How to Boost Your Baby's Brain Power

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Play can be integral for the development of a newborn, teaching them everything from basic reasoning skills to how to have empathy for others. Red Brick Stock/Alamy

Games Before Birth

Mind Games
One of the most important skills parents can pass on to their children is the ability to put themselves in another person's shoes. "Children who can better understand another person's perspective do much better in kindergarten," says Dr. John Medina, author of Brain Rules for Baby. "They can understand the teacher and decode what the teacher is trying to accomplish." If the parents display an aptitude for guessing others' motivations, then they'll naturally pass that on to their children through passive learning. Soon-to-be parents can strengthen this ability by going out to eat. While waiting for your meal to arrive, try to guess what kind of conversations are happening at the tables around you just by reading the diners' body language. By the time the baby's born, the parents will be more than ready to pass along their perceptive prowess to the child.

Talking it Out
A simple but effective activity expecting parents can do to help increase the odds of raising an emotionally stable, introspective child involves talking to themselves. A lot. "If it's a beautiful day out, don't keep that feeling bottled up in your brain. Say, 'I feel happy,'" says Medina. An infant that grows up with parents who talk about how the world makes them feel learns to do the same, which fosters a strong sense of self-reflection.

Get Crafty
One of the bedrock principles underpinning activities that boost the infant's cognitive abilities is strong, constant interaction between parents and child. While buying toys and games can save busy caregivers some much-needed time, making those same toys and games with the infant engages the baby like nothing else. "When you actually have to make the crafts, it forces the parents to engage in their child's welfare in a way that is very motor-skill based," says Medina. Prospective parents can start practicing early by sharpening their own construction skills before the baby arrives and continue with their newest family member once the infant is old enough to join in.

Newborn Games

Pause-Wait-Pause
Long before infants master the basics of the spoken word, they still manage to communicate their needs and wants. "The baby, right from birth, can start having a conversation with the surrounding world," says Medina. It's important for the baby's healthy development to not be overstimulated. Parents can help avoid bombarding their child with unwanted information by pausing their playtime when the baby turns his or her head. Wait until the baby reengages the parent to resume play, and pause again when the baby's attention starts to wander.

The Imitation Game
Babies enter the world prepared to mimic the exciting new stimuli around them, a trait parents can take advantage of by engaging their child through mime-play. Mere hours after birth, babies will stick out their tongues in response to a parent doing the same. As infants grow older, they attempt to mimic their parents' vocal inflections as well. When talking to babies, parents should remember their tiny vocal chords can only produce high-pitched sounds, so it's more engaging to speak like a squeaky toy (no matter how annoying it may be for other adults in the room).

Master Manipulators
As newborns progress through infancy, they eventually discover the world isn't just a show for them to passively observe—they have actual control over certain objects within it. Infants will start experimenting with stuff around them, such as a rake and a ball, and discover they can move the ball by touching it with a rake. "Some infants are crazy about this insight into cause-and-effect," says Medina. If the baby won't stop reordering his environment, parents should make note of it and provide the infant with plenty of opportunities to practice his newfound powers.

Toddlers

Opposite Day
Once infants begin to age into toddlers and preschoolers (after ages 3-5), parents can engage with them using more structured games. One activity that helps with impulse control is making a set of simple flash cards together and running through them with the child. Example cards might include a picture of the sun to represent "day" or a picture of the moon to mean "night." Once the infant understands the concepts, the parent can begin the game in earnest and tell the infant to shout "day" when shown the night card and vice versa. "You can actually see on the infant's face how hard it is to control their initial impulse to shout out the 'wrong' answer," says Medina.

Sort it Out
Parents can buy buckets and an assortment of objects, whether they're different colored balls or different shaped toys of any sort, and have their toddler practice sorting the objects into the different buckets. "Before age 2, you should have the infant sort the objects by one characteristic only," says Medina. As the child grows older, parents can complicate the game by asking him or her to sort objects by more abstract characteristics, such as function.

It's a Match
The standard game that helps strengthen a toddler's memory involves making (or buying) a set of flashcards with pictures on them, turning them all face down and encouraging the toddler to select the cards containing the same image. This spin on the old classic increases the cognitive load for the world's future geniuses by asking them to match cards that contain complementary images instead of identical pictures. "For example, if a kid turned over a card depicting a horse with a halter, the match would be the card with the picture of a saddle," says Medina.

This article appears in the latest Newsweek Special Edition, "Your Baby's Brain: How New Science is Unlocking the Secrets of the Infant Mind" by Issue Editor James Ellis of Topix Media Lab.