Brain-Building Tips For Parents

Supporting healthy brain development doesn’t have to be complicated.

Simple activities and toys can provide experiences that strengthen connections in the brain. The following are some general brain-building tips. For other ideas, click the Activity Types to the left.

Attachment

  • Crying is a young baby’s main tool for expressing needs. When you respond sensitively and lovingly to your baby’s cries, she learns to trust you.
  • Babies need adults who are emotionally available, not just physically present, to build strong relationships. Be sure to give your baby some focused time each day, away from phones and other distractions.
  • Take time to play and laugh with your baby every day. Playful one-on-one interactions can help him build a secure relationship with you.
  • Babies need adults who are sensitive to them. Pay attention to the sounds your baby makes, and respond promptly and lovingly.
  • Responding to your baby when she cries teaches her to trust you and helps her learn to form relationships. Don’t worry—responding when she cries won’t spoil your baby!
  • Name emotions for your infant. Beginning to hear words for feelings can help with emotional adjustment later in life.
  • Don’t get upset if your 12-month-old cries when you leave. Separation anxiety is common at this age, and is a sign that your baby is securely attached to you.
  • Feeding time can be bonding time. Try singing, talking, or reading with your baby while you feed them.
  • Around bedtime, cuddle with your child and speak or sing to them. This may help them to fall asleep, and will also help you build a trusting and secure relationship with your child.

Executive Function

  • Help your child begin to learn decision-making by giving her simple choices to make. Allowing her to pick one of two different outfits also builds confidence.
  • Doing the same things in the same order every day helps children build confidence. Help children learn self-help skills by setting up and following a regular routine.
  • Help your toddler practice working memory and attention by playing imitation games like “Follow the Leader.”
  • Help young children try out finger plays and songs with movement. These activities help build executive function skills, such as self-control and decision making.
  • A game of “freeze dance” can help children practice memory and attention skills, which will help with later problem solving. Play music and dance, then freeze in place when the music stops.
  • Play a guessing game to help develop your child’s working memory. Pick a category, such as animals, and give your child clues about the animal you have in mind. This will encourage them to recall specific details and help develop their ability to think about multiple pieces of information.
  • While doing laundry, ask your child to help you match socks. You and your child can have a conversation about the different colors and sizes of socks, which will build their understanding of grouping objects into categories.
  • When you are grocery shopping with your child, hand them items to put in the cart. Tell them the name of the food and how you plan to use it to help build their vocabulary.
  • When you’re driving, pick a certain color car and clap when you see it. Encourage your toddler to do the same. Once they understand the rules, have them clap twice when they see it. If they get good at clapping twice, try three times.
  • Establishing a routine and creating checklists can help your child develop executive function skills. Consider displaying a daily schedule with images and involving your child in making simple choices. Later on, this will help them with self-regulation in school.

Language

  • Talk to your baby about the everyday things you are doing together. Hearing you speak helps shape the brain connections that she needs to communicate.
  • Resist the urge to chime in. When your child is speaking, make eye contact, smile, and use nonverbal cues to let her know you are listening. You don’t want to stop your child’s thought process or step on her toes.
  • Babies can hear sounds in many more languages than adults do. Infancy is the best time to expose children to more than one language.
  • Respond to your baby’s babbling and cooing by talking, just as you respond to another adult in conversation. Your back-and-forth responses with your baby lay the foundation for language skills.
  • Reading aloud with your child, starting in infancy, helps her learn language and reading comprehension skills.
  • Repetition is important for children learning language. Even if you are tired of it, reread your child’s favorite book over and over to build her language skills and help her get ready to read.
  • Making eye contact, smiling, and talking with your infant can teach her about social interaction and communication.
  • Use new words to elaborate on your child’s interests. If she is playing with a ball, describe the color and what the ball is doing. Hearing your words will help expand her vocabulary.
  • Make reading aloud fun for your baby. Choose simple stories with repeating lines, and encourage him to chime in with words he knows.
  • Read songs and stories with repeating lines. Encourage her to join in when she knows a line. Hearing the same sentences over and over will help your child learn language.
  • Shared reading time helps babies and toddlers learn new words and understand the language they hear. Start conversations about the stories, label objects in the pictures, and describe the feelings of the characters as you read.
  • Mimic your baby’s babbling sounds. If she says “ba ba ba,” repeat “ba ba ba” back while looking at her. As she gets better at this back-and-forth, try adding sounds, like “ba ba bi ba.”
  • Encourage your child’s curiosity as she explores her world. Ask “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” and “why” questions to foster creative thinking.
  • Babies communicate through non-verbal signals. Pay attention to times when your baby smiles, make sounds, turns away, or becomes fussy. Noticing these subtle cues can help you meet your baby’s needs.
  • Writing by hand increases brain activity. Have your child practice handwriting by encouraging them to write out grocery lists, stories, practice their name, and more.
  • It’s never too early to read to your baby! Reading encourages language, helps you bond with your baby, sets up a familiar routine, and even helps with school readiness.
  • Help foster your child’s learning. When they discover something new, acknowledge it with positive language. You could say, “I see you just reached for that rattle with your hand!”
  • Reading to your child is a key step to prepare them for academic success. Reading skills also help in other areas such as mathematics.
  • Talk about everyday activities with your toddler to help build their communication skills. Point to objects as you name them, describe what you’re doing with them, and answer their questions.
  • When helping your child get dressed, name the different items of clothing you’re putting on them. Even if it seems as though your child does not understand what is happening, naming can help them create associations between words and objects.
  • Play “I’m thinking of” to help your child practice memory skills. Say, “I’m thinking of an animal,” and give clues to help your child guess what animal you’re thinking of. You might say, “I’m thinking of an animal who lives in our house and has black and gray stripes.”
  • When riding in the car with your toddler, describe the weather to them. Say, “Today is sunny; it feels warm” or “Today is cold; we have to wear coats”. Then ask your toddler to take a turn describing the weather to you. This helps build vocabulary and observational skills.
  • Reading to your toddler can help kickstart their communication and language skills even before they can recognize letters and words. Help them match images to words by asking questions like “can you point to the dog?”
  • Comment about things in your baby’s environment, such as their actions and your actions, objects, toys, foods, activities, and daily events. Narrate your routines!
  • No matter what you’re doing with your infant or toddler, using silly voices or singing to them can help build their brain. Try doing this throughout your day; it’s a great way to have fun and strengthen the bond between you.
  • While changing your baby’s diaper, give them a child-safe mirror to hold. Talk to them about what they are seeing: “I see you are looking at your nose!” This helps your child make connections between what they see and the words they hear, which helps prepare them to read later on.
  • Choose books your child enjoys, and encourage them to participate during storytelling. Toddlers may surprise you by retelling the story using the pictures.
  • If your child is not yet talking, try making “conversation” with them when they begin to babble. See how many times the two of you can go back and forth with this serve and return interaction.
  • While you are brushing your child’s teeth, look in the mirror with them. Talk about your teeth and your child’s teeth. What is the same, and what is different? For example, you have more teeth, and they are bigger. Follow their lead! Learning about categories and connections will help them later in reading, math, and science.
  • When your child is learning to walk up and down stairs, hold their hands and count each step out loud. This not only makes it fun, but also helps your child learn to count.

Music

  • Look your baby in the eyes and sing a song.
  • Infants have good hearing from birth and babies adore music. Go ahead and sing your heart out.
  • Create homemade musical instruments with your child using pots and pans, paper plates or plastic bottles and beans, shoe boxes and rubber bands—the possibilities are endless! You will have fun creating them together, and your child will learn in the process.
  • Singing to your infant and young child can improve their language development—and they love music so it can lead to quality interactions!
  • Sing to your baby while interacting with him. Infants love music, and it helps them learn.
  • Help develop your child’s focus and attention span by humming some of their favorite tunes. Ask them to listen carefully and guess what the song is.
  • Turn on music and dance with your toddler. See if they can copy how you move your feet (jumping, stomping, sliding). Then switch and copy your toddler’s moves.
  • When singing nursery rhymes to your child, add body motions and finger play (like waving your arms during “You Are My Sunshine” or miming rain falling during “Rain, Rain, Go Away”). This will help your baby connect sounds with large and small motor actions. Songs also help your child learn rhythms, rhymes, and language patterns.
  • When completing daily tasks with your child, try singing the same song each time. You can have a hand washing song, diaper changing song, or a clean-up song. Not only does this help your child with routine, but it also helps them connect the actions with new words.

Physical Well-Being

  • Getting enough sleep is important for brain development. Maintain a consistent sleep routine to give your child’s brain time to rest.
  • Allow your child to experience new sights and sounds to build vision and hearing. These new experiences will help build brain connections!
  • Always place your baby to sleep on his back. Sleeping on the back reduces the risk of sudden unexplained infant death (SUID).
  • Between 12 and 24 months, babies need dietary fat for myelination. Whole milk is one good source of that brain-building fat.
  • Babies are safest sleeping alone, on their back, in a crib with a tight-fitting mattress and sheet—and nothing else.
  • Breastmilk provides babies with immune factors that protect them from illness while their immune systems are developing.
  • The holidays can be stressful for children because of changes to their normal routine. Make time for children to get plenty of sleep to reduce their stress.
  • Good nutrition contributes to healthy brain development, beginning during pregnancy. Expectant moms need to eat well and take their prenatal vitamins.
  • If you’re an expectant mom, consider breastfeeding once your baby is born. Breast milk provides key nutrients that support myelination in the brain.
  • Set up a safe space at home where your baby can explore. Allowing her to move around independently helps with motor skills, thinking, and self-confidence.
  • Make sure that your child is receiving a sufficient amount of sleep each night. Research has shown a positive impact of sufficient sleep on childhood social and behavioral well-being.
  • Sleep is an important activity of the brain during early development. Help your child get adequate sleep by establishing a consistent sleep schedule and making sure the bedroom environment is dark, cool, and quiet.
  • Serve water instead of sports drinks or other sugary choices. Drinking sugary beverages every day during childhood may decrease learning and memory in adulthood.
  • Teach healthy eating habits early. Helping children maintain a healthy weight may contribute to better brain functioning later in life.
  • Make sure your child gets plenty of exercise! Physical activity in childhood can help maintain and promote cognitive function later in life.
  • Make time for mini dance parties! Dancing to music can help children develop motor skills, rhythm, and even helps them learn to pay attention to sounds.
  • Staying active is important for both brain development and physical well-being. Make sure your toddler is getting at least 3 hours of physical activity spread throughout the day. This can include planned activities as well as free play.
  • Spending a little bit outside each day can have many positive benefits for you and your child! Try visiting new outdoor spaces throughout July to soak up some Vitamin D, engage your child in new sights, smells, and sounds, and enhance their motor development! Don’t forget to put on sunscreen during your outdoor activities.
  • During mealtimes with your child, describe the flavors of the foods you are both eating. For example, you can talk about how applesauce is sweet or how a pickle is sour.
  • Feeding time can also be used as time to build brains. When you feed your baby, make eye contact, smile, and make skin-to-skin contact.
  • Take turns standing on one foot with your toddler. This helps them learn how to follow directions and gain skills in balancing. Feel free to hold their hands to keep them from falling.
  • Holding your baby upright over your shoulder while gently supporting their head also strengthens their neck and back muscles.

Play

  • Instead of confining your baby to a stroller or high chair, create a safe space where she can explore. Exploration strengthens brain connections for motor skills and problem solving.
  • Active play helps young children build gross motor skills and reduce stress. Help your child play by finding spaces where he can run, jump, and climb safely.
  • Toys don’t have to be expensive to help children learn. Simple objects like a pan and a spoon or homemade blocks can build brain connections by encouraging exploration.
  • Children learn through unstructured play. Leave some time unscheduled for them to explore and be creative!
  • Provide varied sensory experiences to help your baby develop brain connections. When she is old enough for table food, offer various new foods and allow her to experience different textures and tastes.
  • Provide open-ended toys and activities for children to spur creativity and problem solving skills.
  • Encourage your child to play through exploring and engaging with her environment. Using her senses to explore will help her learn!
  • Your baby learns by imitating your behavior. Let him watch you dance or play with toys or do chores around the house—then encourage him to try.
  • Don’t schedule every minute of your child’s day. Children sometimes need quiet time to process what they learn before going on to a new activity.
  • “Tummy time” helps babies build strength in their arms, shoulders, stomach, and back. Aim for 30 minutes of tummy time a day – but it doesn’t have to happen all at once.
  • Playtime doesn’t have to be expensive. Give your child cups to stack and sort in order to practice their fine motor skills.
  • Play is one of the most important ways parents help support their children’s brain development. Set aside some time to play with your child, and let them take the lead.
  • Play can take place during bath time. Give your child a clean, plastic cup and encourage them to try different things with it, such as filling it with water or letting it float.
  • Active play starts from birth. Creating opportunities for “tummy time” is a great way to help infants strengthen muscles in their neck and upper body! Make sure to only place your infant on their stomach while they are awake.
  • Toddlers love to touch things. By placing objects you do not want your toddler playing with out of sight and out of reach, you can create a safe environment for them to play and limit the amount of times you have to tell them “no.”
  • You can use everyday objects from around the house for play. Grab some plastic cups and ask your child to help you stack them into a tower. Knock them all over and build again!
  • When giving your child a bath, find different things for your child to count (bottles in the bathtub, toys, number of splashes, etc.). Take turns counting with your child and talking about what you’re doing.

Stress

  • Routines reassure babies that you will take care of their needs. You can create a routine for any part of the day: leaving the house, lunchtime, naptime, bath time, and bedtime. (from Zero to Three)
  • Did you know that babies can feel stress too? Small periods of stress can help teach your baby how to self-soothe, but prolonged periods, or extreme situations of stress can be toxic. Being attentive and responsive to your baby’s needs can help him/her learn to appropriately manage stress.
  • Stable, caring relationships can buffer against the harmful effects of toxic stress. When life is stressful, your child needs you to be there to help her through it.
  • Help children reduce their stress and calm themselves. Activities like water play, finger painting, running and climbing, dancing to music, and pretending can reduce stress and increase learning.
  • Small stresses can help your child learn coping skills. Instead of fixing things for her, help your child find effective ways to deal with everyday disappointments.
  • Help your child deal with stress by teaching him words to describe feelings and showing him appropriate ways to express emotions.
  • Teach your child deep breathing to reduce stress. Pretend to smell a flower as you breathe in, and pretend to blow out a candle as you breathe out.
  • Schedule time for your children to relax and just be kids. Having a packed schedule can be stressful for you and for them.
  • Children can learn to soothe themselves when they are experiencing stress. Model positive coping strategies like listening to music, taking deep breaths, or visualizing a happier place.
  • Provide opportunities for your child to engage in positive experiences to help mitigate the effects of stress.
  • The holidays can be overwhelming for children as well as adults. Be sure to plan some down time between activities to give children’s brains time to process their new experiences.
  • During stressful times, children need a safe, secure relationship with a parent or other adult where they can express their feelings and ask questions.
  • Establish a routine and stick to it as much as possible. Routines help children learn what to expect, provide a sense of safety, and help children build trust in their caregivers.