Babies get information about the people and things around them by watching. Observing the world helps babies to fine tune the connections between brain cells. By giving babies interesting things to look at, you help their brains’ vision area fully develop. Between 2 and 6 months babies get better at scanning, tracking (following an object with their eyes), and focusing on objects. Babies can see in color, and especially enjoy looking at moving objects such as mobiles or their caregivers’ faces as they interact with them.
Look at your home from the babies’ point of view. Are there enough interesting things to look at? Is there perhaps too much to look at, making it difficult to focus on one thing at a time? You don’t need to buy fancy toys (like black and white mobiles) for the babies in your care. A set of shiny or colored measuring spoons can be a perfect “mobile” when carefully hung by a piece of elastic. Make sure that your baby sees your face and your expressions. They will be watching your every move. Make eye contact with them and smile a lot.
Make eye contact during daily routines like feeding and diapering. Eye contact is a powerful and important part of infant massage. Your baby’s visual system is biologically programmed to search out the contrasts in the bull’s-eye shape of the parent’s eyes. Experts say that eye contact is a powerful cue to the infant’s physiological system; the message received by the brain allows it to shut down the production of stress hormones initiated during childbirth.
During a massage, the baby is positioned face-to-face with the parent, and the quality of interaction provides a lot of positive feedback, via eye contact, for parent and baby, continually reinforcing the message “It’s okay to relax now.”
Talking with and singing to babies is very important. As they hear new sounds, the connections in the brain increase and become stronger. Talking with babies helps them eventually learn language and the meaning of words.
Sharing music also provides important sensory information to the baby’s developing brain. However, constant music may overstimulate some infants or they may tune it out. Talk with your baby. Give them time to respond. They may make their own facial expressions, sounds, and body movements in response, or just make eye contact with you. Sing to your baby. During massage, sing a lullaby such as “Ami Tomake” that has sounds repeated over and over in a slow, rhythmic way. It is clinically proven that parents naturally speak more slowly and in a specialized singsong tone.
During daily routines, sharing a song with a baby can make an ordinary task into a joyful experience. Don’t worry about what you think of the quality of your voice. Babies don’t judge. They just love to hear your voice. Expose your baby to various styles of music. It’s important though to keep the volume low. Babies’ hearing can be damaged by loud music. Choose music thoughtfully—play different types of music with a variety of rhythms, instruments, and beats. Watch to see what kinds of music your baby prefers.
Touch is an important source of sensory information. A loving touch from parents helps build a sense of trust. Being held in a parent’s arms lets babies know that they are safe, secure, and loved. It is also through touch that babies learn about the properties of the objects in their world (such as their texture and shape). This builds their thinking skills. Respond to your baby’s signals that they need comfort or interaction. They can show their need by crying, fussing, reaching for you, or gazing toward you to engage you.
Provide other “touch” experiences for the baby. Even at this very early age, a baby needs a variety of tactile experiences. Put him on different surfaces such as towels, blankets with different textures, or straw mats. Rub noses, touch elbows, and pat knees. Let the babies (safely) touch sticky surfaces, smooth surfaces, bumpy surfaces like bubble wrap, and cool surfaces.
Massaging your baby daily or several times a week has innumerable benefits, the most important of which is bonding. The bonding process is defined by eye contact, skin-to-skin contact, smiling, scent, and soothing sounds from parent to baby. Massage lowers levels of stress hormones for both parent and baby, leading to improved immune system functioning. By continually providing nurturing touch, parents can help facilitate enhanced social, emotional, and physical development for their children from the start.
Movement helps babies learn how to balance and gain control over their bodies. This includes moving side to side as when swaying, moving up and down as when being bounced, and moving back and forth as when walking in someone’s arms.
Allow your infant to move and develop their physical skills at their pace. Don’t force new skills—for example, holding a baby up to stand will not make the baby walk faster or better. Notice how each baby’s physical skills are growing over time, and give them opportunities to master new skills when you see they are ready.
Put your older baby in areas on the floor where it is safe to move around. Encourage rolling, crawling, and walking by placing interesting toys close by. Do not use baby walkers. They can lead to an increased risk of accidents. Avoid overusing automatic baby swings as well. Too much time in a swing means that babies are not being held, touched, and played with by a caregiver. This equipment also limits the time babies are able to use their bodies to explore—such as rolling to get closer to a desired person or interesting toy. Avoid “container syndrome,” which is when babies spend too much time in swings, baby chairs, etc.
Babies play by looking, listening, touching, tasting, and moving. As babies play, important sensory information is sent to their growing brains. Playful interactions with parents and siblings are very important as babies learn that their actions have an effect on both the people and objects in their world. Play time with you influences all areas of their development: intellectual, physical, social, and emotional.
Keep your baby safe. For young babies, play usually means mouthing everything they can get their hands on. Make sure toys are clean and that all choking hazards are removed from the play area. Show pleasure as you play. Stick out your tongue and see if they will copy you. Talk about what you are doing together as you play, and use facial expressions. This provides more information to the baby, which increases engagement and, therefore, her brain power.
Use routines (changing a diaper, arriving/ departing, massage, and waking from a nap) as chances to pay special attention to your baby. Diaper changing can be a time to “play” with feet, tickle toes and nose, talk about and identify all the baby’s body parts.
John Medina, in his book Brain Rules for Baby: How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five, has a lot to say about brain development. There is an entire chapter in Infant Massage, a Handbook for Loving Parents called “Your Baby’s Brain.”
Written by Vimala McClure