If you’re like most parents, you’re constantly concerned about your child’s development. Are they learning enough? Do they know as many words as their friends? Isn’t this early (or late) to be reaching these milestones?

It’s normal to want your beloved little one to be the best and brightest, and you may struggle with comparing your child to their friends. How do you know that your baby is on the right track though? And what can you do to ensure that they reach their best potential?

Many long books have been written on the topic of intelligence (and many people spend years studying them!), but we’ve done our best to break down many of the well-researched ideas and tips into a short read, so you can focus on catching up on that sleep you need with an infant in the house!

It’s important to remember that all babies are born with potential. While your little one may indeed be a genius, there are all kinds of smarts.

Intelligence can come in many different forms, and theorist Howard Gardner even hypothesized that there are nine different types of intelligences. These include:

  • bodily-kinesthetic
  • verbal-linguistic
  • mathematical-logical
  • musical
  • visual-spatial
  • intrapersonal
  • interpersonal
  • naturalist
  • existential

According to Gardner, while every human has some level of these intelligences, most people have a dominant intelligence that most significantly impacts how they interact with other people and the world around them.

As a result of their dominant intelligence, people learn best in different ways. Additionally, people excel in different areas. So, if you choose to believe Gardner, every baby is smart in their own way, and it’s just up to you to identify and nurture based on where their intelligences lie.

Even if you disagree with Gardner’s theory, lots of research has shown the earliest years of a child’s life are pivotal in determining how their brain develops (though it will keep developing even after that).

Parents influence may be key

When trying to encourage your little one’s development, consider that researchers who examined Einstein and other high achievers believe certain parenting behaviors may lead to more successful adults.

Harvard University’s Ronald F. Ferguson, PhD, and Tatsha Robertson, the authors of “The Formula: Unlocking the Secrets to Raising Highly Successful Children” found those influential parenting behaviors include:

  • encouraging a child’s independence, but intervening when necessary
  • introducing new ideas and possibilities to a child (and teaching your little one to be persistent in finding solutions to problems)
  • making very strategic parenting choices based on your child’s unique needs

Consider developmental milestones

If you find yourself judging your child’s intelligence against a friend’s child or even your parents’ memories of your childhood, using generalized milestone markers may be more helpful.

You will want to keep in mind though that many things can impact whether or not child meets each milestone at a certain time including:

  • genetics
  • sex of the baby
  • nutrition
  • general health
  • adjusted birth dates

Every child is a unique individual and may advance in some areas quicker or more slowly than others. If you have concerns about the timing of your child’s developmental milestones, make sure to speak with their pediatrician.

You don’t need special training or tools to do this. Your baby just needs you and the world around them to learn! As you think about how to give your child their very best start, consider the following:

Take care of yourself during pregnancy

Your baby’s brain development starts while they are still in the womb. Proper nutrition and avoiding things like smoking and drug or alcohol use can help your child to reach their full potential.

Regular healthcare during pregnancy can help to prevent complications and premature or preterm deliveries that can impact a baby’s brain.

Address your baby’s needs

You may have heard about psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. At the bottom of his pyramid are things like food, water, and shelter. At the top of the pyramid is self-actualization.

The idea behind the pyramid is that in order to achieve one’s highest potential and purpose, lower level needs must be met.

This also applies to your baby. In order to achieve their optimal development, they need to be fed, clean, and warm. Until these basic needs are met, they can not achieve their fullest potential, so time spent feeding or cuddling them in preparation to sleep is time well spent.

Play together

Taking time to play with your child can help build a bond between you that sets a foundation for other relationships. Playing offers opportunities to practice important social-emotional, communication, and cognitive skills. It’s important not to neglect this special time, even with the youngest newborns.

Encourage good sleep

Sleep is vital at all ages for consolidating memories (helping us to integrate our experiences and gaining more knowledge), but it is especially essential for infants as their brains continue to grow and process information.

Provide nutritious options

It’s essential for optimal brain development that your baby gets proper nutrients. In the first year of life, the majority of those nutrients will be coming from breast milk or formula. You’ll want to make sure that your little one is drinking frequently and getting enough.

As they transition to solid foods, you’ll want to make sure they’re getting a rainbow of colors and a variety of food groups on their plates to feed their bodies.

Read together

Believe it or not, you might want to read out loud to your baby even before they’re born. While this won’t impact their development, it will establish a pattern of reading together that can have benefits once they’re out of the belly and in your arms.

Books offer language learning opportunities, the chance to bond with caregivers, and exposure to things that a child may not be able to physically see.

Remember, the interaction between you and your child is an important part of what makes books so educationally valuable. Consider combining books with cuddles, songs, and silliness for some great brain growth.

Talk to your child

Language matters! The number of words you expose your child to impacts their vocabulary, and research has shown that speaking frequently with your child also can increase nonverbal abilities like reasoning and understanding numbers.

By making an effort to engage in positive conversations frequently with your child, overall development is likely to improve. (Better behavior, less anxiety, and strong self-confidence can all grow out of conversations.)

Also, don’t forget to sing together and use music as another form of language. This is also linked to brain development.

Provide developmentally appropriate toys

Toys can help your child to master new skills. By choosing developmentally appropriate toys, you can offer your little one a reasonable challenge.

Mastering different ways to play with their toys can bring self-confidence, spatial awareness, and cognitive development. A ton of toys are not needed if the ones available encourage learning and growth.

Avoid screen time

Numerous studies have linked screen time in young children to negatively impacted brain development.

As a result, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended in 2016 that children under the age of 18 months avoid screen time other than video chatting. After 18 months, the AAP recommends that only high quality programming be shown.

Between 2 to 5 years of age, it is suggested to limit screen time to a maximum of 1 hour per day of this high quality programming (shown with an adult present to provide real world connections and help your child understand what they are seeing.)

Stay active

Being active is important for mental and not just physical health. Physical activity releases endorphins, which can help fight feelings of depression and anxiety. It can also build self-confidence, increase self-esteem, and build cognitive skills.

Manage your expectations

Remember that growth takes time. Don’t forget to set realistic expectations based on generally expected milestones and celebrate even small accomplishments along the way.

Focus on exploration over memorization

While it’s very cool to see a toddler recite state capitals or multiplication facts, don’t get too focused on memorization as a sign of smarts.

Particularly in the early months and years, your child needs to spend lots of time working on their gross and fine motor skills. Developing these skills requires the opportunity to explore, touch, and move.

Even as your child ages, many words and facts can be learned in real world contexts. Offering this context can help with retention of information.

Your child is learning and growing every day. (Which means you always have to be on your toes!) If you want to help them progress, one of the best things you can do is focus on things that interest them.

As you learn more about your child’s strengths and weaknesses, you’ll be able to tailor the activities you engage them in. You don’t need a lot of fancy gadgets, just time and everyday items.

Although it’s easy to get sucked into feeling competitive with other parents and their children, every baby develops in their own ways and in their own time. Remember to embrace your unique baby for all their gifts and focus on developing their talents to their best potential.

If you’re concerned about your child’s development, you can speak with their pediatrician. They will be able to offer you guidance around what is considered typical development and offer referrals to different specialists if necessary.