Ten Easy Things You Can Do to Support Your Baby’s Brain Development in Their First Three Months
Forever seared in my memory is the time we were visiting my sister in Nashville and my normally easy-to-soothe baby just wouldn’t calm down. After a desperate hour of trying every baby-calming trick I could think of, panicking that she would wake her little cousins up, and just feeling so embarrassed to look like a “bad mom” in front of others, my sister came down to the guest room and took her from me. Guess what? My exhausted baby fell asleep in her arms within minutes. The problem was that my anxiety (i.e., elevated heart rate, tense muscles, quickened breathing) was upsetting my already overstimulated daughter but my sister – who was calm – was able to soothe her much better. My sister had the benefit of already having two babies before I had my first. She also works all day in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) with hard-to-soothe babies. I learned from her that day how important it was to calm my body down before trying to calm my baby, and in the future, I was able to share what I learned with other newer moms and dads.
Did you know that immediately after birth, connections between your baby’s brain cells begin to form at the dizzying rate of over 1 million per second? Every interaction with you and every sensation that your baby experiences lead to the formation of new connections within their brain. These connections (called synapses) can be strengthened or weakened by the quality of the experiences your baby has. Child psychologists don’t traditionally work much with infants. But I was enthralled. How is what I am doing now going to help or hurt my baby’s brain development? What can I do to help set my children’s brain structure up for their future wellbeing? When my son was a baby, we went to England so I could take a seminar for parent educators on infant mental health. It was an amazing, inspirational experience and heavily influenced my own parenting journey over the next year. Now I’m offering that class myself so I can share with other new parents what I’ve learned about promoting babies’ development during their first year of life. A blog post can’t cover all the topics in the course, but read on for 10 easy things you can do to support your baby’s brain development and wellbeing in their first 3 months:
1. Respond predictably to baby’s cries
Respond predictably to your baby’s cries. When your baby cries, they are communicating a need for food, to be burped, for a clean, dry diaper, a quiet place to sleep, or for some sort of stimulation. (Try dancing with baby or bouncing her, listening to music or singing songs, holding baby or giving her objects to touch, or showing her interesting new things to look at.) When you predictably come to help at the sound of baby’s cry, your baby will develop a sense of trust and security in your relationship. No matter what anyone says, you cannot spoil your baby in the first 4 months of life by picking her up when she cries. So, go ahead, be predictable and pick that sweet baby up! Responsive communication and stimulating activities nurture your baby’s developing brain.
2. Place your face 12 inches from baby’s face
Even before they can grab things with their hands, your baby is exploring the world with their eyes. Newborn babies can only focus on objects at a distance of about 8-15 inches. So, when you are talking to your baby, be a close talker! Place your face about 12 inches from baby’s face. Your baby is capable of reading your facial expressions and tone of voice, so be sure to smile and speak in a caring tone of voice to your little love, too. Speak as though your baby understands what you are saying. This is important for baby’s social learning. By 4 months of age, you may notice that baby will take turns in “conversations” with you by cooing when you stop talking.
3. The more you talk, the better!
The more you talk to your baby, the better! The amount of language a baby hears during their first year is directly related to their later vocabulary, language ability, and academic achievement. But some new parents aren’t sure what to talk about with their baby. Don’t over think it. Simply describe what you and baby are doing and label the objects that are in your environment. Read to baby or look through picture books together and describe what you see. Use lots of descriptive words (“I am picking up my blue water bottle. I am pouring delicious, fresh water in my blue bottle.”) and repetition (“Look, a ball. You are holding the ball. You are rolling the ball!”). While you are talking to baby about what you and baby are seeing and doing, you are helping your baby absorb the language for these objects and also showing them how their actions influence the world around them. Pretend your baby is a sports star and you are the sportscaster narrating a match. Hint: Babies like being talked to in “parent-ese” because the variation in pitch, rhythm, and tone of voice really gets their attention more so than regular speech. So go ahead and speak to your baby in that playful, high-pitched, babyish voice that babies love so much. You aren’t dumbing baby down with baby talk – you are promoting her language development with “parent-ese”!
4. Give baby only one or two toys at a time
You might be tempted to put a pile of toys in front of your baby to keep him entertained while you try to get some things done (mountain of laundry, anyone?), but too many options can actually make baby feel confused or frustrated. Give baby only one or two toys at a time so he doesn’t feel overstimulated. Again, hold them 12 inches in front of his face where he can see them most clearly. Replace the toy when he seems bored to help him focus. Pay attention to how much stimulation your baby can handle. He may look away or fuss when he’s had enough. There is a lot of individual difference in the way babies handle stimulation and, in responding sensitively to your own baby’s unique style, you can strengthen his individual cognitive, language, social and emotional neural connections.
5. Fussy periods are normal and healthy
Between 3-12 weeks most babies have a fussy period. This is usually toward the end of the day and lasts for 1-2 hours, sometimes more. During this time, parents find there is often very little they can do to soothe or calm their baby. This can be really frustrating for parents, especially because you are tired by the end of the day too! But fussy periods are to be expected, are a healthy sign, and contribute positively to baby’s neurological development. They are thought to have an organizational purpose for baby’s immature nervous system. Remember that babies are born with a brain full of largely disconnected brain cells and are rapidly making connections between them all day long – it’s hard work! After checking that all baby’s needs are met (wet diaper, hunger, sick, tired, too hot or cold, needs to burp, lonely, bored), try different ways to comfort baby such as holding, rocking, singing, walking, bouncing, swaddling, or wearing your baby. Sometimes there may be nothing you can do for baby but just support them through it. Try to take deep breaths and slow your breathing to calm your heart rate (babies can read your emotions and your anxiety will be felt by baby).
6. Crying might be due to overstimulation
If you need a break during baby’s fussy period, swaddle baby and place her in a crib in a dimly light room and let her cry for 5-10 minutes to let off steam. Stand nearby and monitor her ability to self-soothe. You aren’t letting baby “cry it out” (sleep training isn’t appropriate for newborns) but rather testing the hypothesis that she is so overstimulated by all the sights, sounds, and touch in her new world that she needs a break. After 5-10 minutes, go back and stroke baby’s head, put her hands in her mouth to suck, and talk or sing to her calmly and softly, but don’t immediately pick her up. If she is not responsive to your soothing touch and voice, hold her briefly and then put her back down for another cycle of fussing. Parents rarely need to repeat this routine more than 3-4 times. After this fussy period is over, baby’s immature brain should be better organized and she will sleep better.
7. Take turns or take a break
During this fussy period, take turns with your parenting partner so the other parent can have a break. If you don’t have a parenting partner, take a tea break, call a friend, or calm your mind and body with some deep belly breathing or a relaxing yoga pose (child’s pose is my favorite). Although the fussiness is very hard to listen to, try to remember it’s a normal developmental stage and most babies get past the worst of it by 3 months. It might seem like it at the time, but it won’t last forever. (It will, however, turn into other things as any mom of a toddler or teenage will tell you!)
8. Avoid using a pacifier every time baby cries
Thumb sucking and pacifier use are healthy self-comforting methods for fussy, irritable babies but avoid using a pacifier every time baby cries. Hold or rock baby and let her suck on her hands first before offering the pacifier. This helps your baby not become too dependent on the pacifier as the sole means for self-soothing (and – trust me – will save you a lot of trouble when she throws her binkie on the floor of the car while you are hurtling down the highway at 70mph).
9. Babies who are massaged cry less
Did you know that babies who are massaged, exercised, touched, and held more are less irritable, cry less, and gain weight more quickly? Massage is a simple and easy thing you can do that strengthens attachment between you and your baby but also may help their digestive and circulatory systems develop. Combine a baby massage with bath time when baby is warm, relaxed, and already undressed. Lay baby on a soft towel and warm your hands by rubbing them together briskly (no one wants to be massaged with cold hands, including baby!). Use an oil that is unscented, natural, and edible like almond, grape seed, or olive oil (do not use peanut oil). If you don’t have time for a full body massage, you can just spend a few minutes gently massaging baby’s feet or arms. Remember, you don’t need to be a professional masseuse. If you can massage your partner’s neck or feet, you can massage a baby. Just be sure to rub the excess oil off baby with a towel when you’re done or he might make like one of those water wigglers that squirm and slip out of your grasp as you squeeze them! If you want to learn more about infant massage, I love these books:
10. Get support for yourself!
Here’s an important secret about baby brain development all new parents need to know: Babies don’t need fancy toys and expensive experiences to build their brain. They need YOU. So one of the best things you can do for your baby during their first 3 months is to get support for yourself so you can be at your best for your baby. If you aren’t used to being home all day with a baby for company, parental leave can feel really lonely and isolating. Babies do a lot of communicating… but it isn’t exactly the same as talking to a grown-up, and new parents need someone to share their joys and difficulties with so they can continue to be warm and nurturing with their baby. During normal times, you might go for group stroller walks on a bike path, sign up for baby swim classes at the pool, visit story hour at the local children’s library or bookstore, take a parent and baby yoga class, or enroll in a baby music class with your little one. But these aren’t normal times. During the coronavirus pandemic parents have to be more proactive and creative about meeting other new mom or dad friends while keeping themselves, baby, and grandparents safe. One thing you can do safely is to join an online group. Right now a lot of parent groups have moved online so you can attend from the comfort of your living room sofa while wearing your spit-up stained pajamas. (And best of all, no screaming baby in the car!)
I honestly wish Zoom groups had been an option when I had a new baby for the first time. I was so nervous putting my daughter in the car when she was a teeny 2-week-old infant to drive 30 minutes across town to our new parent group. What if she screamed and cried the whole time? Can she handle the car ride? Can I handle it? Am I crazy to be trying to leave the house with a newborn? That said, I was so grateful I took the risk to join a new parent group. We met each week to share tips for getting the fussy little creatures we brought home from the hospital down for their daily naps, commiserate over our difficulties with nursing or bottle-feeding, discuss the best ways to keep wild toddlers quiet while the newborns sleep, voice our deep exhaustion and equally deep thrill when our babies smiled at us for the first time around six weeks, and just spend time with other parents who were going through the exact same thing at the exact same time. It’s been 8 ½ years since that first frightening drive across town and we’ve since moved away, but my daughter and I still love seeing what those sweet babies from our group and their mamas are up to on Facebook.
So, if you have a new baby age 0-6 months, I’d encourage you to sign up for my Incredible Babies Parenting Series and make the most of your new parent experience. You can sign up yourself and also your co-parent or a grandparent or nanny who spends a lot of time with your baby. Or gift a group membership to a friend! In a relaxed and nonjudgmental environment (sweatpants and messy buns, fussy or sleeping babies, and tired, distracted parents welcome!), group members will be able to make new parent friends in our community and learn how to promote their baby’s brain development. If you are ready to help build your little one’s brain to optimize their success and wellbeing, sign up for the Incredible Babies group here. If you’ve missed the start of our next group, please reach out to me about future dates. If there is enough interest, I plan to offer this group to new parents a few times a year. I hope to meet you and your incredible little baby soon!