Many people think babies are not interesting in anything since they spend most of the day doing nothing but eating, pooping and sleeping. In fact, your baby’s brain is fully active every second of his/her waking time (some say, even during sleeping time).
Every piece of stimulation your baby is exposed to will be absorbed and registered in their brain. The more you stimulate your baby when he/she is awake, the more synaptic connections will be formed in the brain. The more connections that exist in the brain, the easier it will become for your baby to absorb new information.
It is a never-ending cycle that you can use to your baby’s advantage. The first year of your baby’s life is a critical period. Don’t waste any second of it. Make sure you expose your baby to as much stimulation as you can.
How to Stimulate Your Baby
- Talk to your baby all the time. Tell them what you are doing, explain your motives, and share your ideas and thoughts. Recently, I went for a coffee with a friend and her baby girl was crying. I started talking to her about the features of the restaurant. She just watched me and stopped crying. Her mum said, “She doesn’t understand a word you are saying” and I said, “Of course she does”. It’s all about repetition and the positive experience that goes with it. She will register the sounds, the sights, the feelings, the temperature, the softness of my voice, my gentle touch on her arm. It will all add to a positive experience for her that allows her to enlarge her vocabulary. We sat there for 2 hours and she calmly and patiently sat next to us the whole time. Try naming things and labeling the body parts you use. This will help them learn. The earlier you start, the faster they will learn it. Did you know that babies need to hear something 500-1200 times in order to learn what it means? They may not be able to express it, but eventually they will know what it means. With my eldest, we kept telling her when we turned on the light that by 6 months, she would look at the light bulb every time we said the word “light”. She had heard it so many times that she knew what it meant, even though she could not even speak yet.
- Touch your baby. Touch their tummy, feet, back, hands and face. Touch their bodies with your body, with your hands, face, lips, hair, allow them to experience different forms of touch, soft and hard, rock them and bounce them. Babies have a natural balancing mechanism in their body (the vestibular system) that is very advanced and makes them enjoy being moved from side to side, and up and down.
- Give your baby a massage. Like adults, some babies like the firm touch, while others like the gentle feather fingers. Be guided by their reaction. If they cry, they don’t like it. If they don’t cry, keep doing it. I remember the first time I saw my mom giving my daughter a massage. I was afraid she would break, but she was happy and gargled in satisfaction. Since they can’t move by themselves at that early stage of life, they need you to do it for them.
- Encourage your baby to kick with their hands and feet. Put objects just far enough for them to touch with their hands or kick with their feet. Once they feel something, they will try to do it again. If the object makes a sound as well, it will stimulate your baby even more. Over time, they will be able to control the movement.
- Pull faces for your baby. Stick your tongue out, or blink and wait for your baby to copy you. I remember the first day my daughter Eden came home. She was 7 days old. We tried sticking our tongues out at here. When we had almost given up, she stuck her tongue out too. Babies have an imitation mechanism that is the best in the world. Give them lots of things to copy. It will help them control the muscles in their faces.
- Shake rattles from side to side, up and down. Wait for your baby to follow the noise. This will help them improve their neck muscle and control and improve their coordination. You can do the same with a flashlight or with something glittery or with reflective light. A more visual cue will help improve their vision cells.
- Try adding sound to objects. I used to tie two bells to a piece of elastic and put them on many of my babies’ games. Sometimes I even put bells on their feet. It was wonderful to see them trying to trigger the sound. This kind of stimulation sparks their interest in what they want to touch.
- Play with a ball in front of them to improve their ability to follow the ball. You can do it when they are on a chair, lying on their tummy or on their back. Remember to follow everything with explanation and speech.
- Play in the shower. This is the most wonderful opportunity for a sensory playground for babies. Make bubbles, blow bubbles, use squeaky toys, splat and splash. You can even add some natural food colors, vanilla or other natural oils to stimulate your baby even more. Watch your baby following what you do. At some point, he/she will try doing it independently.
- Dance with your baby. Babies need lots of movement and they can’t move around by themselves, so when you move to the music and your baby is moving with you, he/she can associate the movement with the sound and be physically stimulated as well.
- When changing a diaper, make this time enjoyable. In the first year of life, your baby (and you) will find yourselves in the diaper changing station a lot. Make sure it is not a disgusting and unpleasant experience for you or your baby. Do not say bad things about it, like “You are so smelly” or “Disgusting!” Some babies develop bad attitudes towards peeing and pooing from these early experiences of toileting. Play games, sing songs and talk about body parts.
- When your baby mumbles, treat it as if they said something and answer as if they did. Ask your baby questions and pretend that whatever they say is real. It is amazing how many wonderful “conversations” like this you can have with a baby. I remember that when my son was born, my parents came to visit us when he was 10 days old. My mom used to talk to him for hours. He would make tiny noises and move his lips and she would discuss things with him. It was amazing to watch. Even when they cry, do not be stressed, it is just their way of talking. Answer them back, talk to them. Eventually you will want them to learn to share when they feel discomfort so start encourage that right from the beginning.
- Sing songs. I wasn’t an amazing singer, but I sometimes took the words I wanted to say and put them in a tune. It stimulates kids’ auditory ability and teaches them lots about rhythm and sound.
- Read books with your baby. Many parents think it is too early to read books to a baby. It is never too early. Babies absorb everything. They may not understand words so start with picture books with lots of sound effects. Do not read fast. Wait from time to time to see how your baby reacts to the sounds. If you are not a natural storyteller, remember that it is part of the parenting job description and practice will make it easier. You can learn from your baby’s reaction what works and what doesn’t.
- When your baby is playing on the mat or with himself, put music in the background. There is research that shows that certain types of music stimulates specific parts of the brain, but I believe that any music you personally like will do the job. Music stimulates many parts of the brain so don’t waste any time on silence. It does not have to be too loud, but when you can have music in the background, go for it.
- Play with mirrors. We have amazing photos of our babies looking at themselves in the mirror. They just love it. Take your baby to the mirror with you, with objects or by themselves. In my day care, mirrors were an amazingly fun object. You can read my post on what mirrors can do to kid’s self-esteem. One of the cheapest ways to stimulate your baby and improve his/her confidence and self-image is through mirrors.
- Once your baby is having food other than breast milk, let them try everything you eat. The more food you expose them to, the more advanced their taste buds will be. Just a taste, not even a teaspoon, mashed or in soup, or even just putting some of it on their lips will do the trick. The purpose at this stage is not to feed them with it. It is just for them to register as many tastes as possible on their taste buds.
- Do as much as you can to get your baby to join you at family meals. Sitting down together is the most important part. The atmosphere is registered in their minds as “quality time”. Even babies who can’t sit in a high chair can join dinnertime and listen to the conversations. This is mostly important when you have other kids in the house.
- Play Peek-a-boo. Hide yourself behind things and show yourself after a few seconds. It can be simple things like behind a blanket, or behind your hands. For a baby, when you disappear, you are gone and they don’t know you will be back. Such games will teach your baby that you still exist even if they can’t see you. Make sure to “hide” for a short time. You can increase it slowly later. For the first year of your baby’s life, 5 seconds is the max they can handle with you having disappeared.
- Let your baby play with their food. There is a lot to be learned from texture and the attempt to manage the hand and eye coordination required to bring food to your mouth. This is something that will take a long time for your baby to learn and you can either enjoy the ride, or not. It will take just as long whether you start practicing at the age 3 or age 6 months. My motto is “The sooner, the better”. Eden, our eldest daughter, sat in a high chair when she was 6 months old, eating independently from her own plate with a soft spoon. She was messy, but by the age of 12 months, she was using her cutlery like a pro. She set the benchmark for her siblings to use cutlery at an early age too. Don’t worry about the mess. It’s healthy, and it can be cleaned up (mostly).
Enjoy your parenthood and remember, “Happy parents raise happy babies!”