Thinking About Kids

Parents, kids, and the way we live together

Six things you need to do for your baby

Helping your baby grow up healthy, smart, and happy.

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Experiences during infancy set the stage for a lifetime.  Literally.  Here are six things every person should do for the babies in their lives:

1. Talk to them.  The richer the language environment an infant experiences, the larger their vocabulary, the higher their intelligence, and the easier time they will have in school.  Preschoolers growing up in poverty hear fewer than half as many words per day and essentially live in a language desert.  It's one of the major barriers they experience blocking high achievement.  There's no reason for it.

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  • Talk to your newborn about anything - their cute toes, the Super Bowl, the stock market, The Girl With The Dragon Tatoo.  It doesn't matter.  What matters is language.  And no, radio or tv just aren't the same.  It's YOU.
  • Talk to your toddler about their environment.  Look at the GREEN brocolli, the ROUND YELLOW grapefruit, the SQUARE box.  The BUS, the BLUE JAY, the BROWN DOGGIE.  Tell them you're cooking SIX HOT DOGS.  Listening to others is how kids start kingergarten knowing how to count and knowing their shapes and colors. It's never too early to start.
  • Read, read, read.  One of the wonderful things about reading to your child is that you can read them all sorts of words that it will take years for them to be able to read themselves.  Kids will soak up long fun words as easily as single-syllables. 

2. Play ping pong.  Urie Bronfenbrenner, co-founder of Head Start, called the complicated interchange between babies and parents 'ping pong'.  The baby smiles, the mother smiles back.  The baby sticks out his tongue.  So does mom.  Those interchanges are the foundation of language (conversational turn-taking) and establish a pattern of coordinated behavior that provides a strong foundation for good attachment and sensitive caretaking.

  • When your baby looks into your eyes, talk.   Babies have very few ways to control their environment.  One of them is through their gaze.  When they look at you, they want you to react.  Talk. Raise your eyebrows.  Stick out your tongue.
  • When they look away, stop.  They're excited and need to calm themselves down. Or they saw something else interesting.  Or they got so excited they lost muscle control and need the time to find you again.  DON'T force yourself back in their vision.  Trust them.  They'll look back at you. 
  • Peek-a-boo.  This is an extended game of ping pong for babies a bit beyond newborn, and they love it.  They're surprised at the safe predictability.  Give in to the moment. 
  • Don't stop for toddlers.  Make a face or a popping noise every time they look at you.  Roll a ball back and forth.  Take turns tickling each other.  Follow their lead.  Let THEM control when you stop and when they take a break.   

3. Pick up your baby when they cry.   Study after study shows that no sound is more aversive than a crying baby.  Why does every fiber in your being want that baby to be quiet?  Because evolution has designed us to pick up crying babies.  And designed them to cry when they need us.

  • The faster you pick up an infant, the more independent toddlers they become.  In the height of behaviorism, when many child developmentalists believed all aspects of infant behavior was determined by reward and punishment, Eleanor Maccoby did a great study.  She measured how long it took for mothers to respond to infant cries and followed these mother-child dyads for several years.
  • The faster moms picked up infants, the less babies cried.
  • Babies who were picked up fast grew up to be the most independent and curious toddlers.
  • Competent babies know how to get people to fulfill their needs - they cry and then they smile when someone comes.
  • Competent toddlers know how to explore the world - they use their loved ones as a safe base from which to explore.

4. Nurse your baby or help your partner or friend nurse. 

  • Even a day of nursing directly stimulates your baby's immune system and helps them stay healthy.  
  • Even three weeks of nursing will get your baby off to a good nutritional start, facilitate facial muscle coordination (nursing babies use their tongues to press milk from the breast, while babies drinking from a bottle use their tongues to stop the milk from gushing into their mouths too fast).
  • Artificial mothers' milk (formula) is very expensive.  Every day you nurse is another day you haven't paid for formula. 
  • When women nurse, the same hormones that cause milk to flow acts as a natural tranquilizer, keeping them mellow in the face of all that baby stress.
  • Nurse a year and your baby will be less susceptible to allergies, less likely to need braces, and well nourished. Babies who are raised on formula are FIVE TIMES more likely to become obese as children and adults. 

5. Vaccinate your  baby. 

  • Vaccination for childhood diseases will help keep your baby alive and healthy.  There have been major outbreaks of measles, mumps, rubella, and whooping cough in almost every state in the country caused by low vaccination rates.  Babies and children have died.  Sick children also put older and vulnerable people at risk.  We vaccinate babies for rubella to protect unborn babies from birth defects.  Vaccination keeps YOUR baby safe.  Everyone vaccinating keeps EVERYONE safe because there's no way for the disease to spread.  Don't be a freeloader.
  • All states have free or low cost vaccinations available. 
  • Don't let the fearmongers scare you off.  The long list of possible side effects can be scary, but serious side effects are much rarer than the odds that your baby will get sick or even die if they're NOT vaccinated.  You use a car seat, but take your baby to the store with you anyway.  Every car trip is more dangerous than a shot.
  • Rumors that vaccination leads to autism are WRONG.  The data those rumors were founded on was falsified.  Research in many countries has shown it's just not true.  It was worth investigating.  We now know the answers: NO.   

6. Enjoy your baby.  It's one of the best things you can do for them and for yourself.

© 2011 Nancy Darling. All Rights Reserved

follow me on twitter @pt_think_kids

Nancy Darling, Ph.D., is a Professor at Oberlin College.

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