Have a Happier Baby 0-12 Months

You’ve fed, burped, and changed her. Now what? We’ll tell you how to make the most of your days.

By Brad Tuttle

So much advice for new parents revolves around what not to do with your baby. Don’t let her sleep on her stomach. Keep her away from stairs, curtains, kids with runny noses, and anything sharp or small enough to fit in her mouth. The list goes on and on. Overlooked in this guidance is the flip side: What should you do with your baby? “The most important thing is simply to spend relaxed time together,” says Ross Thompson, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of California- Davis. Carve out time every day when you can ignore the phone and take each moment as it comes. We asked experts for tips on settling into your new routine.

Get Acquainted

These first months are the time when you and your child bond. “Just observe her and see how she responds to you,” says Joshua Sparrow, M.D., professor of child psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and coauthor of Touch points: Birth to Three. “You’re trying to learn how she expresses herself, how she handles stress, and what she does when she’s happy, bored, frustrated, or fascinated.” Absorbing every nuance of her behavior will help you learn how best to interact with her.

Have a Happier Baby 0-12 Months

Talk, Sing, Be Silly

Why is it that a mature adult instinctively begins speaking gibberish and making faces whenever she’s with a baby? “These behaviors are optimally suited to what an infant needs,” explains Dr. Thompson. “A sing songy voice and exaggerated expressions catch his attention and help him learn how to understand emotions.” Most babies are enthralled when people sing to them, so indulge your American Idol fantasies. But watch for your child’s reaction. If he turns away, that’s your cue to give him a break.

Let Her Explore

“Babies today spend so much time strapped in because their parents want to keep them from getting hurt,” says pediatrician Laura Jana, M.D., coauthor of Heading Home With Your Newborn: From Birth to Reality. But if your child is constantly in a bouncy seat, swing, or even your arms, she can’t move as she wishes and learn through exploring. That’s why Dr. Jana suggests setting up a safe area, perhaps a corner of the family room, where your baby is free to roll, crawl, play with simple toys, and generally do whatever she pleases. Once she gets a bit older, designate a kitchen cabinet that she can open easily, and stock it with some spatulas, plastic bowls, and other safe items that won’t hurt if dropped on a little toe.

Read to Him

The goal istos how y our baby t hat books are fun and something you can enjoy together. There’s no wrong way for him to engage with a book - holding it upside down, slapping pages, flipping through, and even chewing on a board book are all perfectly acceptable. Popups and touch-and-feel books are usually a hit, as are ones with bright colors and animals. “Watch your baby’s face and read his body language; he’ll tell you what he likes,” says Dr. Sparrow. Your child won’t understand the plot at first, but he’s still getting a lesson in language. “Listening to your voice as you read helps him start to pick up the patterns, sequences, and rhythms of speech,” says Dr. Sparrow. By 8 or 9 months, your baby will begin to grasp that those symbols on the pages contain meaning. He’ll become a more engaged reader and will point to pictures - your cue to tell him the word.

Get Out

Especially in cold weather, it can seem like such a hassle to suit up to go outside with your infant that you end up staying home. But for the sake of your sanity as well as your baby’s curiosity, try to venture out into the world regularly. “Everything’s stimulating for your baby. A trip to the post office, a bakery, or the playground can be like a day at the amusement park to someone who’s only been out in the world for a few months,” says Dr. Jana. It doesn’t matter where you go, as long as it’s not too loud or crowded; just pay attention to your child and talk to her about what you’re seeing. Outings teach your baby to adjust to unfamiliar situations and to learn about new things: a friend’s kitten, books at the library, street musicians, or the colors and smells of a botanical garden.

Watch Bigger Kids

Babies are fascinated with toddlers, who can do many things adults can but on a smaller scale, says Dr. Thompson. So introduce your baby to other kids at the park, invite a neighbor over, and encourage an older sibling to play with his little brother. “There’s huge value in social interaction even at this young age,” says Dr. Jana. “I own a child-care center, and we find that when babies graduate to the toddler room, within days they start doing what they see the bigger kids doing - trying to walk, pretending to feed themselves, and playing with toys in the way older kids do.” To break the ice, encourage the other child to sing to your infant or to show him one of his toys. Watching a toddler play peekaboo is lots of fun for a baby who’s 6 or 7 months old - and by 8 or 9 months he’ll be ready to play along.