How to Raise a Smart Baby

Confused by the sheer number of smart baby toys, books, and videos? Relax. All your baby really needs to boost brainpower is you.

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on September 04, 2015
7 min read

Academic achievement. College scholarship. Presidential aspirations.

These used to be phrases parents tossed around at their kid's high school graduation.

Today, it's a new form of "baby talk." From maternity wards to toddler play groups to mommy chat rooms, how to raise a smart baby is a key focus of conversation and concern.

"Parents have always wanted the best for their babies, but now it seems there really is a much more focused attempt, and more worry and concern about doing the right thing to encourage baby's growth and development, particularly brain development," says Nina Sazer O'Donnell, director of National Strategies for Success By 6, a United Way of America learning initiative.

The concerns are not without merit. While a portion of a baby's 100 billion brain cells are prewired at birth -- mostly the ones connected to breathing, heartbeat, and other physiological survival functions -- it is during the first five years of life that much of the essential wiring linked to learning is laid down.

"What occurs during the first five years of life can have an enormous impact on not only how well the baby's brain develops at the moment, but how well that baby learns and grows throughout their lifetime," says Christopher P. Lucas, MD, director of the Early Childhood Service at the NYU Child Study Center and associate professor ofchild and adolescent psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine.

While experts say baby brain development is still largely a mystery, what we do know is just how great a role natural parenting instincts can play in putting your baby on the fast track to success.

As society gave birth to a brave new high-tech world, parents everywhere began assuming that high-tech learning was essential if baby was to grow up and prosper.

Turns out, nothing could be further from the truth.

Indeed, one popular form of smart baby technology -- learning videos such as Baby Einstein -- received low marks in a study designed to evaluate their effectiveness in helping baby brain development. The research, published in the Journal of Pediatrics, showed that not only were these so-called baby brain tools not helpful, they may actually slow word learning.

But experts outside the study say it may not be the videos themselves that lead to these dismal results, but more a matter of what the videos replace: Good old-fashioned one-on-one parent-to-baby contact.

"It may be as simple as the fact that for every minute a baby is in front of a screen, they are not engaged with a loving, familiar caregiver ... and infants learn from loving adults," says Jill Stamm, PhD, author of Bright From The Start: The Simple, Science-Backed Way to Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind From Birth to Age 3.

O'Donnell agrees: "What mattered to babies a thousand years ago is still what matters today: You, the parent, are your baby's best learning tool."

Indeed, experts conclude that talking to your baby, playing with your baby, paying attention to what interests your baby, and using those interests to foster curiosity lays down the wiring that ultimately stimulates your baby's brain to grow and develop.

Moreover, O'Donnell says that educational TV -- shows like Sesame Street or even videos like Baby Einstein -- are not necessarily a bad thing, as long as they are in addition to, and not a replacement for, one-on-one contact.

"Experiences that have emotional content and human interaction are what is pleasurable and meaningful to a baby. They act like glue for their memory, helping them to retain what they are picking up and learning," says O'Donnell.

Experts say among the best ways to do that is by reading. But don't just read to your child; read with them. O'Donnell says to turn it into an interactive experience that engages their imagination and their curiosity.

"If you turn a child into a passive recipient, they are going to get far less out of the experience then if you engage them in the process," says O'Donnell. In the case of reading, she says that means having them point to pictures they like and use them to help identify colors, shapes, animals -- anything that engages their interest.

In addition to playing an active role in your child's learning process, experts say that simply loving and nurturing your baby will also do wonders for turning up the wattage on the child's brain power.

"Some caregivers believe that when they plunk a baby in front of a TV and she sits quietly, not making a fuss, that she is a happy and contented baby. But what many don't realize is that when babies are stressed, very often they respond by shutting down, and when they do that, learning isn't taking place," says O'Donnell.

While experts agree that toys can be a great way to help foster the growth of your baby's brain power, the sheer number of companies hawking for a parent's attention can leave you dizzy with indecision.

Sandra Gordon, mother of two and author of Consumer Reports Best Baby Products, says the key is to choose both toys and activities that track with your child's natural biological stages of development. When you do, she says, you're speaking a language your baby can understand.

She also recommends simple toys that are age-appropriate so they don't frustrate your child. Infants, she says, are most interested in movement and sound, so shaking a rattle or a key ring will stimulate them. As they get a little older, she recommends textural toys they can touch and squish in their hands, such as stuffed animals.

"By 9 months of age, play with your child with shape-sorting toys and puzzles and hide another toy inside a nesting block to see if your baby can find it. This adds the element of surprise and builds on the concept of object permanence," says Gordon.

Indeed, experts say any toys that stimulate curiosity, rely on interaction between your baby and the object, or use colors or shapes to intrigue or teach can be a big plus.

At the same time, you also don't want to overwhelm your baby with more than their biology is ready to absorb. "It's key to plan activities that engage your baby at every developmental point without overdoing it," says O'Donnell.

To help you home in on what you can to do to encourage your baby's brain development at every stage of growth, our experts helped WebMD put together the following age activity guide.

Age: Birth to 4 months

Read; make silly faces; tickle the body; slowly move objects in front of your baby's eyes, like a brightly colored rattle; sing simple songs and nursery rhymes with repetitive phrases; narrate everything you and your baby will do, such as "We are going in the car now; we are putting you in the car seat; Mommy is getting into the car."

Age: 4 to 6 months

Help baby hug stuffed animals; stack things (like plastic blocks) and let your baby knock them down; play music with different rhythms; show your baby books with brightly colored pictures; let your baby feel objects with different textures.

Age: 6 to 18 months

Talk and interact face-to-face to increase connections between sounds and words; point to familiar people and objects and repeat names; sing songs with repetitive verses and hand motions; play hide and seek.

Age 18 to 24 months

Play simple recognition games like "spot the yellow car" or " the red flower," or put three objects in front of your child and say "Give me the ..."; talk directly to your baby as much as possible; introduce your child to writing tools such as crayons and paper; ask "where and what" when reading to your child; encourage some independent play with favorite toys.

Age: 24 to 36 months

Lavish your child with praise and encouragement as they perfect motor skills; bolster your child's imagination by encouraging new ways to use toys; help your child incorporate 'real life' activities into play, such as pretending to talk on the phone, drive a car, have a tea party; when reading, incorporate your child into the story by asking questions; point to words while you read to your child; encourage identification of words on the page or their sound.

Ages 3 to 5:

Teach sharing by example; play simple board games to foster learning rules and skills; limit TV/video watching to one to two hours per day, and watch with your child to make it interactive. As children advance, offer simple choices (read a book or do a puzzle); limit the use of the word "no" and encourage exploration and natural curiosity; give your child respect and attention and show patience as your child tries to explain their new experiences; make time each day to sit with your child and discuss what they did that day, encouraging your child to explain and explore new experiences.