The first five years of a child’s life are considered, by experts in cognitive development, to be the most crucial in shaping intelligence and brain function. More than ever, modern parents will do anything and everything to help their babies learn as quickly as possible. And, rightly so. With waiting lists to get into the “right” preschools quickly becoming the norm, it has never been more important to provide intellectual stimulation for your baby even while still in the womb. Luckily, thanks to educational television shows, videos, music, toys, games, apps, and virtually endless resources available for free on the internet, raising a smart baby has never been more achievable … or more complex.
Nature versus Nurture
The debate over nature versus nurture is not likely to end soon. The idea has been an active thought and societal question at least as early as the Greek civilization. The debate continued, and in the late 19th century, Sir Francis Galton first used the phrase “Nature versus Nurture” to describe his theories in eugenics and psychometrics. Now, parents and experts use the phrase largely when discussing how to raise a child and how to enhance a child’s emotional and cognitive development.
When Babies are Born
What researchers and experts do know is that the function of some brain cells are pre-determined when babies are born. Many of these brain cells control biological and physiological functions, but the amount of intelligence a baby is born with is still largely debated.
How Babies Can Learn
Whether or not particular brain cells already have an impact on a child’s intelligence at birth, few experts negate the importance of nurturing a baby in the first five years of life in order to set a foundation for learning, not just in for the present moment, but to encourage and set a foundation for learning throughout that child’s entire lifetime. With that knowledge, parents are often willing to spend thousands of dollars on the latest and greatest technological invention or toy, paint the nursery in a “smart” color, and do anything else they can to raise a smart baby. So, what can parents really do to help encourage cognitive development in their babies?
The Developmental Stages
First, parents need to get smart and conduct a little research in order to best optimize their efforts. Before getting started and planning activities, buying smart baby toys, and exposing their children to an educational system, moms and dads need to understand the developmental stages of babies and toddlers. Without this foundation, parents will not be prepared for the task of raising a smart baby and their efforts will likely not produce the desired results.
Babies should not be overwhelmed with activities that are too advanced. Understanding which developmental stage a baby is in helps to guide activities. Intellectually stimulating your baby at their current developmental level will help to encourage babies to learn without over-stimulating and frustrating their growth, development, and emotional well-being.
0 to 2 months
At this age, a baby uses his or her eyes to follow and recognize people and things, exhibits boredom when activities do not change, turns toward sounds, and responds with cooing or guttural sounds when spoken to.
2 to 4 months
At this state, a baby reaches for toys and other objects, using hands and eyes, follows moving things with eyes, watches people, faces, and animals closely, uses expressive babbling, and copies sounds.
4 to 6 months
Some key milestones at this age are that a baby brings objects to mouth, passes objects from one hand to the other, tries to reach things that are not in reach, makes sounds to respond to sounds, takes turns “talking,” responds to name, uses expressive sounds for emotions, and begins to use consonant sounds and stringed vowels.
6 to 9 months
Beginning at around 6 months, a baby plays peek-a-boo, puts things in mouth, picks up cereal or other bites of food with thumb and index fingers, looks for things that have been hidden, comprehends the meaning of “no,” copies sounds, and points with a finger, often at something he or she wants.
9 to 12 months
A few months before turning one, a baby explores with throwing, banging, etc., finds hidden things, chooses the right object or picture, uses things correctly (cup, spoon), follows simple directions, tries to imitate the words heard, uses gestures for “no” and “hello,” and responds to simple requests.
12 to 18 months
By this developmental stage, milestones include knowing everyday items, showing interest in toys and taking care of them, pointing to body parts, scribbling, following one step commands, saying several words, shaking head for “no” and “yes,” and pointing meaningfully.
By the age of 2 toddlers are able to sort shapes and colors, complete rhymes and sentences from favorite stories, build a small tower from blocks, follow two step instructions, repeat words, follow instructions, and play make-believe games.
Children can follow instructions with approximately three steps, and are able to communicate in order to name familiar things and people, carry on a conversation with three sentences, and can communicate well enough for someone outside of the family to understand them. A three year old can do puzzles with four pieces, work with toys that have moving parts, build a six block tower, and begin to use a crayon or a pencil.
Toys for Teaching
According to Gabriel Guyton (2011), an early education teacher, “Through play, children learn about the world and engage in activities that encourage their cognitive, emotional, and social development” (p. 50). Being mindful of where a baby is at developmentally means being able to choose toys that build on the milestones they have already reached and encouraging the development of new skills.
Toys do not have to be new, intricate, and technologically driven. Simple toys at the beginning of development such as rattles help babies to learn movement and concepts of sound. As children grow, simple puzzles, dolls and figures to engage in imaginative play, books, and flashcards are helpful for encouraging development. Other toys that help babies learn are blocks and different strips of fabric.
Simple Educational Games to Engage
Engaging babies through simple educational games is another of Guyton’s suggestions. Examples of some educational games that help children learn are knock-knock and peek-a-boo, and simple board games are helpful for learning language, counting, and recognizing shapes and letters. Although there is some debate on the use of learning programs on television and the computer, many experts believe that limited exposure (around one hour per day) can help older babies and toddlers learn things that will help prepare them academically for preschool.
No matter what activity or game a parent chooses, most experts believe the true key in promoting cognitive development, along with social and emotional growth, in babies and children is interaction with parents. Kenneth R. Ginsburg, MD, notes that a relationship with a loving parent is key in child development. Playing with baby allows mom and dad to move through the milestones, and to engage babies easily and naturally.
Holding babies close gives a sense of security, but it also helps babies to learn. Reading with babies can help develop cognitive ability through engagement and interaction, asking babies to point to pictures, colors, letters, and words.
Talking to babies and toddlers, paying attention and listening to them as they answer, is one of the activities almost all experts agree on as encouraging cognitive development. Babies learn from their parents, copying behaviors and acquiring language. The more a parent talks to and interacts with their child, the more children are able to develop cognitively.
“Developmental Milestones.” (2013). Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Download the CDC Developmental Milestones Checklist .
Ginsburg, K.R. (2007). “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds.” Pediatrics 119(1), pp. 182-191.
Guyton, G. (2011). “Using Toys to Support Infant-Toddler Learning and Development.” Young Children 66(5), pp. 50-54.
Thompson, R.A. (2001). “Development in the First Years of Life.” Caring for Infants and Toddlers 11(1), pp. 21-33.