From the first smile to laughing to learning to crawl, it is thrilling for parents to see their baby reach each new developmental milestone. And while babies accomplish these milestones at their own pace, there are many simple, every day things you can do to help your baby stay on track.
Carilion Clinic’s Pediatric Therapy team shares some easy tips below that every parent or caregiver can do to encourage baby’s development and growth during the first two years of life.
Birth to 3 months
Talk to your baby: Talking to your baby is the key to early learning. Studies have shown that the more words children hear by age 3, the better they do on cognitive development tests.
Smile at your baby: From the very beginning, your smiling face has an incredibly positive effect on your baby. It helps you bond, it makes baby feel safe and secure, and it helps those little neurons make connections.
Tummy time: Think of it as baby weight training. Tummy time is one of the best things that you can do for your baby. It helps develop strong head, neck and shoulder muscles; prevents your baby from getting a flat head; and promotes certain motor skills. Aim for supervised and awake tummy time for at least 15 minutes twice a day. If your child is fussy during tummy time, try splitting the time up to just a few minutes several times throughout the day.
Massage your baby: Massaging your baby is a great way to bond. It stimulates baby's nervous systems, reduces crying and fussiness, helps baby sleep better, and alleviates constipation and colic.
4 to 6 months
Tummy time: At this stage, tummy time will help get your little one’s muscles ready for crawling and so much more. For example, tummy time strengthens the baby’s core and trunk muscles, which in turn helps strengthen the smaller muscles that baby needs to help aid in activities such as chewing. Again this is one of the best things you can do for your baby. At this stage, aim for 15 minutes of every awake hour. And remember, tummy time should always be supervised.
Encourage rolling: Letting your baby get moving allows baby to explore, plus rolling is generally a predecessor to crawling.
Read to your baby: Reading aloud to your baby aids in brain and speech development, and it will help create a lifelong love of reading.
Make sounds back and forth with your baby: This back and forth game of sounds will not only thrill your baby, but it will set the stage for real words and conversations in the months to come.
Let your baby get messy during feeding time: You heard right. Forget the bite and wipe, letting your baby’s face and hands get messy during feeding time is important for sensory development. As your baby plays with different textures, the tactile stimulation provides meaningful information for baby’s quickly developing brain.
Get outside: Let your baby feel the different textures of the grass, smell different smells, and feel the wind on those chubby cheeks. It is a great way to further baby’s sensory development.
Play peek-a-boo with your baby: This fun game will help your baby understand object permanence, the ability to understand that objects and people still exist even when baby cannot see them.
Play the drop and pick up game: This game might not be as fun for you, but your baby sure does enjoy it. Each time your baby drops an object for you to retrieve, your baby is learning the concept of cause and effect, setting the foundation for problem solving down the road.
Name the objects that your baby looks at or picks up: By using words to describe what your baby is touching or looking at, you are rewarding baby’s efforts to communicate with you.
Encourage your baby to reach for toys: It is easy to just hand everything to your baby, but encouraging baby to reach for things will engage the different muscles that aid in balance and walking.
Allow your baby to mouth toys: Your baby’s mouth is filled with nerve endings, so mouthing toys introduces babies to their sensory world. By exploring toys with their tongue, lips, and jaw, babies find out about size, shape, surface texture, taste, and weight. Mouthing toys also prepares them for complex feeding skills.
What to Avoid: Avoid using exersaucers, jumpers and walkers (exersaucers with wheels). While it might look fun for baby, these devices cause a child to engage the wrong muscles and can cause a delay in walking.
7 to 12 months
Start baby signs: Baby signs will help you and your baby communicate and encourage early language development.
Encourage your baby to sit by themselves: This will help baby develop the balance needed for an important next step, crawling! Once sitting is mastered, your baby will learn to move forward (or backward) on all fours and soon master crawling.
Encourage your baby to babble and make silly sounds: Make animal sounds, car sounds, raspberries and try to get your baby to make those sounds back to you. This allows baby to explore what different sounds sound like and it encourages baby to use different parts of their tongue, lips and cheeks.
Let your baby play with age appropriate toys: At this stage, toys such as blocks, stacking rings, and even your kitchen pots and pans encourage and enhance your baby’s problem solving skills, motor skills, spatial skills, and creativity.
Play games that use both hands: Clapping your hands, playing patt a cake, or any kind of play that uses both hands helps establish turn taking and joint attention. Utilizing both hands also helps baby learn to use his hands and fingers to manipulate and play with toys.
Encourage finger feeding: Finger feeding will help baby develop manual dexterity and gain more control of the different muscles in the mouth. It will also help baby develop the skills necessary for self-feeding.
Encourage baby to cruise: Before a baby will walk they will cruise. Allowing your baby to cruise along the furniture will set baby up for the next big transition – walking! Push toys are another great tool to help baby learn to walk. Purchase a push toy that is very stable so baby can pull up on it, walk behind it and then sit down again.
Sing songs with movement: Learning songs that pair two activities together is a great way to develop your baby’s motor skills and dexterity. The “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” “Wheels on the Bus” and “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” are great examples.
Let your baby turn the pages: Letting baby turn the pages of a favorite board book helps develop fine motor skills.
What to Avoid: No screen time (TVs, computers, smart phones) until your baby is 2. Babies need to feel an emotional connection to the words being spoken, so they will often filter out language from TVs, computers, audio books, etc. Even if the program is educational, it cannot take the place of figuring out how a toy works or story time with you. Your interaction and responses to your baby as well as allowing him to explore the world around him are what matters most. And continue to avoid using exersaucers, jumpers, or walkers (exersaucers with wheels).
12 months to 2 years
Ask your baby to name objects: Whether is it pictures in a book, driving down the road, or walking down the aisles in the grocery store, asking your baby to name everyday objects will help baby develop language skills.
Draw with crayons: Did you know that scribbling is a predecessor to writing? Let baby start to experience holding a crayon and start scribbling.
Encourage your baby to pick up small pieces of food: Letting your baby pick up small pieces of food will further baby’s fine motor skills.
Let your baby help with dressing and undressing: Ask baby to help you pull on their sock or put an arm through their sleeve. Teaching your baby how to dress and undress is a crucial part of personal and social development and a step toward more independence. Yes, it could result in games of naked-baby chase, but just remember that it is a key accomplishment!
Let your baby climb up and down stairs: Instead of carrying your child upstairs, encourage baby to climb. This will help develop and hone baby’s motor skills.
Encourage your baby to say the word when asking for something: To further encourage baby’s language skills, ask baby to say “cracker” or “bear” instead of pointing and grunting.
You don’t have to stock up on specialty toys or videos to help your baby reach those all important developmental milestones. It is through interactions and experiences with loved and trusted adults that babies begin to make sense of the world. All babies are different and reach developmental milestones at their own pace, but if you are concerned about your baby’s development, talk with your pediatrician.