How to Help Your Infant Learn

With a newborn in your arms, there are already so many things you are thinking about: making sure your baby is fed, kept warm enough, getting enough rest, changed and clean. The last thing on your mind at this stage is probably education. Can your baby really learn this early? And if so, how do you “teach” your baby at this age?

The answer is that your baby is learning, and at an incredibly rapid pace. Your baby is constantly learning from the moment they are born. The good news is that there is probably very little you need to do, aside from what you are already doing to facilitate your baby’s brain development in the first few months.

It is important to understand the developmental changes that are taking place and know that you play a fundamental role in your baby’s development, beyond physical care.

Developmental milestones most often discussed with your physician are physical milestones, not cognitive ones. However, there are particularly important developments, especially regarding language, taking place in your child’s brain. Your new baby is learning to communicate and to understand their environment. For this to happen, your baby needs to bond with you emotionally at a very deep level.

Your interaction with your baby, both physical and verbal, your prompt response to their needs, and the environment around your baby will deeply affect your baby’s bond with you and their trust in you. This in turn will affect their relationships with the rest of the family and the outside world, now and for years to come.

During the First Month

During this time, your baby needs to know that you will respond to their needs. Feed them when they are hungry (rather than on a strict schedule), soothe them when they are tired, change them when they are soiled, and most importantly, hold them. Hold your baby often and as close to your body as possible – skin to skin whenever you get the chance. This alone will take care of forming vital connections in your baby’s brain, and also help your baby grow physically. Do not be afraid of “spoiling” your baby because your baby needs you to hold them. This is when the learning happens during the first month. When you are feeding your baby, talk to them, look at them, gently sing to them and focus on them until they are asleep. Leave the TV or cell phone for when you are not with them. Your baby is bonding with you, and learning to recognize your voice, your facial features and your smell. Don’t try to be ultra-productive and reply to your e-mails while baby is busy feeding – baby needs that interaction, and it also fills you with endorphins, and gives you the strength you need during all the sleepless nights.

During the Second and Third Months

By the end of the first month, babies already begin to act less out of reflex and more out of slight expectations they have learned. They expect the same people to hold them, they expect to be picked up when they cry, and they anticipate being fed when they hear the voice of their mother nearby. They also expect being sung to, rocked, or to receive pats on their back after feeding. They are getting used to all the routines you have established, and the little things you have been doing with them – they learned them. All these familiar habits teach your baby to trust you as the person who cares for them.

Learning Through Habits or Routines

During this time, it is recommended that you keep these routines consistent to help your baby learn. For example, if you generally sing to your baby while you rock them, always do it so your baby learns to expect it. This is when your baby is learning to “connect the dots” and begin making sense of their world. It is also what will teach your baby that the world is a place they can trust, which is essential for their emotional development.

To help your baby make sense of the world, here are some routines you can establish:

  • Help your baby predict what comes next by gently guiding their schedule to adjust to an established one. For example, rather than going to bed whenever you feel tired each night, or getting up when you wake up, regardless of what time that is, try slowly making the environment more quiet and darker at the same time each night, and you will see that in a few weeks, both your baby and you will come to adjust to that time as your bed time.
  • Wake up at the same time each morning. This will be good for your hormonal balance. When you are up, hold your baby even if they are still sleeping and try to feed them. Getting used to this morning feed will gradually establish the habit of waking up at the same time, which in turn will adjust your baby’s feeding times to a more predictable pattern. Please know that I am not suggesting you not feed your baby outside of their strict feeding times. Babies should be fed when they ask to be fed.
    This will take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, but it works. The trick is to choose the start time (early in the morning) even if your baby is not asking to feed and keeping bedtime consistent. Your baby will still feed throughout the night, because they are growing and need to feed constantly. Babies are not biologically equipped to sleep through the night without being fed, and I strongly advise against letting your baby cry, unattended. Your baby needs to eat, and if you ignore their cries, you are breaking the patterns of predictability for your baby. That, according to research, can affect them emotionally, for life.
  • Other routines include giving your baby a bath at the same time each day or going for a walk outdoors at the same time, or anything you do on a daily basis. These routines will help your child’s brain development, social development, and emotional development.

Learning Through Hearing

From the time your baby was in the womb, they learned to recognize the voice of their mother, and the voices of those they heard frequently. Listening to every sound around them plays a huge part in your child’s brain development. Your baby’s brain is busy listening, recognizing and classifying every noise and soon enough, every phonetic sound around them. This is how your baby learns to speak. How much you speak to your baby, as well as how you do it, will make a big difference.

The environment will also influence that learning. Observe your baby to see what they are most comfortable with. Do they like an environment with music and busy sounds of pets, children, and plenty of conversation? Or do they like a more relaxing and quiet environment, where the only voices are of those closest to them. Every baby is different, but chances are your child will fall somewhere in between these two extremes most of the time. Even babies who love a more lively environment need some quiet times throughout the day, and vice versa. Learning to understand what your baby needs and when is a large part of your role as a parent. All you need to do is observe. But know this; a baby raised in complete silence and never spoken to will never learn to speak, and a baby who is constantly subjected to constant noise will develop anxiety and stress. Aim for a soothing environment in the first few days, and very gradually introduce your baby to new sounds, as the weeks go by. Remember that every sound is a new experience for your child. The first time they hear a bird chirp, or a dog bark, or a certain kind of music, or a loud laugh – every one of those new sounds is contributing to your child’s development, as long as the level of stimulation is just right.

Learning Through Language

Although language could fall under hearing, it does deserve its own category because this is where a parent can make a big difference. Research shows that how you speak to your baby, as well as how frequently you speak to them, has a great impact on your baby’s development. According to research, babies prefer hearing “motherese”, which is how most adults speak to a baby. It is almost a sing-song, and the vowels are elongated: “hellooooooo! How is baaaabyyyyy todaaaaay”? with a higher pitch.

Speaking to your child like this helps your child maintain their attention on you, recognize the phonetic sounds of the language (or languages) they are hearing, and learning to recognize words. Research shows that by six months of age, babies already begin losing the ability to “hear” certain phonetic sounds that are not used in their own language, which will help them learn to decipher words much faster. Speaking to your baby often (for example, during feeding, or when you go for a walk) and having a conversation – meaning, asking questions, sharing anecdotes, making comments in passing, just as you would with a friend – will affect a child’s IQ and vocabulary for life. This, in turn, affects your child’s success at school and in life.

Many parents, however, try to stick to simple vocabulary, and do not ask their babies questions (they think there’s no point since babies don’t answer), they do not converse. Instead, they tend to give their babies and toddlers simple “orders”, or direction; “pick up please!”, or “dirty”, or “no”.

It is strongly recommended that you speak to your baby from the very first day, just like you would speak to a friend or to your spouse (except for the higher pitch motherese, which I am sure your spouse wouldn’t like). “Good morning to you! How are you today? Did you sleep well? You woke up a few times last night, you must have been very hungry! Are you hungry now? Why don’t we sit outside to feed you, then we can hear the birds sing, and feel warmth of the sun on our skin…”

You can read stories to baby, or comment on a book you are reading yourself, even if your baby has their eyes closed. This will make a tremendous difference in your child’s development. When you talk to your baby, try to have no other distractions around, look at your baby by holding them in front of you and to wait for your baby to respond to what you say. You will see that even in the first month, your child will begin blinking, making facial expressions, making sounds or cooing, listening attentively, or moving in response to your dialogue. By the second month, they will even imitate some of your facial expressions, like blinking, opening your mouth, and sticking your tongue out. Make sure you give your child enough time to respond to you when you talk – it can take a minute or two. This kind of interaction is incredibly stimulating for your child, and an important aspect of their social development.

Learning Through Touch

Research shows that brain development is greatly influenced by the amount of physical touch a baby receives, from holding your baby, to rubbing your baby’s back, caresses and infant massages. Studies have shown that babies born prematurely had an 80% survival rate if they received kangaroo care (meaning their bodies were in constant contact, skin to skin, to that of the mother or even of another person), versus less than 20% if they were cared for in an incubator, and only held during feedings. The same goes for your baby at home; don’t be afraid of holding your baby too much! The closer you are to your baby, and the more physical touch your baby receives, the greater their emotional development and brain development. If you are going for a walk, why not choose a baby carrier instead of a stroller? You can stay close, your bodies together, and burn a few extra calories in the process!

Learning Through Sight

I once saw a movie where a man in his thirties recovered his sight for the first time in his life. Of course, the man was excited about the possibility of finally seeing the world around him, but those first few days where everything was so bright and had so many different shapes and colours were so overwhelming for him that they almost seemed unbearable. That was the first time I could truly understand how much visual stimulus a newborn is subjected to on a daily basis. Not to mention the fact that everything else is new too! Sounds, smells, being held, carried, rocked, everything! Although sight is a beautiful thing, be aware of how much your baby is exposed to at one time. Thankfully, their field of vision is much narrower at birth, and they can only focus on things that are close, but gradually, babies begin to see as well as we can. Although this naturally shields babies from excessive visual stimulus, you still want to be aware of when it gets to be too much. Bright noisy toys with lights should be kept far, far away for now. Remember also that an infant cannot turn their head, and therefore cannot look the other way when the stimulus becomes too intense. Pay particular attention to how intense the stimulus is around your baby’s crib, at least until your baby can turn their head.

Your baby is fascinated by facial features. This is another reason to look at your baby when they are feeding – they are learning from merely observing your face. As your baby gets older, begin associating what they see with what they hear, smell and feel. This will help them make even more connections in their brain!

Again, take your cues from your baby. When they are alert and looking around, talk to them and show them different objects. See if they can track a brightly coloured object held at about 15 cm, from side to side with their eyes while you move it. This is a wonderful learning exercise, and will also help them develop attention skills, which furthers their learning experiences. When your baby loses interest, the lesson is over.

As the parent of your newborn, you have a critical role to play in your baby’s early brain development. You have the responsibility of being responsive to your baby, interacting with them, providing an environment that is at times soothing and at times stimulating, and learning to understand the difference between the two. No two babies are the same, even when they are from the same family. What is stimulating for one child can be irritating for another. By observing and interacting with your baby in the ways described above, you will know exactly what your child prefers. However, one thing remains true; all children need a deep connection with their caregiver from the moment they are born. The more you are distracted, trying to fit everything into one day, the less your child has your attention, and the more you are negatively affecting their development, on a cognitive, social, emotional and physical level.

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