This topic center covers parenting and child development of infants aged 0 to 2. For a complete review of the theories of child development upon which this article is based, please visit our Child and Adolescent Development topic center. For coverage of child development and parenting topics applicable to preschool children (early childhood ages 3-7) please visit our Early Childhood Parenting and Child Development topic center.
Parenting is role for which we receive little preparation and training. Particularly with first or only children, you may feel as if you are making it up as you go along. As you figure how to best meet your baby's basic needs (e.g., nutrition, health, and safety) it is also important to think about infant stimulation or enrichment (activities that arouse or stimulate your baby's sense of sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell). This stimulation can help foster physical, social, emotional, brain, and nervous system development.
Interest in the idea of baby enrichment has exploded; there are currently hundreds of these products on the market. From electronic gadgets that immerse the baby in music and foreign languages, to lapware (computer programs designed for infants sitting on their parent laps), to flashcards that provide "stage-appropriate stimulation," the latest enrichment toys are touted as a way to enhance your baby's curiosity, attention span, memory, muscle coordination, and so on. Toddler tutoring and preschool camps designed to help foster an academic or athletic edge are also increasingly popular.
What is driving this interest in baby enrichment products are a series of misinterpreted research studies showing that a lack of infant stimulation can lead to problems with social and emotional development, and that vice versa, exposure to stimulation can spur creativity and achievement. You may have heard about scientific observations of babies (typically institutionalized orphans or other severely neglected or abused children) which showed that extremely "impoverished" (mostly or completely lacking in people and/or experiences that facilitate development) environments can lead to lifelong problems with physical, social, emotional, and intellectual skills. Alternatively, you may be familiar with the so-called "Mozart effect," which suggests that listening to classical music boosts intellectual development, problem solving, and a host of other behaviors.
It is very important to remember that the participants in both of these types of studies were unique (institutionalized orphans or other severely neglected or abused children in the former, college students in the latter). Therefore, taking the results of those studies and applying them to your own baby (a process known as "generalization") typically is not appropriate in these cases.
Well-meaning parents and toy manufacturers typically assume that if impoverished environments create impaired babies then perfect environments will create superstars. Unfortunately this assumption is not supported by research. In other words, it is possible to damage a child by failing to meet his or her needs for stimulation and enrichment, but you cannot make a child an academic or athletic powerhouse by providing constant intellectual or physical enrichment. This is particularly true if the areas of desired achievement are beyond the child's genetic or developmental capacity. If your child is naturally somewhat clumsy, less coordinated, and a slow runner, you cannot make her into an Olympic sprinter by using daily leg exercises and drills. Similarly, your baby will not become fluent in three different languages simply from using language flashcards and computer programs.
All of this is to say that a minimum of infant enrichment is absolutely necessary for the health and welfare of infants, but there is no need to go "overboard" about the process, or to spend a lot of money. Going overboard or spending a lot of money will not help. There is no convincing scientific evidence suggesting that a particular group of toys or set of exercises will create the next Bill Gates or Tiger Woods. While there is nothing wrong with commercial enrichment toys and activities, there are many other ways that you can enrich your child's experiences and make the most of their individual potential during their first years of life. So, what should you take from the previous psychological research? That there is no "right" or "wrong" way to enrich your baby's environment. Your love and attention, and a safe environment, combined with simple activities that work with your baby's stage of development (and your budget) are all that s/he needs. Your baby doesn't care whether you spent 50 cents or $50 if an activity is interesting and fun. This document will give you some ideas about how to make daily activities and common household items into powerful learning tools.