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It doesn't take a genius to help children reach their intellectual potential – just a loving, involved parent. Here are some fun and easy ways to encourage your little smarty-pants.
Bond with your baby
The brain is wired to seek safety, and if the brain doesn't feel safe, it can't learn, according to Tracy Cutchlow, editor of the book Brain Rules for Baby. That's why it's so important to establish your baby's sense of security.
Skin-to-skin contact helps build that sense of safety, as does face time, baby massage, talking to your baby, and wearing your baby.
Creating that sense of safety can be tough when you're a new parent battling sleep deprivation, social isolation, and potentially unequal new duties. But a strong relationship with your partner is one of the best ways to make your baby feel secure.
Cutchlow suggests writing down chores, coming to an agreement with your partner about how to divvy them up, and being supportive in "emotionally charged moments."
If you do have a spat in front of your baby, she says, don't worry, it happens – just be sure to restore that sense of safety by making up in front of your baby, too. Babies don't understand the words, but they're affected by the emotions between you and your partner.
Narrate your day
Experts recommend talking to your baby a lot.
"The brain is a pattern-seeking organ," says Jill Stamm, an expert in early brain development and author of the book Bright From the Start. "The more it hears the patterns of language, the easier language learning becomes."
Tracy Cutchlow, editor of Brain Rules for Baby, suggests narrating your day. "Thoughts are running through our head all day," Cutchlow says. "And while we wouldn't ordinarily share every thought out loud, vocalizing this steady stream of information actually boosts your baby's brainpower."
By age 3, kids spoken to more frequently have an IQ that's 1.5 times higher than that of children who weren't. By the time they're in elementary school, they have much stronger reading, spelling, and writing skills, Cutchlow says.
How do you plant the seed for such strong language development? There are three keys: the number of words, the variety and complexity of words, and the way you say them.
By narrating your day, you'll naturally use all sorts of words. And by using descriptors like "red car" and "extremely strong coffee," you'll spice up the vocabulary you're exposing your baby to.
The tone of your voice is also important. You know the baby-friendly, sing-songy voice – higher pitch, exaggerated vowels (think: 'Helloooooo, baaaa-byyy!') – that you use instinctively? You're onto something! Researchers call it "parentese," and it's an excellent way to help a baby’s brain learn language because each vowel sounds more distinct. The tone helps infants separate sounds into categories and the high pitch is easier for them to imitate.
Stamm warns that parents tend to talk less if their infant hasn't started babbling yet. But don't let your little one's silence stop you – be loquacious for your baby's sake. "We know for a fact it makes language learning easier."
Let the babbling begin!
Invest in face time
Feel like making googly eyes at your baby for hours on end? Go for it – you're boosting your baby's brain development.
Research shows that infants begin recognizing their parents' facial expressions by 3 or 4 months of age, and they don't stop there. By about 5 months, babies can comprehend emotions on an unfamiliar person's face – and by 7 to 9 months old they can read dogs' and monkeys' faces, too.
Emotion is one of the first ways babies communicate with us, says Ross Flom, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. And being able to read facial expressions is the cornerstone of strong nonverbal communication skills, setting your baby up for better teamwork, fewer fights, and stronger long-term relationships as an adult.
While you really can't ever have too much face time, watch your baby for signs of being over-stimulated, says Tracy Cutchlow, editor of the book Brain Rules for Baby.
"The brain needs breaks," she says. Look for signs, such as your baby looking away. "If they're disengaging, don't try to force it." Instead, give your baby a few minutes to process what she's learned.
Limit "bucket" time
Kids spend far too much time in "buckets," says Bright From the Start author Jill Stamm. And by buckets, she means strollers, car seats, and the like – anything that restricts your baby's movement.
Many babies spend hours in their car seats each day, even when they're not in the car. Obviously safety comes first: Stamm is talking about limiting time in car seats and other buckets outside the car.
Why? Because babies need to be able to respond freely to the stimuli around them. To do that, they need to be able to move freely, and to look to the front, to the side, and behind them. They need to follow the signals from their eyes and ears, and to follow the signals they're alerted to.
This is the first phase of development of your child's attention system, which "forms very early," Stamm says. It sets the stage for a stronger ability later to concentrate and focus.
Point your finger
Research shows that children learn language faster if you point to an object while saying the word.
At first, your baby will look at you when you point. As he gets a bit older, he may look at your pointing finger, too. By about 9 months, most babies start to follow your pointing finger and notice what you're pointing to, says BYU psychology professor Ross Flom.
At around 9 or 10 months, babies will start bringing objects to show you. Having this shared interaction is called "joint attention." It means your child is developing the ability to relate to you about something (and someone) outside the two of you.
What can parents do to build this skill? Continue to point things out and talk about them. Your baby may not understand the words you're saying, but your communication with him will gradually become more complex.
You can head to the zoo, for example, where you can both give your attention to an animal like a polar bear. "Point at it, talk about it, describe it," Flom says, to promote social, cognitive, and language development.