12 Fun Baby Learning Games

Yes, we’re grateful for healthy, happy babies. But don’t we all want our kids to be brilliant too? I do. I’m not talking about the level of genius that lands national talk-show appearances or gains early admission to Harvard. I’d just like my boys to be blessed with brains that let them breeze easily through life: little struggle, lots of opportunity.

As it turns out, we parents have a hand in making that happen — and not just in the genes we pass along. Science clearly shows that baby’s brain development depends, largely, on his early experiences and not experiences with fancy DVDs or brain-enhancing toys. “You are the best toy in the room,” says Gina Lebedeva Ph.D., director of translation, out-reach and education at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences. “Our brains have evolved to learn from other brains.”

Simply engaging with baby in positive, everyday ways helps her build the trillions (yes, trillions!) of brain connections that lead to language development, problem-solving skills and the emotional IQ that’s so important for getting along — and ahead! — in the world. But if it feels like school, you’re trying too hard. The key is to have fun with your little one as you help her to see — and hear, smell, feel and taste — how incredibly interesting everything around her is. Try these 12 easy and fun baby learning activities you can use on the go and during snacktime or playtime.

When you’re out and about

Play tour guide

Narrating your day helps baby pair words with what he’s seeing, says Kathy Gruhn, a speech-language pathologist and author of My Baby Compass. Speak slowly, simply and in that higher-pitched “child-directed speech” that slips out naturally (research shows it enhances baby’s learning). Feel ridiculous talking to yourself? Don’t, because you’re not. Months before they talk, babies understand much of what you’re saying and may even start making incredible connections. Take it from Hillary Homzie, a mother of three boys in Napa, California. “When my oldest was 6 months old, I got a job writing a travel book on Philadelphia and took my son on my trips — to the aquarium, the insect museum, the Italian market,” says Homzie. “I narrated everything. At 14 months, he pointed to pasta at a farmer’s market and said ‘money noodles.’ I realized I’d told him about penne: ‘penny’ ‘money.’”

Help him take it all in

If you’re on a walk and hear a dog, ask your baby, “What do you hear?” suggests Gruhn. Then give the answer: “Dog. Bark. Ruff! Ruff!” Do this every time you encounter a barking dog and your child will probably start answering with the sound (Ruff! Ruff!), says Gruhn. Eventually, he’ll refine his response to “dog.” Try a similar approach to teach him about physical sensations. If it starts drizzling while you’re out, before you run for cover, let him experience the mist on his face. He won’t melt. Say, “Feel the rain. Rain. Wet.” Then cover the stroller and hustle home.

Be polite and engaging

Smiling and waving to the man bagging your groceries not only teaches baby cause and effect (he smiles and waves back), it also helps develop baby’s social IQ. “Children watch you for cues on how to interpret a situation,” says Claire Lerner, director of parenting resources for Zero to Three, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that promotes the health and development of infants and toddlers. “Waving and smiling are friendly things you do when you see someone you like.” You don’t have to parade around town like a politician, just remember that your little one is watching and learning from every interaction.

Keep some things constant

Babies’ brains process new information most efficiently when they’re in familiar surroundings, says Lebedeva. “Then, the brain can go into autopilot and take in only the new details,” she says. Try variations on common themes. For instance, go for a walk every day at the same time but switch up your route. “There is a predictability in our near-daily walk that is very reassuring to my son,” says Meg McElwee, mother of two in Durham, North Carolina. “He delights in seeing the neighborhood cats. It must be fascinating for a baby to realize that there are so many different cats, to begin to understand ‘cat’ as a category.”

At Snacktime

Initiate a two-way conversation

Giving your child a chance to respond — even with a smile — is important. “What a child gets from that,” says Lebedeva, “is ‘Wow, what I have to say is important.’” It also teaches the concept of give-and-take. Reinforce the idea of reciprocity by playing back-and-forth with a spoon or cup: You ask for it by name, she gives it you, you thank her and give it back.

Supplement with signs

Sign language offers a visual cue (concrete) to spoken word (abstract). Plus, “There are about 80 muscles in the mouth and face that need to develop before you can speak,” says Gruhn. “It takes at least a year for those muscles to develop, whereas the muscles needed to make a simple sign develop pretty quickly.” At 1 year, my son can’t say “milk,” but he can sign it and point to his cup. When I sign and say “milk” back then give him the cup filled with it, he laughs and claps, clearly psyched to have gotten his point across. Other useful signs to try: please, thank you, more, all done. Learn these simple signs and others atbabysignlanguage.com.

Incorporate counting

As early as 4 1/2 months, babies have a “number sense” that allows them to notice changes in the number of objects in front of them, according to research out of Harvard University. Count out Cheerios or peas as you place them in a line on his tray. As he nears 2, show him how to categorize food by color. When her children were about that age, Donna Kaplan, a mother of three in Albuquerque, New Mexico, started showing her children how to sort a small handful of M&Ms. If you keep candy off-limits, try this with colored Goldfish crackers.

Let her finger-paint with yogurt

When she tosses her cup to the floor, say, “Oops, you threw it down,” and, as you lift it, say, “So we have to pick it up.” Getting messy and tossing things around is how babies learn. “You’re looking at a little scientist,” says Lebedeva. “Scientists ask, ‘What will happen if … ?’” Your little one isn’t just testing what will to happen to the beans when she bombs them to the floor but also how you’ll react. Before you correct her, ask yourself: Is this rule (such as “no playing with your food”) really necessary? Research shows when parents say things like “don’t” or “no,” baby’s language is slower to develop because “these commands inhibit exploration,” says Lebedeva.

During playtime

Hands on, hands off

Show him how a toy works, then back off. “When you see your child struggling, resist the urge to fix the situation,” says Mendel Klein, a pediatric occupational therapist in New York City and father of a preschooler. “Eventually, he’ll figure out that the cup is smaller than the pot. He’ll also learn that, with effort, he can solve problems.” If he’s really frustrated, offer emotional support, suggests Lerner. Acknowledge that it’s hard, applaud his effort then help guide him to a solution.

Expand your idea of “educational” toys and games

Yes, shape sorters teach spatial reasoning and problem-solving; so does letting him figure out how to retrieve the ball that rolled under the couch. You don’t need to buy brain-boosting toys, says Lerner. Maria Brown of Washington, D.C., knows this well, as her 14-month-old’s favorite toys are wooden clothespins and a empty tissue box. “He puts the pins in the box and the plastic insert at the top prevents them from falling out,” says Brown. “Sometimes he reaches in and pulls the clothespins back out. Other times, he picks up the box and shakes away — a homemade maraca!”

Turn on the tunes

Some research suggests that, from birth, babies respond to the rhythm and tempo of music and may even find it more engaging than speech. “I love to sing and dance while holding [my 1-year-old daughter],” says Jill Neville of Millersburg, Ohio. “Her giggles are priceless, and seeing her start shaking her head or wiggling to the rhythms cracks us up.” The sheer joy of singing and dancing together is what makes these activities so magical for brain development, says Lebedeva.

Have fun

“With all of the focus on brain development, some parents have turned play into an academic exercise,” says Lerner. “They’re so goal-driven that they don’t enjoy it. Kids pick up on this.” It’s stressful for everyone, and it squashes the curiosity and confidence-building crucial to learning. Let baby take the lead during playtime. If he’s bored with books but obsessed with the dog’s water, give him his own bowl and let him splash outside on the deck. “Play should be totally pleasurable,” says Lerner.


The New Science of Mother-Baby Bonding

You take your baby to the pediatrician for her regular check-ups, vaccines, and at the first sign of a fever. You keep her away from runny-nose friends and steer clear of the sun. You babyproof your home and gently bandage her boo-boos. All to make sure your child grows up healthy and strong. But compelling new research is showing that the strength of your emotional bond with your baby may well trump all of those other measures you take to help her thrive.

A close attachment can prevent diseases, boost immunity, and enhance IQ in your baby, says Deepak Chopra, M.D., the endocrinologist turned mind-body — medicine guru, Parenting contributing editor, and coauthor of Magical Beginnings, Enchanted Lives: A Holistic Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth. Those hugs and kisses are a force of nature more powerful than ever thought, says Dr. Chopra. Mother-child bonding has evolved to become a complex physiological process that enlists not just our hearts, but our brains, hormones, nerves, and almost every part of our bodies.


The cuddle connection

There are decades of evidence to back up Dr. Chopra’s claims. In one study from Ohio State University, rabbits that were cuddled by researchers were protected against the artery-clogging effects of a high-cholesterol diet. The love and attention affected the rabbits’ hormone levels, the study authors concluded, helping them withstand heart disease. Researchers at McGill University in Montreal found that some female rats took more time and care to lick their infant pups than others; the pups that were licked frequently grew up to be less stressed and more adventurous in temperament, while pups that weren’t groomed as much exhibited nervous, stressed-out behavior. And yet another study, published in Pediatrics, found that premature babies who were stroked gained nearly 50 percent more weight than those who were not. Such skin-to-skin contact (known as kangaroo care) has been shown to have other health benefits for preemies, too.

It’s well known that the nipple stimulation that occurs when a baby nurses causes a hormone called oxytocin to be released in the mom, which in turn triggers milk let-down. But oxytocin is also called the “love hormone” because it’s produced during orgasm and other affectionate moments. In fact, oxytocin behaves in the brain much the same way that morphine does; it turns on our “reward” center, easing pain, making us feel good, and causing us to crave that emotional high again and again. Women who don’t breastfeed, or choose to eventually switch to or supplement with formula, happily do not miss out on the “love drug.” Simply gazing into your baby’s eyes while bottle-feeding or just snuggling or massaging also unleashes the feel-good hormones in both of you.


From smells to smiles

There’s more evidence that we’re hardwired to connect with our kids: Pheromones — the chemicals we secrete to attract a partner — are also secreted by our babies, ensuring that we’re similarly smitten with them. In one study, 90 percent of moms were able to identify their newborns by scent alone after having spent as little as ten minutes with them. When the moms spent an hour with their babies, 100 percent of them correctly distinguished their own baby’s smell from the smell of other infants.

A baby recognizes his mother’s scent, too. Last year, researchers in Japan found that infants who smelled their own mother’s milk while undergoing a routine heel-stick procedure exhibited fewer signs of distress than babies who were exposed to the odor of another mother’s milk, formula, or nothing at all. The mere scent of their mother’s breast milk was enough to calm the newborns and ease pain. Here’s an interesting aside: The act of kissing may have evolved as an affectionate gesture because it puts our nose in direct contact with the base of our partner’s nostrils, where pheromones are generated.

Just as scent motivates you to care for your child and motivates your child to stay close to you, so too does a smile. In a recent study conducted at the Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston, brain MRIs were taken of women while they looked at photos of their own children and of other kids making sad, happy, and neutral faces. The scans found that when a woman saw a photo of her own child, the parts of her brain associated with rewards processing (meaning they make you feel good!) were activated, and even more so when she saw photos of her child smiling. It’s all very primitive: Mom make Baby smile, Mom get reward, Mom want to make Baby smile again.

The long and short of it: We’re designed to become addicted to our offspring. “The mother-child bond assures infant survival in terms of protection, nutrition, and care,” says Francesca D’Amato, M.D., a behavioral neuroscientist in Rome and a prominent bonding researcher.

The soothing solution

But what about nature? Don’t genes have the central role in a child’s physical and emotional development? Well, maybe. But huge strides have been made recently in the field of epigenetics, the study of how environmental factors — everything from what you eat to how much you exercise to the amount of pollution you’re exposed to — can physically alter certain genes, causing them to, in very crude terms, switch “on” or “off.” Epigenetics explains why one identical twin might develop an inheritable disease while the other does not — turning the whole nature vs. nurture debate on its head.

The amount of physical and emotional affection a child receives is another one of those environmental factors that can influence genes. It works like this: Newborns are disorganized bundles of nerves. They literally don’t know what to do with themselves and they’re incredibly sensitive to hunger, temperature changes, pain, light?everything. They need to be held and soothed to help them regulate all the new sensations. Basically, they’re under stress, and it’s no news that stress is a physical burden. When we’re stressed, our immunity goes down and we’re more likely to get sick. When babies are consistently stressed, it can permanently affect their immunity. “Immune cells have memory of experiences,” says Dr. Chopra. Stress on a child (in the form of neglect or abuse) can alter the genes that control immunity because the immune cells will always “remember” the damage. A study last year of more than 9,000 adults who experienced physical, emotional, or sexual abuse as children found that a whopping one third of them were hospitalized for autoimmune diseases as adults, compared to only 8 percent in the general population. Childhood trauma imparted them with a 70 to 100 percent increased risk of developing certain conditions such as Graves’ disease, Crohn’s disease, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and more.

Nurturing know-how

So how do you develop this miraculous, mystical connection? It doesn’t always come naturally: What about the women who are too sore or exhausted or anxious to feel those surges of pleasure when holding their newborns or trying to learn to nurse them? The women who suffer from postpartum depression? The women with colicky babies who can’t seem to soothe them no matter how desperately they try? Women who adopt? Women who have multiple births or other children competing for their attention? It’s all okay if you don’t or can’t fall madly in love with your baby at first sight — or even until months later. You just have to do your best to care for him. “Bonding is not an instant glue — it develops over time and every family is different,” says pediatrician William Sears, M.D., author of The Baby Book and a father of eight. “Just because you didn’t hold your baby the first hour after she was born, or you didn’t breastfeed, doesn’t mean it’s all over.” In fact, if you care enough about your child that you are reading this article, it’s safe to say you’re doing your best — and that your best is going to be more than good enough for your baby.

Know, too, that it’s not just up to you! As a society, we frequently fail to give mothers the support they need, which also muddies the bonding process, notes Dr. Chopra. How can a woman be expected to establish a deep bond when she doesn’t have paid maternity leave and must return to work too soon after giving birth? In fact, the U.S. is one of the few developed countries that doesn’t mandate any paid maternity leave. “The responsibility is not just the mother’s,” says Dr. Chopra. “Her partner, family, neighbors, and coworkers all need to help ease her transition into motherhood. A mom needs time to herself to recharge; otherwise, she won’t be able to give her baby the quality of attention he needs.” And it’s the quality, not the quantity, that truly matters, he insists; you needn’t worry that working will interfere.

So ignore your e-mails and forget about the laundry. Don’t stress about vacuuming or entertaining guests. Let bonding with your baby become your priority. Lie around with her, doing nothing. Cuddle. Play. Dr. Chopra believes in “nourishing all of your baby’s senses” by holding her, massaging her, singing to her, using soothing scents (lavender, rose, vanilla), and showing her colorful, interesting shapes and objects. Remind yourself that you’re building a connection that will comfort both of you for years and years. And when you need a break, take one.

Dr. Chopra rhapsodizes about the start of the amazing journey that is the relationship between a parent and a child: “A single-cell embryo divides only fifty times to become one hundred trillion cells, which is more than all the stars in the Milky Way galaxy.” Once your baby is born, all the cells in both of your bodies act in secret synchronicity to create those simple but incredible connections between the two of you. But despite all of the science involved, it’s the power of your love — pure and simple — that can protect your child from illness, shape her future relationships, and rearrange her genes to her benefit. In a year or so, when you kiss your toddler’s boo-boo better, she’ll think you’re magical. And the truth is, you are.