You don't have to be a child development expert to give your baby a great start in life. Love, attention, and basic care are what your baby really needs and wants. To help your baby reach his full potential, follow these simple steps.
Show your love
Children need love. Your emotional caring and support give your child a secure base from which to explore the world. This isn't just touchy-feely advice. Love, attention, and affection in the first years of life have a direct and measurable impact on a child's physical, mental, and emotional growth.
Love and touch actually make your child's brain grow.
How do you show your love?
Hug, touch, smile, encourage, listen to, and play with your little one whenever you can. It's also important to answer his cries immediately, especially in the first six months or so, when experts say it's impossible to spoil a child.
Responding to your baby promptly when he's upset (as well as when he's happy) helps build trust and a strong emotional bond.
Care for your child's basic needs
Your baby needs to be in good health and have lots of energy so she can learn and grow, and you can help by covering her basic needs. Take her for regular well-baby checkups, and keep her immunizations up to date.
If you're concerned about giving your baby so many shots, it's worth researching the potential risks of postponing or skipping vaccinations. The benefits of vaccines far outweigh any potential risks.
Sleep is anything but wasted time for your baby, so help her get plenty of shut-eye. During REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, your baby's brain cells are making important connections, or synapses. These are the pathways that enable all learning, movement, and thought, and they're the keys to your baby's understanding of everything she sees, hears, tastes, touches, and smells as she explores the world.
Breast milk or formula provides all the nutrients your baby needs for the first six months, and it will be an important part of her diet until at least her first birthday. Breastfeeding is best for your baby: Studies show that breastfed babies have lower rates of allergies, diarrhea, respiratory problems, obesity, and ear infections, and may get an IQ boost. But if you're unable to breastfeed (or choose not to), your baby can thrive on formula as well.
It's best to tend to your baby's physical comfort right away. Be sensitive to whether she's too warm or if her diaper is wet. You and your baby are a team, and one of your jobs is to take care of the basics so she can get on with her challenging developmental tasks!
(If you're worried about your baby's sleeping or eating patterns, talk to her doctor.)
Talk to your child
Research shows that children whose parents speak to them extensively as babies develop more advanced language skills than children who don't receive much verbal stimulation. You can even begin during your pregnancy – it's a great way to start the bonding process.
Talk to your baby as you diaper, feed, and bathe him. He'll respond better if he knows the words are directed at him, so try to look at him while you're speaking. Don't worry about being profound. Just describe what you're doing: "Mommy is putting warm water in the tub so she can clean you up."
Parents naturally use baby talk, speaking in simplified sentences and phrases with a high-pitched voice. This actually helps young babies learn language, but as your baby gets older it's important to wean yourself off baby talk so your child can develop good language skills.
Read to your child
Reading out loud is one of the most important things you can do to help build your child's vocabulary, stimulate her imagination, and improve her language skills. It also gives you an opportunity to cuddle and socialize.
Even newborns enjoy listening to a story. Make a point of reading to your child from day one.
Find two perfect, development-boosting activities for every week of your baby's first year.
Stimulate all his senses
For your child to learn about people, places, and things, he needs to be exposed to them. Every new interaction gives him information about the world and his place in it. Studies show that children who grow up in an enriched environment – where they are presented with new experiences that engage their senses – have larger, more active brains than those who grow up without adequate sensory stimulation.
Of course, children can become overstimulated – you don't want to bombard your child 24 hours a day, or try to engage all his senses at once. And it's important to note that doctors discourage any TV or screen time for children age 2 and younger.
When your child is interested in playing, though, provide a variety of toys and other objects. Choose things with different shapes, textures, colors, sounds, and weights.
Learn about the effect of music on your child's development at different ages, and sing your favorite lullabies. Play interactive games such as peekaboo and patty-cake, go on walks and shopping trips together, and let your baby meet new people. Even the simplest daily activities stimulate your baby's brain development.
It's also essential to give your child room to roam. To develop strong muscles, good balance, and coordination, he needs plenty of space to crawl, cruise, and eventually walk. He'll also benefit from safe spaces where he can explore his surroundings without constantly hearing "no" or "don't touch."
The easiest way to do this is to childproof your home (or at least the common areas). Keep dangerous or valuable objects out of your baby's reach and safe ones accessible.
For instance, in the kitchen, put childproof locks on all the cabinets except one. Fill that cabinet with plastic bowls, measuring cups, wooden spoons, and pots and pans that your baby can play with safely.
Encourage new challenges
It's important not to frustrate your child with toys and activities that are way beyond her abilities, but a little stretching goes a long way toward learning new skills.
When an activity doesn't come easily to your baby, she has to figure out a new way to accomplish the task. That type of problem-solving is the stuff better brains are made of.
If she's attempting to open a box, for example, resist the urge to do it for her. Let her try first. If she continues to struggle, show her how it's done, but then give her back a closed box so she can try again on her own.
Take care of yourself
Try to find time to take care of yourself – there's truth to the saying that a happy parent makes for a happy baby. Get some exercise (even if it's just going for a walk with your baby in his stroller), eat healthful foods, and squeeze in naps to be sure you're getting enough rest.
If you're feeling drained, find ways to share the household and parenting responsibilities with your partner. If you're a single parent, surround yourself with people who can offer you help and support.
And don't forget to treat yourself to some time alone once in a while. Being a parent – especially an involved and active one – is tiring, and you need time to re-energize.
If you're overwhelmed with caring for your baby or you're feeling down, find someone you trust to talk to. Parents who are feeling down or upset may find it difficult to respond swiftly and sensitively to their child's needs.
Most women experience the "baby blues" after childbirth, a physical and emotional reaction that usually lasts for a week or so. Postpartum depression is a much more serious condition, but it's also highly treatable.
If you find yourself feeling intense sadness or anxiety, if you're not able to care for yourself or your baby, or if things that normally make you happy no longer do, you may be depressed.
Don't be afraid to reach out. Seek advice about coping with postpartum depression, and talk with your healthcare provider any time you think you may need help.
Find good childcare
If you work and aren't able to care for your baby during the day (or need a babysitter regularly), a quality childcare provider is essential to your baby's healthy development. You'll want to find someone who can do the things you would do for your baby when you're not around.
Whether your childcare provider is a nanny, a relative, or a daycare worker, she should be experienced, caring, and reputable, with a genuine love for children and the energy to help your baby thrive.