Baby development begins well before an infant is even born. "A child's neurological system starts to form in the first week of gestation and is basically in place by the time the mother reaches four weeks of pregnancy," says Adiaha Spinks-Franklin, MD, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston. "And by 17 weeks a fetus can hear." So it's never too early to start reading and singing to your baby and engaging in other baby activities to help stimulate development.
"Starting as soon as a baby is born, the most important thing you can do to help your baby develop motor skills and language is to engage in human contact," says Kenneth Wible, MD, medical director of the Pediatric Care Center at Children's Mercy Hospitals and Clinics in Kansas City, Mo. "This includes holding the baby close to you, talking or singing to the baby, and doing other things that stimulate hearing." It's also important to motivate the baby's sight. "When the baby is awake, make sure she can see your face. Research shows that babies prefer objects and designs that resemble the human face," Dr. Wible says. "When the baby reaches 2 to 3 months, smile a lot so she can reciprocate." He adds that babies are born with primitive 20/200 vision, so it's important to hold them close so they can see you clearly.
In the second and third months of baby development, infants begin to explore and learn more about their environment. "At this stage, allow your baby to experience different textures," Wible says. "Let her touch a variety of surfaces, and expose her to a variety of sights and smells. Take her hand and rub it on things that are rough, soft, smooth, cold, or warm, and talk about what she's feeling." This kind of detailed exposure will not only teach the baby about her environment but will also help develop her motor skills and language.
"Spending time on her tummy is essential to a baby developing a strong body for movement, including head and trunk control," says Amelia Miller, MS, chief infant development specialist at La Rabida Children's Hospital in Chicago. You can help your infant develop motor skills by initiating tummy time at the end of your child's second month. Start by placing your baby on your chest or lap or holding your baby in your arms. You can then move on to putting your baby on a blanket on the floor. Tummy time isn't a baby activity that infants are generally fond of, so when your baby gets fussy, tummy time is over.
As soon as your baby is born, you can help her start to develop language. "In the first one to two months, imitate your baby's beginning sounds, talk to your baby using "motherese" — soothing, upbeat talking with exaggerated facial expressions — and listen for differentiated sounds and cries that indicate needs," Miller says. When your baby is 4 and 5 months old, you can work on her development of language and communication skills by listening for and imitating beginning babbling, like "ba-ba," "ga-ga," and "da-da." Use your child's name or other cue words, like "Hi, Sweetie," to let her know you're speaking to her directly.
Starting in the first weeks of baby development, infants need reassurance that their needs will be met — so when your baby cries, respond.
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