Scientists have proven that a baby as young a s four weeks old can already distinguish between familiar faces and those of a stranger.
At 12 weeks your child has the ability to memorise and categorise familiar objects. So is it true that children are never too young to learn?
Most new mums are surprised by their baby’s capacity for understanding.
They marvel at his alert inquisitiveness as he looks round, curious about everything he’s presented with – faces, the mobile above his cot, a colourful cloth book. Your newborn baby is willing and eager to learn. And you’ll be his greatest teacher – and pupil – as you both learn wonderful things about each other and the world.
‘Bringing up a baby is a teaching and learning process for both of you,’ says Dr Sarah Brewer. ‘You teach and learn from each other right from the start.’
Talk to your child, not about him
‘Babies are inquisitive and long to learn,’ says Dr Brewer. ‘The more you talk, play or sing to him, the more he absorbs about the world around him. Babies are designed to learn.
‘Babies are highly sensitive to what’s going on around them,’ continues Dr Brewer. ‘When he’s born, your baby can see well and focus on objects within 25cm/10in, the distance between his face and yours when he’s lying in the crook of your arm or feeding at the breast. He can hear well, and can already recognise your voice and your partner’s. His sense of smell is acute, too. He quickly learns to recognise your smell, and that of your milk.’
Not only are babies brilliant learners but, amazingly, they’re clever teachers, too, telling us what they do and don’t like in their reactions to what we do. ‘They teach us how to teach them by reinforcing our positive behaviour,’ explains Dr Brewer. ‘For example, if we talk to babies or sing them a song, they gurgle and smile with glee so we do it more.’
In his first year, your baby will change from a tiny, helpless newborn who depends on you for everything, into a walking, talking toddler with a mind of his own. He has a lot to master in his first 24 months.
He has to get to know you and trust you to help him out of any discomfort. He must learn how to use his hands to pick things up, how to use his body to sit, stand and walk, and how to use his mouth, tongue and voice to talk. In addition, there are also hundreds of words he must learn to understand before he starts to speak.
‘To help him achieve all these ground-breaking milestones, your baby chooses a small, select number of guides. And you, his mum, are usually top of his list. You are your baby’s first and most valuable teacher. As a newborn, he learns everything from you and he relies on you to stimulate his learning through talking and playing with him. So you may not be aware that you’re teaching him when you chat, sing or play games with him, but in reality you are.
He understands more than you think
‘Babies whose mums speak to them a lot learn language better than those raised in a less vocal environment,’ says Dr Brewer. ‘The more words your infant hears, the faster he’ll learn his native language. So speak to your baby as much as possible. Tell him what you’re doing when making his breakfast or doing the housework, for example. At first he may copy your lip movements and stick out his tongue. Later, he’ll learn to vocalise and, by eight weeks, he’ll start babbling sounds together into nonsensical phrases.’
Playing with your baby is more than just fun – it’s vital to his development and learning. And, certainly at first, you don’t need to spend a fortune on playthings.
‘You are your baby’s main security and his favourite plaything,’ says Dr Brewer. ‘He’ll find simple, copying games such as clap hands or peek-a-boo great fun. As time goes on, equip him with other playthings. Choose different sizes and textures – rattles, soft toys and mobiles – to widen his field of play and hep develop his thinking.’
Your clever baby will amaze you in his first year. One thing many new mums say is that they are astonished by their babies’ memories and powers of observation.’
Babies recognise your tone
Dr Olwen Wilson, a consultant child psychologist, says this recognising and learning is one of many amazing things about babies.
‘Research shows that babies who were just a month old had learned their mums’ voices because they cried when they were shown their mums miming to a different voice,’ she explains. ‘Babies know what you look like and notice when there’s something different. If you wear glasses and you’ve taken them off, for example, they may frown because it’s unfamiliar. They can spot differences from well under six months old. So don’t be surprised if your baby is upset when you wear makeup. He’s probably just not used to it.’
What your baby learns from you
Language ‘Your baby is born with the capacity to learn any language,’ says Dr Wilson. ‘But you can encourage him by talking responsively to him at every opportunity.’
So, when you dress or bath him, tell your baby what you’re doing. Point to his clothes, feet and toes and tell him what they are. Be larger than life to capture his interest.
‘Be careful not to talk non-stop at your baby though,’ warns Dr Wilson. ‘’Talk to him, then pause and let him have his turn to speak. Make sure it’s a tep-way communication. If you listen to his sounds and watch his actions, he’ll learn from your comments.’
Trust When your baby is distressed, your gentle touch and soothing tone of voice will teach him to calm down. ‘Trust is to do with you being predictable, too,’ says Dr Wilson. Your baby loves routines, repetitions and patterns in his life. So when you do something familiar, such as sing when you change his nappy, a bond of trust develops. He thinks: “Yes, Mum did this yesterday. We’ve done this before.” And he wants to join in.’
Laughter All babies eventually learn from you that laughing is a positive, happy response to something and copy you. ‘Joking can start as young as five months,’ says Dr Wilson. ‘Your baby may offer you his biscuit, then take it away as you reach for it and laugh. If he finds something he’s done, such as bending over and looking at you from between his legs makes you laugh, he’ll keep doing it because it makes him feel good about himself.’
Self confidence ‘Whatever age we are, when people respond to us, it makes us feel valued and important,’ says Dr Wilson. ‘We develop our babies’ sense of importance by reacting to the things he says and does.’
As parents we also develop his sense of self by referring to him by his name. We say: ‘Jack’s a good boy,’ or ‘those are Jack’s shoes.’ From about six months, showing him pictures of himself or taking him to the mirror also helps him attain a sense of identity.
How to play ‘Taking part in a game is vital for your baby’s social development,’ says Dr Wilson. It’s good to teach him turn-taking games.
‘Being your baby’s assistant will help him develop his playtime. His toys will be much more exciting when you show him how they work and he practises what you’ve taught him.’