When my son Eli learned the game "So Big!" at 8 months, every part of this trick thrilled me, from the fact that he could understand what I was asking (even though he was far from speaking his first words) to the sight of his pudgy arms reaching above his head. Experts have known for a while that babies are smarter than they look, but new research is giving us more insight into how their little minds work. Here's some of the exciting news:
Old thinking: It's important to talk to your baby in the first few months.
New thinking: It's not just what you say now, but how you say it.
Every baby book will tell you that your infant learns language by listening to you. But what is essential in the first months, according to new research, is the manner in which you relate to your child. "At this early stage," says researcher Maria Legerstee, Ph.D., professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, "it's about communicating a genuine emotional response."
In a recent study of babies ages 5 weeks to 3 months, Legerstee found that a child whose mom is usually sensitive to his feelings (who laughs with him when he's happy, for example) noticed when she behaved in an insensitive way (ignoring him when he was trying to get her attention, for example). Instead of smiling, cooing, or trying to have a "conversation" with her, the baby became more reserved.
What it means for you: Tune in to your baby's emotions. If he smiles, smile back. If he cries, show sympathy. Having a predictable, responsive parent helps him learn what to expect and makes him feel more secure.
Anita Sethi, Ph.D., is a consulting research scientist at the Child and Family Policy Center at New York University. She is the mother of three children.