Infant growth and development is fascinating to witness, to which most parents can attest. The rate at which a baby goes from being a helpless newborn to sitting, crawling and walking is nothing short of astounding. In the first year of life, several key factors can influence a baby's development positively -- and the good news is that parents can do concrete, everyday things to ensure their infant is happy, healthy and thriving.
First things first: To grow well, babies must be fed properly. "Feeding of your baby appropriately during the first year of life is extremely important, as more growth occurs during your baby's first year than any other time in her life. Starting good eating habits at this early stage will help set healthful eating patterns for life," notes Children's Hospital Boston. For the first few months, all a baby needs is breast milk or formula; you should not start solid foods before an infant is 4 months old. When a baby does start solid foods, parents should try to offer a variety of foods early, which may lead to good eating habits down the road.
Stimulation and Interaction
Infants need lots of stimulation and interaction, which is essential for their cognitive and emotional development. Talking, singing, playing music, carrying on "conversations" (such as exchanging babbling-type sounds counts for conversation), and reading stories with babies builds their vocabulary, demonstrates emotions, and teaches problem-solving skills, says the California Childcare Health Program. The program recommends that parents provide their infants with a variety of experiences and surroundings, and visit museums, aquariums, zoos and farmers’ markets to stimulate their senses. Babies in the first year also love it when you read to them, the CA Childcare Health Program notes -- and, even though they cannot follow the story, the pictures and sound of a parent's voice are fascinating to them. And perhaps most important of all, the program says, is touch, which is critical for infants, because it is how infants know their parents love and want them. Physical contact with parents and caregivers sends signals to infants' brains, telling them to grow and to make important connections.
A healthy, secure attachment in infants, which is defined as "the emotional connections babies form with their parents and caregivers," develops gradually over time, if adults provide "consistent, sensitive" care, note Linda Gillespie and Amy Hunter of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. This idea stems from attachment theory, which is the work of psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, which holds that babies relate to their primary caregiver, in different ways, depending on the quality and consistency of their care. A secure attachment is crucial: As the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services writes, "The importance of early infant attachment cannot be overstated. It is at the heart of healthy child development and lays the foundation for relating intimately with others, including spouses and children. It affects parents' abilities to nurture and be responsive to their children. The effects of infant attachment are long-term, influencing generations of families." Parents can create a healthy attachment in their infant by reading her cues (such as crying, screeching, laughing, turning away, pointing) and responding promptly to her needs and wants -- which is how an infant learns that the caregiver is "a source of comfort and security," say Gillespie and Hunter. They also note that research demonstrates that how parents interact directly with their babies affects later development: Babies who display secure attachments become children who learn their world is a safe place to be because the people in it are caring; that close relationships feel good; that their attempts at communication result in responsiveness and understanding; and they can feel confident in exploring their world, which enables them to learn.
Once infants are past the newborn phase, which is usually between 3 and 4 months, they need between nine and 12 hours of sleep per night for optimal health. When they get this sleep depends, as nap times of infants vary, with most taking 30-minute to 2-hour naps one to four times a day. As tough as it is to teach a baby to sleep well, parents should try to instill good sleep habits in infancy, notes Michael J. Breus, Ph.D. in the article "Good, Sound Sleep for Your Child" on WebMD. He notes that babies who do not get enough sleep are more "fitful and socially demanding," and are not as comfortable playing independently. And it is not just the baby years that are affected: Breus contends that chaotic and erratic sleep patterns in infancy relate to problems with learning, attention and memory in childhood. To establish positive sleep habits, HealthyChildren.org recommends that you put infants to bed drowsy, but not asleep, allowing them to become "self-soothers" who can fall asleep independently and who also can put themselves back to sleep in the middle of the night if they wake in their cribs. Also important: Developing regular daytime and bedtime schedules, creating an enjoyable and relaxing bedtime routine, and creating a sleep-friendly, optimal temperature in a quiet and calm environment for babies.