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You don't have to be a child development expert to give your toddler a good start in life. Recent research confirms what we've known all along: Love, attention, and basic care are all your child really needs and wants. To help your toddler reach his full potential, follow these eight simple steps:
Show your love
It seems obvious, but it's true: Children need love to live. Your emotional caring and support give your child a secure base from which to explore the world.
This isn't just touchy-feely advice. Scientific evidence shows that love, attention, and affection in the first years of life have a direct and measurable impact on a child's physical, mental, and emotional growth. Love and touch actually cause your child's brain to grow, according to Marian Diamond, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of Magic Trees of the Mind: How to Nurture Your Child's Intelligence, Creativity, and Healthy Emotions From Birth Through Adolescence.
How do you show your love? Hug, touch, smile, encourage, listen to, and play with your child whenever you can. Responding to your child's needs for comfort and attention is important too. Experts say it's impossible to spoil a child with love.
Being there for your child when he's upset builds trust and a strong emotional bond, according to Zero to Three, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of infants, toddlers, and families. And responding to your child's bids for attention during happy times is just as important.
Care for your child's basic needs
For your child to be able to devote her energy to learning and growing, she has to be well fed. Diets that are low in protein and vitamins and minerals, and either too low or too high in calories can slow development.
If you're breastfeeding, talk to your child's doctor about supplementing her diet with 400 International Units (IU) of vitamin D every day. This ensures that the calcium she eats gets absorbed into her bones.
She also needs to be healthy, well rested, and comfortable. For example, wet diapers and ear infections are big energy drains, and frequent ear infections may delay speech development). To keep your child healthy, take her for regular checkups, keep her immunizations up-to-date, and help her get plenty of sleep.
During REM (rapid eye movement) sleep your child's brain cells are making important connections called synapses. These pathways enable all learning, movement, and thought. They are the key to your child understanding all she is seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling as she explores the world.
If you're worried about your toddler's sleeping or eating patterns, talk to your doctor.
Talk to your child
Research shows that children whose parents spoke to them extensively as young children develop more advanced language skills and richer vocabularies than kids who didn't receive much verbal stimulation.
If your child's too young to carry on a conversation, just describe what you're doing: "Mommy is putting warm water in the tub so you can get cleaned up." Steer clear of baby talk. Although it can help young babies learn language, speaking correctly teaches your growing child good language skills.
Read to your child
Next to talking, reading out loud is one of the most important things you can do to help your child build her vocabulary, stimulate her imagination, and improve her language skills. It also gives you an opportunity to cuddle and socialize.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends reading aloud daily to your child. Schedule daily reading time to make it a part of your baby's routine.
And look for other ways to expose your child to the joys of reading. Most libraries have regular story times for young children.
Wondering where to start? Take our reading quiz to see how much you know.
Stimulate all his senses
For your child to learn about people, places, and things, he needs to be exposed to them. Every new interaction gives him information about the world and his place in it. Studies show that children who grow up in an enriched environment – one with lots of new experiences that engage their senses – have larger, more active brains than those who grow up without adequate sensory stimulation.
You don't need to bombard your child with stimulation 24 hours a day, nor should you try to engage all his senses at once. Children can become overstimulated. Just let your child play with lots of different toys and objects.
Choose playthings in a variety of shapes, textures, colors, sounds, and weights. Play music and interactive games (such as peekaboo and patty-cake), go on walks and shopping trips together, and let your child meet new people. Even the simplest daily activities stimulate a toddler's brain development.
Learn more about the effect of music on your child's development, and get the lyrics to your favorite lullabies.
Also, give your child room to roam. Toddlers need space to crawl, walk, and run to develop strong muscles, good balance, and coordination. They also benefit from safe spaces where they can explore their surroundings without hearing someone say, "No!" or "Don't touch!"
The easiest way to do this is to childproof your home (or at least the common areas). Keep dangerous objects out of your child's reach and safe ones accessible.
For instance, in the kitchen, put childproof locks on all the cabinets but one. Fill that with plastic bowls, measuring cups, wooden spoons, and pots and pans that your toddler can play with safely. (Be sure that your child plays well away from the stove area, where hot liquids can spill and cause scald burns.)
Encourage new challenges
It's important not to frustrate your child with toys and activities that are way beyond her abilities, but a little struggling goes a long way toward becoming independent. When an activity doesn't come easily to your toddler, she has to figure out a new way to accomplish the task. That type of problem-solving builds better brains.
If she's attempting to open a box, for example, resist the urge to help. Let her try first. If she continues to struggle, show her how it's done, but then give her back a closed box so she can make another attempt on her own.
Take care of yourself
Parents who are feeling down or upset may find it difficult to respond promptly and sensitively to their child's needs. If you're feeling blue, find ways to divide the household and parenting responsibilities with your partner. If you're a single parent, surround yourself with people who can offer you help and support.
And don't forget to take some time for yourself. Being a parent – especially an involved and active one – is tiring, and you need time to re-energize.
If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed with sadness or anxiety, being unable to care for yourself or your child, or losing interest in things that normally make you happy, you may have depression. Don't be afraid to ask for help: Talk to your caregiver if you think you may be depressed.
Get more advice on coping with depression.
Find good childcare
If you work or need a babysitter regularly, finding a quality childcare provider is essential to your toddler's healthy development. You need someone who can do all the things mentioned above when you're not around.
Whether you choose a nanny, relative, or daycare center, look for a provider who is experienced, caring, and reputable. A genuine love for children and the energy to help them thrive should also be on your wish list.