Babies are like little scientists. Their natural tendency is to discover new and more sophisticated ways to explore their environment as they grow. As outlined in the article on infant development, babies mature in several different ways. They grow physically, with increases in sensory acuity, gross and fine motor skills. Infants grow cognitively, increasing their brains' capacity for different skills such as concentration, memory, and language. They grow emotionally, learning how to read and respond to the emotions of others and how to regulate their own feelings. Babies also grow socially, learning how to interact with others and follow social rules.
You don't have to worry excessively about making sure your baby masters a rigid set of exercises or activities in the first months of life. However, by being aware of the different areas of child development, you can help enrich your child's experiences and growth. It's worth repeating here that child enrichment activities cannot push babies and toddlers beyond their biological and genetic potential. Our activity suggestions can help you provide an ideal learning environment, but they will not cause babies to surpass developmental norms. For example, just because you do bathtub kicks with your baby every day from birth doesn't mean that s/he will start walking at 4 months. Learning to walk is a complex process dependent on many factors such as personality, muscle tone, cognitive functioning, personal preferences, and environmental influences.
Role of Caregivers
You have a wonderful opportunity to participate in your baby's growth and development. You can share in the joy and wonder as your baby conducts his or her "experiments," exploring and mastering the world around him or her. More excitingly, you can step out of the role of observer and help encourage and foster this evolution. As discussed in previous articles, this encouragement occurs in several basic ways. First, you can provide a safe and clean environment to allow for healthy exploration and exercise. For more information on these topics, see the index article on baby safety and the main article on parenting skills. Second, you can give infants and toddlers the necessary balance of boundaries and freedom that will best encourage learning new skills while maintaining safety and security.
Paradoxically, by providing a safe environment, you also give young children freedom. Young people need the freedom to stretch and to move around their environment, which over time will foster the ability to build gross motor skills such as crawling, walking, and throwing. Young people also need the freedom to try skills on their own to master the cognitive, social, language, and fine motor skills they will need as they enter young childhood and beyond. If you try to constantly to hold or carry your baby or complete all tasks for your toddler (always fetching wayward toys or helping them dress or undress) your child will not go through the fumbling trial-and-error that is necessary for mental and physical growth.
Beyond providing adequate boundaries and freedom, you can also interact with your young child in ways to expose them to new ideas, abilities and activities. Later in this article, you will be given concrete ideas about how to provide these positive interactions. However, it is not your responsibility or role to administer these activities like a serious schoolmaster or drill sergeant. These interactions should be times of fun, games, and creativity. If you are stern or stressed out about these activities or your how your child's development is proceeding, this emotion will transfer to your infant's or toddler's mood. So, try to remain relaxed, upbeat, and playful and sensitive to your baby's cues. Sometimes it's okay for young children to become slightly frustrated in their activities, as this often challenges them to try something new or to gain a new skill. However, if your child gets very upset or starts to avoid activities, you should give it a rest for a while.
Finally, it's also your role to provide encouragement and to cheer on your little one as s/he does the hard work of building muscles and brain connections.