Simple Strategies for Maximizing Your Child's Learning Potential, Beginning at Birth
My third child, Emily, is the one who taught me about teaching babies. No, she isn't an adult daughter with a degree in early childhood development. Emily is exactly five years old, and in Kindergarten. Nevertheless, she taught me about teaching babies, and she did it when she was just a baby herself!
My two children who are older than Emily, were early talkers with large and advanced vocabularies for their ages. They loved to learn, and caught on quickly. However, as babies they never really demanded to be taught. They were happy to listen to their Mama explain something, or point out the color of an object, or it's shape. They were happy to repeat what they heard and chatter on about it all themselves. My oldest child had been tested and identified as "Gifted" in our local school district and bumped up a grade before Emily was ever even born, so I thought we had done a pretty thorough job in educating her throughout her infant, toddler, and preschool years. And then Emily was born, and she proved me wrong, wrong, wrong! Oh, I laugh and joke about it now, but it was not an easy time.
Why? Because Emily was not an easy baby. She was wonderful and precious and beautiful, of course. But not easy. In fact, I'd go so far as to say she was a very high-maintenance baby. While struggling in those early weeks and months of her life, trying to understand her temperament, I read anything I could find online that seemed to pertain to the busy little body we were now living with. In doing so, I came across the term "High-Need", in reference to babies who sounded as though they were a lot like little miss Emily Grace!
You may be wondering what characteristics fall into the profile of a high-need infant or child. A basic description of Emily shortly after birth would consist of two major characteristics. One, she wanted to be carried all the time. No, I didn't say held. She wanted to be carried. Walked, to be more precise. She had to be held at eye level to things around her, and wanted to be moving. We realized quickly that this seemed to be because she wanted to see everything around her. Putting her in a snugli was okay, as long as we faced her outward, where she could see everything. She wanted to see the pictures on the walls, and the way the sunlight flickered when the vertical blinds blew in the breeze. She wanted to watch us do dishes and laundry, not be stuck in a swing in the next room where her view never changed.
The second very prominent characteristic we noticed in Emily early on, is that she did not want to see the same things over and over. She wanted new things, all the time. She would allow us to set her in a bouncer seat, but only if we sat right in front of her holding up one fascinating object after another. After about 10 seconds, she'd start complaining, letting us know that she was "done" with that object! Now, at the time, I worked at the world's largest toy company, and you can bet I'd purchased every developmental infant toy I could find, made by the company who cannot be beat when it comes to infant and toddler toys, Fisher-Price, a division of the company I worked for. I also had dozens of developmental infant toys left over from my older children's days of infancy, so I felt I was very well stocked when it cames to these items. Not well enough for Emily, though. It was as though she "learned" an object in just seconds, and didn't want to spend time looking at it again no matter how bright and interesting, or how fascinating the noises it made were.
This is when we began to understand that Emily was a different kind of kid! She intended to cram every bit of information into that sponge of a brain as fast as she could scream at us to provide it! And she would scream. Oh, how she would scream! We realized that we were going to need to keep this baby stimulated and learning if we wanted any peace at all. And that's how she taught us, her simple parents, about teaching babies!
When Emily was seven weeks old, I purchased two decks of Baby Einstein baby flashcards. These are great products and I would suggest them for any parent who has a child who is entertained by them. One deck had real life photographs of many different animals. The other deck had many images from the Baby Einstein video that we had, which consisted of real life photographs of different toys, fruits, etc. As long as I would work the flashcards with her, Emily was happy as a clam. Consequently, by the age of about 9 months, she could identify every object on those cards and say the words that identified them. Pretty amazing stuff.
We did not just do this with the flashcards, though. We did this with nearly every single object in our home. To entertain her (and keep her from screaming), we would walk her around the house high enough so that she could see everything, and point out even the most mundane things….toothbrushes, the wastebasket, laundry detergent, etc. In this way, she learned to identify and say the names of dozens of objects before she even began to walk.
We also held her nearly constantly for most of her first year. Whether it was in our arms, in a Snugli, or in a backpack carrier, she was on us, and up at eye level with the world. When she was about five months old, she started letting us set her in her high chair if we would play the Baby Einstein video for her. That video became our saving grace! For the first time in five months, we could put her down for a little while during the day! Since she had stopped napping during the day at about two and a half months of age (another common characteristic of high-need and gifted children – they seem to need far less sleep than you would expect for a child their age), we were only able to put her down at night! We never thought of this as spoiling her, we understood that she was just a different kind of little person than we had dealt with before, but wanted to supply what she needed to feel content. Our older children had had their quirks as babies and toddlers, too. For instance, our son had always been very hyper sensitive to noises, they seemed to frighten him immensely. So, we had worked around that sensitivity to help him feel more content, more secure. We viewed Emily's need for new information and sensory stimulation in the same way. We have never regretted it.
Over the years, Emily has gained pleasure and immeasurable knowledge from some very specific toys. I feel these toys are fantastic for a children's developmental growth in the early years:
Magna Doodle (The mini ones are great for taking in the car, but you must keep a very close eye on the baby or child using it due to the magnet in the writing instrument. If you can't watch very closely at all times, don't let a child under 3 play with one. Emily never was one to put things in her mouth with exception of her pacifier, and has been using a Magna Doodle since the age of 6 months. But all children are different, and most learn by putting things in their mouth, so please, use good judgement when it comes to the Magna Doodle)
Fisher-Price Little People Sets
Water & Sand
Coloring Books & Crayons
Notebook and pen for doodling in the car
Any and all children's books you can offer
I believe that these, along with the Baby Einstein videos and flash cards, were the toys that contributed most to Emily's extraordinary developmental growth from birth until about the age of 4 years. These items, along with our practice of holding Emily at a level where she could see and learn about her world so much of the time, I have no doubts, increased her intelligence far more than we could have expected if we had just let her cry for hours on end, as many "experts" would have suggested we'd done. In terms of infant developmental growth, interraction is ALWAYS better than ignoring a child and allowing them to cry it out somewhere alone. Now I know many parents and physicians would disagree, but maybe those particular individuals never placed much priority in the intellectual growth of their children, or lived with highly capable children. I am speaking from 15 years of day in, day out, round the clock experience with 4 very highly capable children.
All of the brightly colored developmental toys were good, too. Although Emily seemed to become bored with these toys quickly, I still believe that the time she spent studying their black and white contrasts, bright colors, fuzzy textures and crinkly sounds, also added greatly to her intellectual capacity as an infant.
My best advice to you if you wish to do all that you can to increase your child's intellectual capacity from birth, would be to fully immerse them in the sights, sounds, and textures of their world. Stimulate their senses as much as you can in the perameters of an infant. For instance, you can't exactly stimulate an infant's sense of taste much, particularly if you are not breastfeeding. With breastfeeding, they do get variations in flavor depending on what their Mama has eaten. Smell isn't a sense that is as easy to stimulate with an infant, either. Not that they can't enjoy the aroma of cookies baking, or an orange being sliced, they can. Clearly, sounds will need to be gentle ones. But showing your baby everything you can, talking to them as much as possible, and touching their hands to the different textures of their toys and especially your skin (skin-to-skin contact is amazingly beneficial!), all increase their understanding of their world as well as their future learning potential. The more brain cells you develop in them now, the more they'll have to work with later.
You may also be interested in materials from the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential, founded by Glenn and Janet Doman. You may recognize their names, as they authored the books "How to Teach Your Baby to Read", and "How to Teach Your Baby Math". I have read and used the strategies in both books, and I will tell you that they work, although I never seemed to be able to find enough time to stick with the program longer than a month or so. Still, my children all learned pretty amazing things during that month. They have a great deal of wonderful information along with learning materials meant for babies from birth on up. Do visit their website at: www.iahp.org
Most of all, enjoy your baby. Your baby may not respond positively to all of these things, so identify what she likes and benefits from, and you will be on the right track to increasing her learning potential.
As for Emily, she is still pretty amazing. She drew an unbelievably realistic likeness of an owl on her Magna Doodle at the age of two and a half, thinks and speaks like a child twice her age, writes entire letters to people with almost perfect spelling, reads at about a second grade level, has figured out most of her multiplication facts on her own, and surprises us every day with some new inference that makes her seem more like a 30 year old than a Kindergartener. Does it make her an easy child to parent? No. Do we still feel she is high-maintenance? Yes, every moment she is awake she is high-maintenance. As it's always been. But she is still wonderful, precious, and beautiful, and we wouldn't change her for anything.