample opportunity for ‘hands-on’ experience with the following:
- Rattles that fit small hands comfortably. Those with two handles or grasping surfaces will eventually allow a baby to pass the rattle from hand to hand, an important skill; those that baby can mouth will help bring relief when teething begins.
- Cradle gyms (they fit across the pram, playpen or cot) that have a variety of parts for baby to grab hold of spin, pull, and poke. Beware of those, however, with strings more than 15 cm (6 in) long, and take down any gym once your baby is able to sit up.
- Activity boards that require a wide range of hand movements to operate. Your baby may not be able to intentionally manoeuvre the toy for a while, but even a young infant can sometimes set it in motion accidentally. Besides the spinning, dialing, pushing and pressing skills these toys encourage, they also teach the concept of cause and effect.
Gross motor development
Putting your baby through the paces of an infant exercise video won’t increase muscular strength or speed motor development. Good motor skills, well-developed bodies and physical fitness for infants depend instead on the following: good nutrition; good health care (both well baby and sick baby); and plenty of opportunity of self-motivated physical activity. Babies kept cooped up in a swing or baby seat, or harnessed in a pram or bunting will have little opportunity to learn about how their bodies work. Those who are never put down on their tummy for supervised playtime will be slow to learn to lift their head and shoulders or turn over front to back and may never learn to crawl. Change your baby’s position often during the day (propping him up in a sitting position, placing her sometimes on her stomach – supervised – and other times on her back) to maximize the opportunities for physical activity.
Encouraging the development of all the senses, as well as small and large motor control, will contribute to your baby’s intellectual growth. Talk to your infant a lot, right from the start. Give names to objects, animals and people your baby sees, point out body parts, explain what you’re doing. Read nursery rhymes and simple stories, showing your baby the illustrations as you go. Expose your child to a variety of settings (the supermarket, a department store, the museum, the park). Travel on buses, in cars, in taxis. Even at home, vary your baby’s point of view; place the baby seat by a window or in front of mirror lay baby in the middle of the living room carpet to survey the action or i the middle of the bed to watch you fold the laundry, or park the pushchair in the kitchen while you prepare dinner.
Whatever you do, remember the most important rule of stimulating your baby: The play’s the thing. And the play should be fun.