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The best early childhood teaching aid? You.

Of course you want to give your baby every advantage. You download the Baby Einstein app. You google holographic mobiles. You look into the black-and-white-patterned play mats.

Well, good news. You don’t need any of that stuff. Not the latest or the greatest or four-star rated. Nothing simulated, virtual or sensor-controlled. All your baby needs to learn and thrive is one simple tool. You.

So look at them, talk with them, sing and read to them. It’s that simple. Research shows that children 0 to 3 learn best from human interaction, not screens. Or anything else you can buy. And that first year, especially, is absolutely critical to their future brain development.

You and your newborn

The very first thing your baby learns is you. Within a few days or weeks of life, your newborn learns to associate the feel of your touch, the sound of your voice, and the sight of your face with the fulfillment of his or her needs. Your infant will even start responding to your voice by looking alert.

The best thing you can do to nurture these developments in your newborn is interact with your baby. Stimulate his or her senses in positive ways with smiles, soothing sounds, and gentle caresses.

As soon as you hold your baby after birth, you’ll begin to communicate with each other by exchanging your first glances, sounds, and touches. Babies quickly learn about the world through their senses.

As the days after birth pass, your newborn will become accustomed to seeing you and will begin to focus on your face. The senses of touch and hearing are especially important, though.

Your baby will be curious about noises, but none more so than the spoken voice. Talk to your baby whenever you have the chance. Even though your baby doesn’t understand what you’re saying, your calm, reassuring voice conveys safety. Your newborn is learning about life with almost every touch, so provide lots of tender kisses and your little one will find the world a soothing place.

You and your 1- to 3-month-old

After learning to recognize your voice, face, and touch, your baby will start physically responding even more — and maybe even greet you with a smile, or “converse” with oohs and ahhs.

You can encourage baby during this stage by talking to your little one, responding to his or her vocal expressions. Keep in mind, you shouldn’t interrupt your little one as he or she speaks– your baby’s participation is important. Even singing a tune could be a fun way to interact with you child at this stage.

Your baby loves to hear your voice, so talk, babble, sing, and coo away during these first few months. Respond enthusiastically to your baby’s sounds and smiles. Tell your baby what he or she is looking at or doing and what you are doing. Name familiar objects as you touch them or bring them to your baby.

Take special advantage of your baby’s own “talking” to have a “conversation.” If you hear your baby make a sound, repeat it and wait for him or her to make another. You are teaching your baby valuable lessons about tone, pacing, and taking turns when talking to someone else.

You are also sending the message that your baby is important enough to listen to. Don’t interrupt or look away when your baby’s “talking” — show you’re interested and that your little one can trust you.

You and your 4-to 7-month-old

As your baby ages to the 4-to 7-month mark, facial expressions continue to grow, with lots of smiling, laughing, and babbling. Your baby will also start imitating sounds — an important skill for learning to speak. Be sure to respond to your child’s noises and reinforce these sounds by repeating them. You can even introduce new sounds and simple words, then watch as your baby tries to imitate you.

At this time, you can begin to introduce everyday names and words to your baby, and even have small conversations as you wait for baby to babble in response to your questions.

Babies this age enjoy vocal games and interactions. Your baby will be thrilled when you copy his or her coos and babbles. Imitate your baby’s “bah” and “ah-goo,” then follow up by saying some simple words that contain the same sound.

Have “conversations” and wait for a pause in your baby’s babble to “answer.” The give-and-take of these early discussions will set the stage for those first real words and conversations in the months to come. Ask your baby questions, and respond enthusiastically to whatever answers you get.

Introduce your baby to simple words that apply to everyday life. Name familiar people, objects, and activities. Babies understand words long before they can say them, so use real words and cut back on baby talk.

When you talk to your baby, slow your speech and emphasize single words — for example, say: “Do you want a toy? This is your toy,” as you show it to him or her. Then wait for a response. Following your speech with moments of silence will encourage your baby to vocalize and teach that conversation involves taking turns.

You and your 8-to 12-month-old

These are exciting times when it comes to your little one’s language developments — he or she might say “mama” or “dada” for the very first time! Your baby will also pay more attention to your words and gestures and will begin to imitate you — so be careful what you say.

To encourage learning at this age, you can play games such as asking your child to point to a specific object or body part, read to him or her, or even use music to broaden your little one’s vocabulary.

Continue talking to your baby using names as well as repetitive word games, like “This little piggy.” Ask your baby to point to familiar objects and ask “Where’s the cup?” Or point to a ball and ask “What’s that?” Pause before you provide the answer. Soon your baby will be pointing and saying “bah?” as though asking a question.

Labeling objects during the course of the day reinforces the message that everything has its own name. From milk in the morning to a teddy bear at night, naming familiar objects will help your little one learn what they’re called and store this information for the day when he or she can form the right words.

Make learning a whole-body experience: Touch your baby’s toe when you say the word “toe.” Or point out your own ear and say, “Mommy’s (or Daddy’s) ear.” Face your baby when you speak to let him or her see your facial expression and lip movements.

Be musical and sing to your baby to encourage language learning. By listening to the words, babies learn to recognize and repeat them. Throw in hand gestures and vary the style and tempo of the music to keep your baby’s attention. Babies also respond to rhymes, which show how playful language can be.

Read to your baby from large, colorful picture books, and encourage him or her to turn the pages. Give your baby a chance to “read” and “answer” your questions.

You and your 1-to 2-year-old

Don’t be surprised if your child’s communication skills skyrocket at this time. Kids at this age can better understand things and express what they want. Therefore, instead of using “baby” words, use the correct names for people, places, and things so your child has more opportunities to learn.

Gestures are also an important part of communication. To help your child develop this skill, you can play games like pat-a-cake or help make the connection between gestures and language my pointing at things you speak about.

Your little one is listening to everything you say and storing it away at an incredible rate. Instead of using “baby” words, use the correct names for people, places, and things. Speak slowly and clearly, and keep it simple.

Your 1-year-old might still be communicating with gestures such as pointing at pictures or at something he or she wants. Gestures will get more elaborate over this year as toddlers use them to imitate actions, express themselves, and play.

Gestures are an important part of language development. Make the connection between gestures and language by using a running commentary such as, “Do you want a drink?” (when your child points to the refrigerator), then wait for a response. Then say, “What do you want? Milk? OK, let’s get some milk.” Such behavior encourages kids to respond and participate in conversations.

Your child will probably enjoy gesture games, like pat-a-cake and so-big, and identifying things, such as body parts, pictures, or objects, and familiar people: “Where’s your ear?”, “Show me the ball” and “Where is Mommy?”

Your child’s vocabulary will grow quickly, but pronunciation isn’t likely to keep pace. By 2 years of age, most kids are understandable only about half the time. But emphasize the correct pronunciations in your responses.

You and your 2-to 3-year-old

By age 3, a toddler’s vocabulary is usually 200 or more words, and he or she has the ability to compose short sentences and speak more clearly.

Your child learns by absorbing the information that you share, so some techniques to improve communication at this age include playing make-believe games that encourage imagination and vocabulary building, reading, or asking your toddler what he or she did today.

The more interactive conversation and play kids are involved in, the more they learn. Reading books, singing, playing word games, and simply talking to toddlers will build their vocabulary and teach listening skills. Here are a few suggestions to help improve your child’s communication skills:

  • Talk to your toddler about what he or she did during the day or plans to do tomorrow. “I think it’s going to rain this afternoon. What shall we do?” Or discuss the day’s events at bedtime.
  • Play make-believe games.
  • Read favorite books over and over and encourage your child to join in with words he or she knows. Encourage “pretend” reading (letting your child “read” a book to you).

These are just a few examples that show the important role you play in your baby’s development. So, the next time you come face-to-face with a tough decision regarding your child’s future, know that your face is most important.

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Julie Franz