Every day moments can be powerful ways to teach and build children’s brains

Right from birth, children are learning to adapt to their new environment with help–most especially from YOU. Because they are dependent on the adults who care for their basic needs, infants must learn quickly that when they are feeling hungry, tired or need snuggles, they need to cry, fuss, or coo at you to get your attention.

When parents look and respond to their infant, each and every time parents are helping to build strong connections in infant’s brains. These connections are strengthened each time the parent responds in kind, which in turns helps children feel secure, safe and loved.

Parents are really that powerful! Those everyday moments and interactions are like a “jackpot” for your baby. It helps them learn the power of social interaction (by making some noise or uttering a sound, my mommy will turn and look at me) and how language helps babies tell those adults what they need and want. These “serve and return” moments are critical for helping your child learn that they are safe and have adults who love and care for them.

From the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University

When your child visits the pediatrician, they will routinely be looking at how your child is developing and growing. Doctors often use both questions and observation as a way to determine if your child is on track. At key clinic visits (9, 18 and 30 months), they will ask you to fill out a screening form (on paper or electronically) that asks questions about how your child is learning, growing and behaving. These questions focus on their language, the use of their hands and feet, their ability to interact with others and problem solving skills. At all visits, your child’s pediatrician will be observing your child and how they react to you, to their surroundings and how they handle the physical exam.

When doctors ask about language, there are actually two parts of language they want to know about. One is how well your child appears to understand what is said to them. This is called receptive language and is first part to develop.

For example,

  • startling to loud sounds (birth to age 3 months)
  • turns and looks in the directions of sounds (4-6 months of age)
  • responds to change in your tone of voice (4-6 months of age)
  • turns to you when you use their name (7 months and older)
  • understanding yes and no (7 months and older)

The other part, expressive language, corresponds to the actual sounds that are made to help children tell others what it is they want or need. Sometimes if a child is having a hard time with expressive language, a speech therapist or parent can teach a child to use  sign language for some common words, like “please”, “more”, and “all done” can help until their ability to use their words comes in.

When you visit your child’s doctor, you might get a book at the end of the clinic visit. This is because science shows that reading to your child every day is an easy way to help your child hear and learn language, while getting some special one-on-one time with their parent. We know that helping children learn to read and speak are fundamental skills tied with how well a child does in school. However, it is not just filling their ears with language that is important. When parents first repeat the sound or word the child says, they are saying, “Yes, this is how we begin to talk to each other!” Then the parent can add 1-2 additional words onto those sounds and say it back with a smile, hug, kiss before the child takes the next turn. This “turn taking” in conversation is important because it shows that through language and social exchanges, we can give and get joy from the interaction, communicate what we want and get the attention we need.

Children 6 months of age and less really just like hearing your voice and having you hold them close while reading. You don’t even need to read the exact words on the page, but you can draw attention to a few key objects on a page. Pointing and saying the word aloud and then looking at your baby can encourage their understanding that the sound is related to the pictures on the page. Babies this young often just love hearing the sounds and may look at the pictures. However, more often than not, children love the time cuddling with you and may even try to put the book in their mouths! That is how they explore the world around them, while in the presence of the safe arms of their parents.

If you’re curious to know more about developmental milestones and reading with your baby, check out this  wonderful chart on early literacy milestones from Reach Out and Read by clicking here for English and here for Spanish.

RELATED: All parents should master the 5 Rs with their kids (Good Housekeeping, July 7, 2017)

One skill I teach parents is on how to become a “sports announcer” by talking out loud and saying what you see your child doing. This is a wonderful and positive way to show your child you “see” them. We’ve all watched sports games on television—you hear the announcer giving the “play by play” action and getting super excited when a key play or goal happens. Give it try! You might at first feel weird talking out loud but it doesn’t take a lot of mental energy to do this. Just let your child take the lead and you simply say aloud what you see is happening!

You can use this technique to do a variety of things:

  • Parents can use this technique and describe objects or actions that their child is holding or doing such as, “a red cup” “you are stacking two blocks on top of one another–one, two!” or “you’re making the car go up the ramp, it’s going so fast!”
  • You can comment on what they are feeling in the moment by labeling emotions: “Wow, you stacked that so high! You look so proud!” or, “That fell over and you didn’t even get frustrated! You know you can just try again!”
  • You can also comment on their persistence: “You worked really hard on that, you are concentrating and really figuring things out!”
  • You can also use this to comment on how well children are playing together (“you are sharing that toy with her, you’re being so friendly!”) and give them prompts to help them learn how to play with others (“Give that piece to her so she can have a turn…yes, that’s right! You’re learning to share!”)

Don’t let the simplicity of this technique fool you. It really forms the basis of starting to show your child that you are there, that you care and that you see them. I have written on this before: Time-In: The Foundation of Parent-Child Relationships. Make sure to go to this older post to get a handout on parenting tips for “Time In” (available in English and Spanish).

All of these everyday moments can go a long way to building better brains. Just remember that learning starts in the home with YOU as their first teacher. By giving children this attention through responding to their needs with our words and hugs and affection, we are giving children the positive attention they crave. This is a KEY parenting principle to keep in mind. That need for positive attention NEVER goes away. We all like to be recognized for a job well done, or that we are valued for who we are.

RELATED: What do Teenagers Want? Potted Plant Parents (by Lisa Damour, New York Times, Dec 14, 2016)

There are some really great text messaging services that provide parenting advice and tips based on your child’s age to help you remember to support your child’s development. Here is one called Bright by Text that is supported by public broadcasting. Sign up is easy and free! Text WFYI to 274448, or sign-up online, to get started. Texts can be sent in English or in Spanish.

And for those parents who are tech-savvy, there are smartphone apps that can provide fun activities and games to do WITH your child while building better brains. Some examples are Vroom! and BabyNoggin.

Take home point:

Don’t ever under estimate the power of every day moments with your baby/child. They are the essential building blocks to strong and healthy brains and sets them up for success in later life. Plus the bonus is that you get a lot of smiles and hugs with your kiddo. 


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Written by

Nerissa Bauer

I am a behavioral pediatrician, consultant, child advocate and blogger. I am a wife, mommy to 2 amazing children and 2 golden retrievers. Love cooking, travel, reading, tap and creating.