At birth an infant's heart is fully developed; it simply gets bigger as the child grows. Infants' brains differ; they're undeveloped at birth, with an amazing capacity to develop further if parents are responsive, playful, talkative and nurturing. If undeveloped during the early years, brain connections die and can't be revived. They're lost forever.
Infants' brains require stimulation, but watch out: Stimulation appropriate for babies does not equate to stimulation for older kids and adults. Buying a new gadget excites you, so why not buy Baby lots of toys?
Because experiencing new activities stirs youngsters' interest, you might find that taking Baby to a wide variety of activities will build brain power that would otherwise be lost. No one likes boredom, so you might think it best to shake a toy in Baby's face or chatter at her when she quietly gazes about the room.
Although these are well-intentioned attempts to maximize the growth of Baby's brain, there are simpler, subtler and more infant-appropriate ways to enhance early intellectual development.
When Baby cries, most parents know instinctively to pick her up, change her diapers, feed her, hold her, talk to her, cuddle and caress her until content. Although not particularly stimulating by adult standards, this nurturing is the first and most important element to building Baby's brain power. If the child is neglected when distressed, an anxious state sets in, and the child's mind
gradually shuts down.
The well-nurtured child thrives not only in body and mind, but learns to trust that when she's in a needy state, a predictable loving person is there to relieve distress. This loving care not only settles Baby, but opens up her mind for further growth.
As Baby develops, caregivers respond when smiles, coos and babbling begin. Watch for this dance: Baby coos, and Mother responds by raising her eyebrows, opening her eyes wide, using a high-pitched voice, making eye contact and imitating Baby's vocalizations.
As time goes by, parent and child refine this dance; it's the first and most fundamental form of social interaction. It's lovely to watch and satisfying for both parties, and it best gratifies Baby's need for mental stimulation.
But then watch: Baby will disengage. She's had enough talk for now. Don't keep at it. Honor Baby's need to gaze off and rest quietly.
Infants can't absorb too much stimulation. They'll tune it out, defeating the purpose of supporting the developing brain. No need to bombard your child with new toys. What's more important is how you use any toy with Baby, and how you vary its use at different play times.
Baby loves the traditional Jack-in-the-box. She's surprised each time Jack pops up. But Baby doesn't want to be surprised alone; she wants you to be surprised with her. After a few Jack-in-the-box play sessions, change the game a little. Maybe put a hat on Jack, or keep Jack in the box a little longer, or hide the box as the tune plays.
This slight change keeps Baby alert, her mind working to notice and adjust to the change. Vary the songs you sing. Change the mobile that hangs above the diaper-changing table. Read the same book over and over, then introduce a new one.
When Baby is alert yet content, respect that state. She's managing herself, noticing her environment, absorbing and making sense of all she's experienced. It's the beginning of Baby learning to entertain herself. She'll send out clear signals when she needs you once again to entertain, socialize or relieve her distress.
For more ideas for brain-stimulating activities, read "The Oppenheim Toy Portfolio" by Joanne Oppenheim.
Jan Faull, a specialist in child development and behavior, answers questions of general interest in her column. You can e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org or write to: Jan Faull, c/o Families, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111.