Are babies ready to learn? — Good Parenting

 

ThinkstockPhotos 823834260Dear Dr. Debbie,

I’m a brand new mom. Two weeks into this I’m getting used to the exhaustion, immediacy of diapers and wipes (they’re in almost every room of the house now), and near constant nursing. As we settle into a semblance of a routine, I’m wondering how I can best use our time in between feedings, changings, and precious sleeping to our best advantage. Not that we’re rushing, but I’ve heard that it’s the years before school start that really make a difference for how well he will do in school. My son doesn’t seem ready for books and I don’t want to start a screen habit this early.

Ready to (Yawn) Play

Don't miss last week's column Keeping track of tweens— Good Parenting

Dear Ready,

Brain development has already begun with the sounds and movements your baby experienced before birth. The sound of your voice, and those of other voices, animals, machines, and music in his life, became known during at least his last three months in the womb. The sounds are just louder now. The rhythms of your daily movements – walking, stair climbing, kneeling down to pick things up off the floor - have already lain neural networks in your baby’s brain. This is one reason why babies crave being carried around as you go about your day; they are reassured by the familiarity of it all. Sights and smells are becoming part of your baby’s world of familiar sounds and movements too. And the all-important sense of touch, through holding, caressing, kissing, dressing, cleaning, and feeding, also gives your baby information to sort and store as you go through a day together.

Just Play
There’s really not much to it when it comes to playing with an infant. No special equipment is needed  – just you and a comfy chair, your bed, or a stretch of carpet. Be gentle, of course. Offer eyebrow movements and mouth movements for easy entertainment with one of his favorite sights – your face. Blow a sequence of three raspberries on his belly, cheeks, or hands, looking at his face between blows, and repeat until he arches away or otherwise lets you know this game is over. There are brain benefits to infant massage, however most parents do it to foster the attachment relationship between baby and parent. Well-attached babies do better in school, by the way. To stimulate learning in language and math, incorporate music by singing old camp songs and nursery rhymes. Jog your memory with this collection of rhymes and songs from the nice librarians in Pewaukee, Wisconsin.  Many songs and finger plays lend themselves to taking hold of baby’s hands as he lies in front of you (on your lap if you like). Now he can “play along” as the Eensy Weensy Spider does his thing, and, with your help, he can touch his own Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes as you sing. Or simply clap his hands to the rhythm of your favorite songs.


Add Novelty
In a month or two, your son will let you know which of your playtime games are instantly recognized when you start to play them with him. His wide-open eyes and open mouth are a sign of the strongly networked neurons of familiar patterns in his brain. Now’s the time to add a little novelty. New research (and the wisdom of babies and caregivers through the ages) indicates that surprises make learning even more fun . Rather than your regular rhythm of three raspberries in a row, pause after the second and finish with an extra long one. Extra giggles will ensue. One of my tried and true novelty games, now with the third grandbaby, is to put an object on my head – a plastic cup, a washcloth, whatever – and execute a dramatic sneeze. The object falls off. Hilarious. Once the routine is learned, a few false starts followed by an exaggerated sneeze get the biggest baby laughs.


Texture and Taste
An infant does a lot of learning through his mouth. The touch and taste receptors of the lips and tongue provide a way to interact with the world that his hands, literally, can’t yet grasp until about four months. And even then, as soon as he masters getting something in his grip, he will bring it directly to his mouth to learn all about it. Therefore, start being mindful of keeping plenty of clean, safe objects within his reach. Some plastic toys are labeled “dishwasher safe” and others are made of fabrics of different textures – corduroy, felt, cotton, sateen – that can be thrown in with the laundry. As he tastes the non-food objects of his world he is learning familiarity, similarities, and differences in their materials, contours, shapes, and sizes. Toy manufacturers categorize toys for children under the age of three years with the expectation that they will go in their mouths – no toxic chemicals, no loose or long parts that could cause choking. Plenty of household objects also make good “mouthing” toys, such as wooden coasters, a heavy crystal soap dish, the wide-end of a rubber spatula, or a burlap nut bag. Wash as needed. Although the “hygiene hypothesis”  suggests a more relaxed approach to household germs will probably do your baby more good.


Most of all, enjoy your play time.

Dr. Debbie

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What do you think? Email your comments or questions to Dr. Debbie at editor[at]chesapeakefamily.com.