What's Best for Baby Brain Development?


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. I admire your intention to make the most of every moment with her.

Babies need the presence of an adult who is responsive to their needs, but it doesn't benefit them to have all of life revolve 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 please share your life with your baby, but don't focus on her every single moment.

In other words, she needs to know that you'll be there for her if she needs you. But it's not helpful to her to feel that she's always the focus of attention. You might think of this as responsively parenting your baby. You respond to her needs and set up her environment so that she can explore and thrive. But you don't make every moment about her -- that kind of pressure would make any child anxious!

So being responsive to your daughter's needs is important, in the sense that you feed her when she's hungry and create the opportunity for her to nap when she's tired, and let her explore by watching the bug on the sidewalk. But 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. Instead, set up a schedule that will work for her, and be sure she has the security of knowing what to expect ("In the morning mom does the dishes while I play nearby with my toys; then we go out to do errands.")

Then, while you go through your day, warmly engage with your baby. A baby's brain does not need sensory bombardment; she will find plenty to stimulate her cognitive development in the activities of daily life. But a baby's brain does need to be interacting with her special people during most of her waking hours. 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.

So a baby's intellectual development is built on the foundation of emotional security. That means your primary attention needs to be on enjoying her, 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.

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.

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 tired of sitting in her seat mouthing her toys, take her for a walk. 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.

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. I did notice recently that used copies of Julie Hagstrom's classic Games Babies Play were on sale online. (She also wrote Games Toddlers Play.)

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.

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 most. Making every moment with your daughter high quality should not mean making every moment busy. 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 at those times to rush in 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.

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.

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