What a Baby Thinks

As your little one looks up at you and smiles brightly, it’s natural to wonder what is running through her mind. Is she happy? Is she learning? What prompts her to smile, think and communicate? Just as adults learn through experiences and communication, so do babies. Connecting and bonding with your baby entails paying attention to non-verbal cues and enhancing her learning so those smiles, cues and giggles continue well into adulthood. How does your baby communicate with you? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

Experience Prompts Learning

Babies learn by experience, says Alicia Clark, a licensed clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C. “Not being verbal, or having the mental capacities early on for language meaning, babies learn using their primary senses and take everything in,” she says. If you’ve ever wondered why your baby focuses her attention on noise, interactions and bright colors, it’s because he is soaking up knowledge and learning. According to Clark, the best thing new parents can do to enhance the thoughts of their baby is to keep him stimulated to the point where he stays interested without being overwhelmed or bored.

Following Baby's Lead

Baby crawling

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The best way to help your baby learn is to follow his lead, says Washington, D.C.-based psychologist Alicia Clark. “Before they can grab things, they love gazing at the world around them and often appear to be studying the world,” says Clark. Take note of where your baby’s gaze wanders and interact with him, make faces and prompt his thinking by talking about the object he has focused on at the moment. “Interacting with your child is fun and it is also one of the best things you can do to help him learn,” says Clark.

Sleep Discoveries

A well-rested baby is better equipped to take on the world for discovery, says Alanna McGinn, certified sleep consultant and founder of Good Night Sleep Site in Ontario, Canada. Rather than an adult’s seven to eight hours of sleep, babies and children may need up to 12 hours of sleep each night. “They are better learners when they are better rested and their brains are like sponges, absorbing the flood of new information,” she says. When babies sleep, they are able to sort through information and process it, says McGinn. “The better rested they are, when they are awake, the better they are able to learn the new skills and developments that happen in their first year,” she says.

Bright Lights and Colors

Baby crawling

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At six weeks, a baby’s sight is well formed though not perfect, and babies have strong inborn preferences for intensity and contrast, says Alicia Clark, licensed clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C. “This means babies like strong color and contrast of light and benefit from visual stimulation,” she says. Help your baby’s mind expand by showing her brightly colored objects and images. Since babies react to facial expressions and soft sounds by familiar voices, interact with your child while exploring bright lights and intense colors.

Imagination Station

Your baby’s imagination is running wild from day one. In fact, babies’ and young children’s cognitive abilities have often been underestimated, even by psychologists, suggests Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, in a 2010 article in "Scientific American." Babies can grasp cause and effect and even imagine another person’s experiences, Gopnik reports. Even though your baby is unable to verbally communicate, his actions often show what he is thinking. For example, ever wonder why your child reaches for specific objects or crawls toward one object versus another? According to Gopnik, babies use cause and effect rationalization to predict an outcome. If your little one suspects a block will fit into a particular slot, through trial and error he is more likely to choose the slot that has fit the block thus far.

Emotionally Charged Feedings

Since a baby’s learning relies heavily on senses, babies are extremely sensitive, especially to internal experiences of hunger and digestion, says Alicia Clark, licensed clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C. “Responding to a baby’s need for food and digestion help aren’t just meeting a child’s basic needs, but it is teaching a child what it feels like to be taken care of emotionally,” she says. Many times, feedings offer parents an opportunity to nurture and bond with baby. Fortunately, these special moments are also helping your child develop his emotions, too.

Facial Recognition

If your baby responds by smiling or staring when you are face-to-face, it’s likely he is processing and learning with these interactions. According to The Urban Child Institute, newborns can recognize human faces and can differentiate between happy and sad expressions right away. In fact, your baby cannot get too much face-to-face interaction, says Alicia Clark, Washington, D.C.-based psychologist. “Interacting with faces forms the beginning of social development and the child learning about the connections in the world,” she says. Snuggling up face-to-face not only helps provoke your child’s thoughts, but it can also enhance the bond between the two of you.

Bonding Moments

A baby takes in the world around him with every experience. From feedings to diaper changes, he is learning how to connect and communicate with his caretakers. One of the best ways to enhance your child’s learning and bond with him is to have fun with him at all times. “Play and let your creative side shine through, because having fun is just as important as changing diapers and putting baby to sleep,” says Llouana Harper, Virginia-based licensed professional counselor. “Finding ways to enjoy your time with baby takes the work out of bonding and establishes a strong foundation for play as baby gets bigger.” From a quick game of peek-a-boo to a nighttime bath with just the sound of your soothing voice, your baby is learning to bond emotionally and learning how to communicate.

Sensory Stimulation

As seasons change, many adults struggle to adjust to the differing climates and routines. Just as the weather stimulates the need to throw on a jacket or put on an extra layer of socks, babies need stimulation to adjust and learn how to cope in various environments. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Child Welfare Information Gateway site, all children need nurturance and stimulation for healthy development. A child can sense when the environment changes, whether it is negative or positive. When nurtured with touch and talk, a baby can easily adjust to environmental and family stimuli. “If these are lacking -- if a child’s caretakers are indifferent or hostile -- the child’s brain development may be impaired,” reports the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

A Crawl Down Memory Lane

If you’ve ever wondered how your baby senses you are in the room, it’s likely her sense of recall and memory played a part in this wonderful moment. Babies are born with an ability to absorb an environment and recall it unconsciously, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Child Welfare Information Gateway site. Your baby quickly learns that a smile will produce a smile in return or that she can put one foot in front of the other to walk. Eventually, her brain automatically prompts actions such as crawling, walking and responding naturally because memories have been imbedded in her brain, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Memories also help a baby attach, bond and respond to loved ones as her brain develops emotionally and socially.

Your Turn

How do you notice your baby learning? Do you notice something extraordinary about your baby’s ability to communicate? Share how your child connects, interacts and communicates with you.