From birth, your child is a sensory sponge, taking in the world with the five senses of vision, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. And the quality of these experiences has a deep effect on the development of a baby's brain. But while you may feel obligated to constantly entertain your child or buy complicated toys that seemingly guarantee rich sensory experiences, experts say that simple, thoughtful, consistent interaction is all a child needs to develop his senses and mind.
Joshua Sparrow, MD, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School and co-author, with parenting authority T. Berry Brazelton, of Touchpoints—Birth to Three, recommends that parents help their child discover the world through his senses "not by necessarily doing a whole lot but by following their lead. [With a] four-month old who is looking to reach, you might move the object a little closer to [him] when [he] looks like [he's] going to give up." You can also go easy on buying electronic toys with a lot of bells and whistles (and expensive price tags to boot). Experts say this kind of toy tends to be one-way interactive, with the toy "talking" at the child.
Instead, take advantage of natural opportunities to sharpen your child's senses and brain:
1. Go for a walk.
For many moms, walks are a great way to soothe a baby and a gentle way to get in shape after delivery. But they're also an excellent opportunity to help your child engage her senses. For instance, if you stop to smell the roses on your stroll, your baby will not only understand that flower's scent, but she can also touch the petals (look for thorns!), see the pretty colors, and hear your description of what you're doing.
2. Do the laundry.
It may be monotonous for you, but for your child, the laundry is a sensory adventure. "A toddler helping fold laundry fresh from the dryer is using her senses to process information, and we help them understand that information when we talk about the experiences. ‘Aren't these towels warm? Don't your PJs smell good? Feel how soft this sweater is!’" suggests Jeff Johnson, founder of the Iowa-based Explorations Early Learning, LLC and author of Babies in The Rain: Promoting Play, Exploration, and Discovery with Infants and Toddlers.
3. Make morning routines more meaningful.
Clothing or feeding your child (or having them do it on their own, depending on his age) clearly involves senses like touch, seeing, taste, and smell. But you can add a conversation to involve the sense of hearing in these everyday rituals. For instance, serve a crispy rice cereal. Have your child listen to the crackling, taste the cereal, learn the word "Pop!" and allow him to add any other comments (through expressions, sounds, or words, again, depending on his age). Ask him what color shirt he wants to wear, if he wants apple juice or milk and why, how different fabrics feel against his skin or how creamed corn tastes. Says Johnson, "That running commentary while eating, dressing, grocery shopping, driving, and doing all the mundane things that are part of daily life is the best way to help kids make sense of their senses. It also builds language skills and interpersonal bonds."
4. Put on a show.
While you don't have to entertain kids nonstop, engaging them in some parent-child musical theatre can be fun—and beneficial. Says Sparrow, "The idea is [to focus on] activities that involve this relationship with another human being as the source of the stimulation." Your voice can be more interesting to your baby than, say, the robotic tones of a mobile. "Babies' hearing is set up so they attend preferentially to sounds within the human range," says Sparrow. Plus, the visual of your improve acting just may cause them to join in. Think of your yourself as the best mobile toy ever—you can be funny, soothing, fast, slow, loud, quiet, depending on what your child's face and body language is telling you.
5. Take your time.
Even following these ideas isn't going to make your kid into a "super kid". Every child will develop at an individual rate, as long as she's not severely neglected. "The goal is not to move the kid to the next developmental stage," says Sparrow. "For sensory or motor development, don't be in a rush." (That's not to say kids can't have difficulties: Johnson says signs of possible problems include an infant's failure to track objects with his eyes by the time he's four months old, a reluctance to be cuddled, or a lack of response to your voice or to loud noises. In cases like these, see your pediatrician right away.)
6. Allow TV once in a while.
If you need some time to yourself, you won't be guilty of neglecting your child or doing any long-term harm if you sit them in front of the boob tube for half an hour. "I think it's important for parents to know that it's okay if they get a break to take care of themselves," says Sparrow. But he also urges moderation: the more time your child spends in front of Big Bird, the less time she's spending interacting with you and the rest of the world.
7. Don't overdo it.
When helping your child explore the environment, whether through walks, conversation, or the occasional toy, you'll want to avoid overwhelming him (you'll be able to tell if you are by his reactions). In order to avoid one-sided sensory overload or overstimulation, focus on natural interaction and simple toys like wooden blocks, says Johnson. "I would not waste money on a mobile. The truth is that most infant rooms are probably visually over-stimulating. We cram our homes with so much visual clutter that babies have a hard time picking out a place to focus."
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