When you welcome your first baby, it can be difficult to know how to meaningfully interact with him or her once you bring them home. I definitely had to learn gradually by trial and error how to act with my newborn when she first arrived. Would she know what I was saying? What kind of activities should we do together? Was all the chatting I was doing futile, given her level of development? Is it too early for the Baby Einstein DVDs?
Although newborns do not talk back to us or understand words yet, they are learning at a much faster rate relative to their developmental stage than adults, and the first few months are really important to their growth. In fact, there are many things that you can do to interact with your newborn, and help him develop important brain connections at the same time.
Understanding newborn development
Newborns are wired in a different way than adults, and in order to interact with them, we need to understand how they perceive the world. Although some senses (such as touch and hearing) are developed at birth, other senses (such as vision) take months to develop fully.
Touch is one of the most developed senses in newborns, and is a very important tool to bond with your newborn. Aside from the usual cuddling, rocking, smooching and stroking, other ways of increasing your child’s brain development include exposing him to new textures and feelings.
- Skin-to-skin contact: Wearing your baby without a clothing barrier can be a great way to improve attachment and soothe him. Feeling the movements of the body of their parents is an effective way of calming babies. Touch can also be therapeutic to newborns who are sick or ailing, like premature babies in the intensive care unit.
- Massage: Regular massaging has benefits for both you and your baby. Research suggests that massage has many positive effects on the baby such as faster weight gain, better sleeping patterns, enhanced brain and motor development, better emotional bonding, reduced rates of infection and even lower mortality.
- Sensory play: Giving your child different objects to explore with his hands and mouth can offer endless hours of entertainment. Things like teething rings, breastfeeding necklaces, and toys of different textures are especially interesting for babies. Everyday objects that you don’t look twice at can be fascinating for your baby.
Hearing is also an important sense that babies have at birth. Your baby may have already heard you speaking when he was growing in your womb, because hearing developed well before birth. The noises that your baby hears from inside the womb are much different than the ones he hears after he is born, and you can do a lot in the first months to familiarize him with how to interpret sounds.
- A lot. Chatting up a newborn seems futile, because they haven’t developed the skills to talk back, but your baby is hearing every word you are saying, and it helps him to recognize noise patterns. It might also comfort him to hear your voice even if you are talking about nothing at all. It is said that mimicry is the best form of flattery, and in babies, that is especially true. Babies want to copy everything their parents do, and whether you realize it or not, everything you do and all of your mannerisms are being noted down. Language development is particularly impacted by how often you talk to your baby
- Sing (even though it’s off-key!): Babies love singing and rhythm from an early age, and especially when it is coming from a parent. Newborns are often comforted by rhythmic singing or chanting, and it also helps build language centers in the brain. It doesn’t matter if you are in a choir or never took music lessons, you will sound like a superstar to your baby.
- Replicate the sounds of the womb: Newborns are often comforted by white noise because it reminds them of the noises they heard in the womb. If your baby is fussy, you may be able to help calm him down by turning on the washing machine or the air conditioner.
At birth, your baby’s vision is quite under-developed, and is a bit fuzzy. Newborns can only initially see about 10 inches away from their faces, and sees shapes and shades instead of distinct color images.
Much like walking or talking, babies must learn how to process their visual input in the first months of their lives. Skills such as focusing, identifying distance and color, and understanding spatial relationships are learned over time and refined over time. You can do a lot to encourage this development.
- Get up close: Leaning close to your baby and making faces will allow him to see your better and better understand how to read facial expressions. Seeing your movements will familiarize him with his environment.
- Set up moving mobiles: Mobiles are a great way to help your baby develop hand-eye co-ordination and recognize patterns and colors. Setting a mobile above his crib can also calm him down and provide him with a comforting familiar object. As he grows older, you can always change the look of the mobile to suit his growing curiosity.
The first thing your baby will learn in life is to recognize the feel of your touch, the sound of your voice, and the sight of your face. Although newborns are mostly glued to their mothers during the period shortly after birth, fathers can also use these techniques to interact with their babies. Make those early days count by trying to nurture their growth in different and diverse ways.