Teachable Moments

A lot of us get so caught up in the passing of big milestones, that we overlook some of the more subtle cognitive things

This weekend was the stuff of life — a birthday celebration, old friends, and new babies. There was easily a few dozen moments when I felt overwhelmed with gratitude and emotion, from the news that one of my best friends had gone into labor Friday afternoon, to Coraline’s birthday fiesta, to strolling around town with two of my oldest friends. It was a clear victory in my recent struggle to be present: I’m trying to do less while experiencing more. Lately I’ve been feeling like I’m in overdrive all the time: talking fast, eating fast, always trying to do two (or 16) things at once. My insides feel frenetic, and I feel like too much has been slipping through the cracks. Coraline turns one this week; it blew my mind, holding my friend’s day-old baby, thinking of how just 362 days ago my daughter was just eight pounds of rosy, sleepy newness. And now she is a little girl, who walks and plays and says “booby.” That little brain is a sponge, and I have to keep the water clean and bountiful, if you know what I mean.

I think a lot of us (“us” being first-time mamas) get so caught up in the passing of big milestones that we overlook some of the more subtle cognitive things that are happening until the first time they say or do something grown-up, like pretend to answer the phone or speak their first words. We are born with the most brain cells we’ll ever have in our life — around 100 billion — and the first months and years of our lives are about connecting brain cells to inform feelings, thinking, and behavior. Just like iTunes counts how often you listen to each song in your library, the brain keeps track of which connections you use most frequently and eventually starts sloughing off the least used ones. So if you want critical thinking, problem solving, and a healthy emotional barometer to rank high on your baby’s queue, you want to make sure you’re frequently reinforcing those connections. Even the simplest of days is chock full of learning opportunities for a baby — no need to become obsessed with teachable moments alá Rick Moranis in Parenthood — but being aware of the things that help or hinder our littlest ones can’t hurt. Here are a few helpful hints I’ve picked up along the way from books, magazines, and people with far more authority on the subject than myself. I’m not saying these ideas will turn your little one into a Mensa candidate, but it’s food for thought.

Turn off the TV The AAP strongly recommends zero screen time for bambinos under two. Contrary to what Baby Einstein would have you believe, TV will not make your baby smarter; in fact it can hinder their cognitive development for a number of reasons. Same goes for background TV: Even if your little one doesn’t seem to pay much attention to it when it’s on, research shows that the background noise alone significantly reduces the number words your baby hears and therefore learns. Watch your favorite shows at naptime or after bedtime, and save the Yo Gabba Gabba for preschool.

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Choose simple toys There’s a lot to learn from ordinary objects. While it may not be a scientific fact, it seems fairly obvious to any parent that while babies do like flashy, noisy things, they are equally as enthralled by an empty cup or piece of paper. Classic toys — wooden cars and trains, shape sorters, stuffed animals — offer babies an opportunity to be creative and develop an imagination. Most of us know what happens when we see a movie before we read the book it’s adapted from: The book loses a lot of its magic because you already have a picture in your head. If a baby learns to expect everything they play with to entertain them with the push of a button, they’ll miss out on opportunities to flex their creativity muscle.

Wear your baby I’ve talked a lot about babywearing here, and so of course have mentioned the fact that babywearing has been proven to contribute to earlier language acquisition and motor skill development. This is because the time spent being worn — where baby is secure — is time spent in full view of everything you’re doing, not fussing. Babies absorb a lot by observing, from how conversation (and therefore communication) works to how you fold laundry, and it all goes in the mental Rolodex under W for “what goes on in this big world I’m in.”

Monkey see, monkey do It’s pretty cute when Coraline picks up my cell phone, holds it to her ear and squawks “mama,” or picks up a headband and puts it on haphazardly. It’s impressive when she suddenly knows how to get safely off the bed, or how to back her push car out of a corner. Since they learn so much from simply watching, it’s safe to say that demonstration and consistency will be a good way to facilitate the development of skills, though leaving room for them to do some problem solving on their own is a good idea, too. And it’s a two-way street, especially for younger babies; mirroring their facial expressions and sounds is good for bonding and brain development.

Talk to them (but know when to be quiet, too) I remember reading somewhere that many parents feel like they have to constantly narrate to their baby, but that this incessant chattering was actually counterproductive. Explaining things, such as what you’re doing or where you’re going, is helpful (and a good habit to get into for the years to come when you’ll be asked “Why?” over and over and over) as it associates words with actions and intentions. But silence is itself a “teachable moment,” giving your little one a chance to take it all in or find something to engage themselves with — too much talking and the words lose their impact; they’ll tune out, over stimulated.

Read I don’t believe I need to explain this one too much. I’ll just say that the more exposure a child has to books — and the earlier that exposure starts — the more literate they’ll likely be throughout their lives. Literacy is not defined solely as the ability to read words, but to understand and communicate ideas. The cadence of your voice changes when reading aloud, which helps language acquisition, and introduces the fact that words have sounds and meanings. In addition to making a habit out of reading to your baby, let them see you read; the more reading they see, the more reading they’ll do.

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