"Dr. Laura... Now that my daughter is seven months old, I'd like to know how to best spend each day with her: how much alone play, interactive play, what activities, are there any essential toys, and so on. I pretty much follow her lead throughout the day, but I want to make sure I'm including beneficial activities for her. She is bright, and I'd like to help cultivate that without being overly structured. I'd like to ensure that every moment spent with her is a quality one. Thank you!"
How lucky your daughter is to have a mom so committed to her healthy development! Here are seven basic strategies to help you nurture your baby's emotional and intellectual development.
1. Be Responsive, But Be The Leader
One of the most important factors in growing a healthy human being is the presence of an adult who is responsive to their needs and emotions. That means that when a baby expresses a need or emotion, you respond.
In other words, your baby needs to know that you'll be there for her if she needs you. But it's NOT helpful for a baby to feel that they're always the focus of attention, or that life revolves around them. Human babies are designed to develop by interacting with their loved ones and observing family and community life. That means that what your little one most needs is to interact with you in a loving, warm, joyful way, and to observe as you go about the tasks of daily life.
So respond to her needs and set up her environment so that she can explore and thrive. Feed her when she's hungry and create the opportunity for her to nap when she's tired. Take the time she needs when she wants to watch the bug on the sidewalk. But also involve your baby in your day, while you cook and fold clothes and shop for food and chat with the neighbor. Don't make every moment about your baby -- that kind of pressure would make any child anxious! You don't want her to feel that you're often looking at her and saying "What shall we do now?" She needs to know that someone bigger than her is in charge; it would feel scary to her to feel like she's calling the shots.
2. Set Up a Routine
Set up a schedule and routine that will work for her: "In the morning mom does the dishes while I play nearby with my toys; then we go out to do errands." Routines help little ones develop cognitive understanding and a deep sense of security, because they love knowing what to expect. Routines also foster cooperation, because there's no power struggle about what will happen next.
3. Don't Interrupt a Baby's Play
Please don't feel like you need to "entertain" your baby. Babies are always working and learning -- noticing things, grabbing at things, moving their limbs. Our job is to facilitate the work they are engaged in by giving them an environment that encourages their exploration, not to interrupt their work by trying to teach them what we think they should be learning! So when your child is occupied, make it a practice not to distract or interrupt. In the same way that you would try to avoid waking a sleeping baby, try not to interrupt a baby who is engaged and playing by herself.
Babies don't benefit from over-stimulation. They need plenty of interaction with us, but they also need plenty of time to play with their toes, listen to music, stare at the dust motes in a shaft of light, and just figure out how their own muscles work. They don't need us to rush in at those times and justify our own existence by teaching them anything or occupying them; they're already occupied.
All babies need time to play in the security of our presence, but without our interference. Learning to do that is an important developmental accomplishment.
That means that on a regular basis throughout the day, you have "play time" where you put your baby down to let her play, and sit next to her. Keep your mouth shut as much as possible. Keep your hands to yourself unless she is getting very frustrated and needs your help. As she gets involved in something, ease yourself across the room to do something else. When she has had enough, pick her up. Over time, your child will learn to engage and explore by herself, and the length of her play will get longer.
4. Remember That Babies Learn Most from Interacting with Us
Even though your baby's brain is growing new neural connections every day in response to her environment, the most important work she's doing is developing the capacity for trust and intimacy. So "relating" to you is her most important work and sets the tone for her relationship with the world. She uses you as her secure base from which to explore the world, and she looks to you to know how to interpret what she experiences. As she interacts with you, her brain makes the neural connections that will shape it for life.
In other words, human intellectual development is built on the foundation of emotional security. That means your primary attention needs to be on enjoying your baby, engaging with her, responding to her, showing her the world, and reassuring her when she expresses concern about things. Studies show that infants who are the most advanced intellectually, emotionally and physically are the babies whose mothers are more attentive, responsive, and warmly engaging with them.
5. Foster Attachment Security
All babies need to develop a secure attachment to their special people. Secure attachment comes from feeling:
Safe - Trusting that your special people will be there to take care of you and protect you in what can be a big, scary world.
Seen - Trusting that your special people understand how you feel and love you exactly as you are, even with those sometimes overwhelming emotions.
Soothed - Trusting that your special people will comfort you and help you feel better when life is hard.
Notice that this means we accept the full range of a child's emotions.
One of the biggest mistakes most people make in playing with babies is trying to get the baby to laugh. That's usually fun for us, and it can be fun for the baby in limited doses. But take your cues from your baby and be careful not to be invasive in your efforts to get a laugh. Babies express lots of different emotions, and our job is to accept and acknowledge what the baby expresses, not to jostle and tickle to get the response we want.
6. The Intellect Grows from Engagement & Discovery, Not from Being Taught
A baby's brain does not need academic or sensory bombardment; she will find plenty to stimulate her cognitive development as she engages with you in the activities of daily life. She definitely does not need you to focus on her intellectual development in the sense of counting, ABC's, or any conventional intellectual tasks. She will find great intellectual stimulation in games of hide 'n seek, in pulling all the pans out of your cupboard, and in seeing the world from the safety of a backpack or baby carrier as you grocery shop or interact with other people. You may have heard that reading to a baby is good for her, and it is. But even better is talking to and with her. Involve her and speak with her as you move through your daily tasks: folding laundry, washing dishes, cooking dinner.
Should you play brain development games with her? There's certainly no harm in it, but make it interactive and age appropriate--which means sensory, not just cognitive. Sing to her, play pat-a-cake type games, massage her, play music of different kinds for her, dance with her. Make sure that she gets plenty of opportunities to see other babies and children.
If you run out of ideas, spend half an hour at the bookstore browsing the baby shelves. There are a lot of books out there that offer specific ideas for games, that you probably don't need to own to be inspired by. (And you'll find some good links in the Resource section below.)
Should you let her watch Baby Einstein videos? Experts warn against it. First, babies who watch any video are spending less time interacting with actual humans, so studies show that their language development is delayed, and we suspect there are other delay effects. Second, watching screens changes brain development. We don't know enough yet, but screen use in the early years when the brain is taking shape so rapidly has definitely been associated with shorter concentration spans.
7. Facilitate Exploration and Get Outside
Soon your daughter will be at the crawling stage, and she'll want to explore everything. It's worth mentioning that babies who are told "No" a lot learn not to think inside the box. If you want to give your daughter's intellect a boost, baby-proof well and supervise, but give her curiosity free reign to explore. It will mean a couple of months of restoring your books to the shelves every day, but she'll soon be past this stage and onto the next, having concluded that the world is well worth exploring and nothing need stop her.
Babies love changes of scenery. If she's squirmy in her sling, let her play on the floor, practicing turning over and hoisting herself up onto her hands and legs. If she's not happy being left to her own devices while you clean the bathroom, take a break and let her play with the water with you. Babies love to see how things work, which is second in fascination to them only to interactions with their parents.
And don't forget to take your baby outside for as much of every day as you can. All humans need to be outside as much as possible, and babies are no exception. We're just learning all the scientific reasons that nature makes us more calm and happy, but we know it does. Since babies' brains are growing so fast in response to their environments, it's possible that more time outside will actually help them grow happier, calmer brains. But even if that isn't true, babies love being outside and calm down more readily when they're outside, and parents report that they're able to be more patient and present when they spend more time outside. That should be inspiration enough.
Finally, making every moment count is an admirable idea, but you don't want to teach your baby that being productive every moment is what matters. Making every moment with your daughter high quality should not mean making every moment busy. I hope that goal will inspire you to slow down and be as present as possible, as often as possible, so that your daughter learns that every moment holds the possibility of aliveness, presence and joy.
Your daughter is a lucky baby. Since you follow her lead, you will be able to attune to what she expresses, and able to give her what she needs. Enjoy her, and treasure this time with her. Knowing we enjoy them is probably what babies need from us most of all.