by Barbara Burch, Scripps
Howard News Service, May 28, 2003
It's child's play, really.
Playing right with your baby in the first three years of life can have a
profound influence on the kind of child and adult he or she becomes.
When a baby is born, the brain cells begin making trillions of connections
with each other as it starts to experience its environment. Human brains
have a set number of neurons, or brain cells, but nobody really knows how
many connections, called synapses, a brain can make, given the proper
environment. Science does know, however that the synapses are where a
baby's brain stores information. The more connections that are made and
retained at critical times in the first three years of life, the greater
opportunity for an emotionally, socially and intellectually successful
Of course genetics play a part in how babies turn out. But more and more
evidence suggests it's the balance between genetics and environment —
nature and nurture — that determines what kind of people we become.
What can parents and others do to help a baby's brain make those
all-important connections at critical times? Here is a guide.
The basics of baby interaction:
Touch is extremely important. Babies benefit greatly from being held,
cuddled and massaged. Car seats are important in the car, but as a means
of transport outside the car, a front carrier or sling, often called a
Snuggly, allows the hands to remain free while keeping the baby close.
Such carriers promote bonding (between baby and Dad, too), and may also
help reduce the risk of postpartum depression.
A baby has a unique personality. Find ways to support it. An active infant
needs lots of opportunities to play. A cautious baby needs extra time to
get used to new situations and people.
Babies cry when they are hungry, or in pain or lonely. It's best to
respond to a baby's cry right away so the child will learn to trust a
parent's care. Also, research has shown that when parents respond quickly,
their children cry less.
Teach by playing. Babies need to experience all their senses to learn.
When a parent mimics their faces and babble, it enhances a baby's
self-esteem. Be aware of a baby's cues. Alert: means ready to play.
Inattentive: May need a rest. Fussy: May need cuddling and comforting.
Babies like routines and repetition. Try to keep feeding, bathing and
diaper changing times consistent and relaxed. Having a routine helps a
baby develop a sense of security.
Let your baby explore and discover, as long as he or she is safe. Limit
television time. Using the television as a babysitter, even if the program
is educational, cannot substitute for interaction with a caregiver.
Babies like bouncing and motion, and it helps them develop a sense of
balance. But never shake or hit a baby - it can cause brain damage or even
Spend time talking and reading to your baby. Despite how silly it might
sound, research has shown that infants respond better to "parentese," that
higher-pitched sing-songy way adults talk to children. Children who hear a
lot of words - especially positive ones - develop larger vocabularies.
Some babies can be difficult to comfort at first. If you need help, ask
for it. Also, if you're not taking care of yourself, it makes taking care
of an infant even more difficult.
Children learn when they play. When a child drops food off his high chair,
he learns about gravity. Swinging helps with balance; playing with other
kids teaches sharing; peek-a-boo "teaches them that people might go away
but they also come back." Parents help children expand their abilities
when they just play with them.
Remember these tips:
Share floor time. Play games your child wants at his level.
Take snuggle breaks when your child begins to get frustrated to maintain a
When playing a competitive game, let your child win most of the time at
first; it helps her build a sense of accomplishment. "Then gradually build
up your effort so that she can get a sense of her own abilities."
Give your child undivided attention rather than keeping one eye on dinner
or playing and working at the same time.
When your child giggles, go with it. Figure out what's making him giggle
and do it over and over again.
Play dress-up, but let your child be the director. Let them assign you a
role in their play and them ham it up.
Take time in the morning to play. Just 10 minutes of acting silly with
your child will provide an outlet for some of her playtime energy and
therefore save you from anxiously fussing and nagging at her to get ready.
Set aside time every week to play (enthusiastically) all the games you
normally hate to play.
Be prepared for wildly fun and exuberant play to switch instantly to tears
and tantrums. That happens sometimes because children feel so safe and so
well loved that they let out all the feelings they've been holding in.
Just listen to them until they're done and then get back to playing.
When two children fight over a toy, grab it and run, saying, "I never get
to play with this toy! You two will never be able to get it away from me!"
Then the two have to become a team and work together instead of taking it
out on one another.
Source: Dr. Lawrence Cohen, author of Playful Parenting, in an article
for the Web site www.parentsoup.com.
Getting ready to read:
Read early and often to your child. Experts say they can't emphasize it
enough: A child needs to have exposure to reading before he or she enters
school These are the skills your children learn when you read aloud to
Knowledge of printed letters and words and the relationship between sound
The meanings of many words.
How books work and a variety of writing styles.
Understanding the world in which they live.
Knowing the difference between written language and everyday conversation.
Getting pleasure from reading.
How to listen.
How to ask and answer questions, participate in discussions and follow
rules of polite conversation.
How to speak at an appropriate volume and speed, and use language to
express their feelings and ideas.
How to make reading fun for your child:
Schedule reading times every day. Share a book at breakfast or bedtime, or
in the afternoon. Talk about it ahead of time to build anticipation for
Pick a comfortable, secure-feeling place for reading, Use different voices
for the characters and be expressive as you read. Talk or sing about the
pictures in a picture book.
Don't expect to finish the book in one sitting. Children have short
attention spans. They will be able to sit longer as they get older.
Let them hold the book and turn the pages, as they get old enough to.
(It's OK to skip pages.)
Explain what the story's about, and show children the words as you read.
Personalize a story by inserting comments and asking questions about your
own family, pets or community as you read.
Ask questions about the story and let the children ask questions as well.
Point out things in the illustrations and name them.
Reread your children's favorite books. Kids like to hear their favorite
stories over and over again. It also helps them recognize repeated sound
patterns, and figure out the meaning of unfamiliar words. If letters and
words are pointed out during each reading, the child will start to pick up
specific words and letter-sound relationships.
Choose a variety of books to help children learn about different things.
Alphabet books teach letters and how each letter sounds. Counting books
introduce them to numbers. Poetry or rhyming books teach phonological
awareness (understanding the relationship between sounds and language).
Big books are good for pointing out letters, words and other features of
print. Books about friendship and teamwork help reinforce social skills.
Books about different cultures or those that explain how things work help
them understand the world around them. Picture books can be used to
encourage children to expand their imaginations by making up stories about
Try to keep outside interference to a minimum when you read. A child has
trouble paying attention to more than one thing at a time.
Sources: Dr. Jane Healy, an educational psychologist from Vail, Colo.,
during a recent conference on Language Acquisition and Early Literacy held
by Children Inc. in Covington, Ky., The U.S. Department of Education, in
its "Teaching our Youngest" guide.
How to chose the right books for your baby:
0-6 months: Books with large designs or pictures with bright colors; stiff
cardboard books or foldout books that can be propped up in the crib; cloth
and soft vinyl books with simple pictures of people or familiar objects
that can get washed or go in the bath.
6-12 months: Board books with photos of other babies or "chunky" board
books that can be touched and tasted; books with photos of familiar
objects like balls and bottles; books sturdy enough to be propped up or
spread out in the crib or on a blanket; plastic or vinyl books for the
bath; washable soft cloth books that can be cuddled and mouthed; small
photo albums of family and friends.
12-24 months: Sturdy books that they can carry; books with photos of
children doing familiar things like sleeping or playing; goodnight books
for bedtime; books about saying goodbye and hello; books with only a few
words on each page or simple rhymes and predictable text; any type of
2-3 years: Simple stories; rhyming books that can be memorized; bedtime
books; books about counting, the alphabet, shapes and sizes; animal books,
vehicle books; books about their favorite TV characters; books about
saying hello and goodbye.
3-5 years: Books about children who look and live like them; counting
books; concept books about things like size and time; simple "science"
books about how things work; books about anything they show a special
interest in; books about making friends, going to the doctor, going to
school; books about having brothers and sisters; books with simple text
they can memorize or read.
As mentioned earlier, scientific research has established that a child's
brain goes through several critical periods in its development. These are
phases during which the child's brain has to have certain experience or
input in order to develop properly as it learns about different brain
functions like how to see movement, feel emotion, understand language or
develop memory. Each has a different developmental timetable, and along
with that different critical periods.
The process of "visual wiring" of a child's brain occurs in two processes,
Dr. Elise Eliot says in her book. The first phase is genetically
controlled and establishes a "crude wiring diagram," she said. Comparing
the process to a long journey, the first phase would be like a plane ride
that drops all the passengers at the airport but leaves them still with a
ways to travel. At that point, Eliot writes, "nature leaves off and
nurture finishes the trip." The second phase of visual wiring is
controlled by experience - "the electrical activity generated by a baby's
actual act of seeing." A baby's vision will show improvement at about 2
months of age, then again at about 4 months when there will be a sudden
improvement. By six months of age, they are very aware of what's going on
Because of the need for early visual stimulation, children who have early
problems, such as congenital cataracts or eye misalignment, should have
them corrected as soon as possible. Otherwise, permanent impairment may
result. Children's visual development is highly shapeable until about age
two, and then gradually lessens until about age 8, when the visual growth
is largely complete.
For the first two months, the child focuses best on things that are 8-12
inches away - just the distance of a mother's face during feeding. "The
Magic of Everyday Moments," a campaign launched by Zero to Three, suggests
that parents help boost their baby's vision by holding toys in that
optimal range and try to find toys that have high contrast, like black and
white, and bright colors. While talking to the baby, play tracking games,
moving an object slowly from side to side. The baby will follow with his
eyes if he's awake and alert. If he needs a break, he'll let you know by
turning away or crying. This activity also helps strengthen a baby's neck
muscles because eventually he will move his head as well.
Between 6-9 months, a baby begins to understand that people and things
exist even if he or she can't see them. Parents can help reinforce this by
playing peek-a-boo and disappearing and reappearing games (hide a toy or
drop an object and watch the child try to find it). Hide-and-seek games in
the 9-12 months age range also help reinforce this "object permanence."
Also parents need to talk to their children when they are out of their
sight to help reduce anxiety and help them play alone for brief periods.
As they develop "object permanence," babies can become very persistent —
they remember what toy they were playing with the day before and want it
Balance and motion:
The critical period for the development of a child's vestibular system is
6-12 months of age. The vestibular system is in the inner ear. It senses
the movement of the head and controls balance, posture and reflexes.
Stimulation of the vestibular system is very important to motor learning
and possibly higher cognitive development. Babies benefit from being
rocked, bounced, carried, swung and spun (but not shaking). It's common to
see a baby engage in "self-stimulation" of his or her vestibular system by
bouncing and rocking themselves, or even banging their heads.
The sense of touch is one of the earliest a baby develops. Premature
babies have shown marked improvement when they were given massages, and
placed in "nests" of soft material inside the incubator.
Children 4-6 months old benefit from playing with toys of different
textures, shapes, weights and functions. Anything a baby gets his hands on
needs to be clean and safe for mouthing. Babies use their mouths as
another way to get to know an object, so anything he handle needs to be
big enough not to fit entirely into his mouth, and smooth enough not to
scratch or irritate him. Offer toys that have a lot of variation in shape
and texture - he can make these distinctions with his mouth.
Movement and coordination:
Exercise and other environmental factors are important for strengthening a
baby's muscles and ensuring that movements develop properly.
Because parents are encouraged to put babies to sleep on their backs to
reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, babies need to spend some
of their waking time on their stomachs so they can work on upper body
motions like pushing up, rolling over and crawling.
Dr. Eliot and others say that baby walkers actually delay the onset of
independent sitting up and walking by giving a child the means to get
around without walking.
Because exercise in general improves the blood flow to the brain, it's
just as important to a child's development as learning to read and write.
Newborns don't actually grip things intentionally; they're born with the
reflex. Parents can encourage them to pay attention to their hands by
finding toys that make gentle sounds when they move. At about 3 months,
they begin to realize they can control their hands and begin to use them
more. Then it's good to have lots of toys that are safe to hold, grab,
poke and wave.
They also start reaching for things with both hands, and parents can
encourage this by laying the baby on his back and holding a brightly
colored toy within reach. As he reaches for the object and pulls it closer
to examine it, talk to him and cheer him on-even at 3 months, he
understands a parent's appreciation.
At 4-6 months, babies begin to gain greater control. They start to roll,
reach and grasp more, and start to sit with assistance. Parents can help
by placing their child in different positions - on her back, stomach and
sitting with support. The infant gets a different perspective, and a
chance to develop different skills like rolling, creeping and crawling,
and using both hands while sitting. To help a child use his new motor
skills to explore how things work, give him a variety of toys with
different features (size, shape, texture, weight, function) and show him
different ways to use them. Demonstrate switching objects from one hand to
another, shaking them, banging them, pushing them and dropping them.
When a baby turns away, arches his back or starts to cry, it may mean he
needs a break from intense play. This might be a good time for a
Bath time can provide a good learning environment for 6-9 month-olds.
Parents should provide a variety of safe bath toys, and join the child in
playing with them.
This is also the time when babies begin to creep, crawl and scuttle about.
Parents should create a safe environment for the child so that no
dangerous objects are within her grasp and that anything she might pull
herself up on is stable and will support her weight. Parents need to
remember that babies develop at different rates, and early crawlers may
not become early walkers. It's also a good time to encourage a baby's
curiosity by letting him explore. Find out what's interesting him and
encourage him to check it out.
Babies at this age also begin to hold things between thumb and forefinger,
and enjoy "back- and-forth" games. Handing something to him and letting
him hand it back helps him learn give-and-take as well as coordination.
After about 1 year of age, a toddler develops a better understanding of
how things work. Parents can help encourage this by offering toys that
represent real-world objects so a child can practice being a "big person."
Activities like blowing bubbles and playing simple musical instruments
help children make things happen. Parents should let toddlers start to
help dress themselves to provide them with a sense of accomplishments.
They can also participate in everyday activities with parents so they gain
Emotion and memory:
Emotion and memory are controlled by a part of the brain called the limbic
system. Its development depends on experience, and influences all other
learning. To develop a normal limbic system, a child has to have normal
social interaction, both with peers and parents, Eliot said. The critical
period for this development is birth to age 3.
Parents can start encouraging this at birth by talking to their children
about everything. Even at 1 month, a baby is a good listener. Engage in
chitchat while changing diapers, rocking, walking. Babies like their
parents' voice best, but will also indicate what other types of sounds
they like. The smile is a baby's earliest form of communication. Smile
The brain's frontal lobe controls behavior by inhibiting inappropriate
movement, thought and emotions.
Inhibition is important for self-regulation and focused attention, Eliot
says. It's believed that lack of inhibition is the underlying cause of
Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder. Children are unable to focus
because they cannot filter out competing stimuli.
This kind of control develops very slowly, she says. Infants are in near
constant motion; the more tired they are, the more active preschoolers
get; elementary school children are unable to sit still for long periods,
and many teenagers continue to have problems with impulse control.
At about six months, a child will begin to be wary of strangers and even
family members he doesn't see often. Parents can help out by holding the
baby when introducing him to new people. Give the new person one of the
child's favorite toys to help engage him, and make sure family members
know that the wariness is nothing personal.
After about 9 months, children begin to become more emotionally dependent
on their parents, and separations become more difficult. Parents can
minimize this by using positive language when saying goodbye. Smile as you
talk about where you're going, and mention things that you will do
together when you return.
Children at 9-12 months discover the word "no," but it can mean different
things in different situations. Sometimes it's just his way of declaring
his independence, or he may be making his likes and dislikes known. Or, he
may just be tired.
At about 1 year and after, toddlers begin to enjoy watching and playing
with peers. They learn many skills through imitation, and the interaction
helps them understand how relationships work. Parents can start to
introduce the idea of "turn-taking" by telling their child, "Now it's
Annie's turn," as they pass a toy back and forth. But, experts say not to
pressure a toddler to share if they're not ready.
Because toddlers are short on impulse control, parents need to employ
different ways to guide them. Otherwise Mom or Dad winds up spending all
day saying "no." Distraction and diversion are a good way to do this.
Instead of saying, "No, don't do that," try diverting attention to another
toy or activity.
Children have to be exposed to language in order to master it. Research
has shown that children with profound hearing impairments that go
untreated in the first several years of life will have lasting language
deficits as a result. Early ear infections can play a role in affecting
language acquisition. Also, there are many case studies of children who
were isolated in childhood and failed to develop normal language skills.
As evidence of a critical period for language, research has found that
early damage to the left hemisphere of the brain, where language skills
are housed in adults, will not result in a loss of language skills in a
Congenitally deaf individuals will not become fully fluent in sign
language unless they learn it before age 6. And, learning a second
language becomes more difficult after age 7. Eliot said a person can still
learn a second language, but it's likely they won' t be able to master the
grammar and accent as fluently.
At 3-4 months old, children begin to enjoy babbling. Baby babble
progresses from open vowels to new sounds and combinations, with Ps, Ms,
Bs and Ds. It's suggested that parents respond to babbling by talking to
the baby as if he understands everything you're saying. These early
conversations help expand his vocabulary.
Parents should also pay attention to the rhythm of a baby's babbling.
Babies learn the art of conversation this way. He will babble and pause,
waiting for Mom or Dad to say something. Mom or Dad respond and pause, and
he picks right back up.
A baby's vocalizing continues as he gets older, and by age 4-6 months, he
has a variety of sounds in his repertoire. The more a parent responds to
his chatter, the more confident he becomes and the more interested in
Between 6 and 9 months of age, a baby will begin to use sounds and
gestures to communicate what she wants. Parents need to become an
interpreter, and when she points at an object like her bottle, ask, "Do
you want some juice?" Parents can also encourage a link between
communication and motor skills by describing what she is doing. If she
throws a toy down, talk about it. Make note of what she is looking at or
Between 9 and 12 months, a child's sounds will start to have specific
meanings (juju for "juice," etc.), and parents can encourage them to show
what they mean. Hold two toys and ask, "Which do you want?" Build
comprehension by asking, "Where are your shoes?" as you point at them.
After one year, a toddler's communication skills grow rapidly. Parents can
help children connect gestures with words through reading. Other things
that help communication growth are labeling a child's feelings for her
("You're mad because I took the ball away") and by narrating what's
happening ("Let's roll the ball"). When a child uses part of a word for
something, like "juju" for "juice," use the actual word when you reply.
Sources: Dr. Elise Eliot, Chicago Medical School; The Magic of Everyday
Moments; BrainWonders; ZERO TO THREE.