Toys and games that build baby’s brainpower

By Irene Daria

Studies show that babies learn more and are happier when their play is self-initiated. That’s because the stimulation they seek out is exactly what they need to hone the skills they are genetically programmed to develop at each stage of their first year. Keep in mind that pushing toys and activities that are beyond a baby’s capacity may raise the baby’s level of the stress hormone cortisol and that will interfere with his brain’s ability to function well, says Craig Ramey, Ph.D., coauthor of Right From Birth: Building Your Child's Foundation for Life. So fill your home with sights and sounds appropriate to your baby’s age and then follow his cues as he decides what captures his interest. Here's what your baby needs when, and why:

First Month
What your baby learns now: The most important lesson your infant learns in the first four weeks is to trust you, says Alison Gopnik, Ph.D., coauthor of The Scientist in the Crib.
Brain boosters: You! Give your child your undivided attention, gentle words, and a loving touch, and respond quickly to her cries. This will make her feel secure and teach her that the strange new world she has just entered is a good and kind place.
What you should avoid: Remember that absolutely everything is new to your baby, and she doesn't have the ability to tune anything out, except by going to sleep. So limit the amount of external stimulation she's exposed to, particularly bright lights and loud noises.

2 to 3 Months
What your baby learns now: He’s starting to grasp the idea that people and objects exist, and they are separate from him and from each other. He will be able to follow moving objects with his gaze and identify where sounds are coming from.
Brain boosters: Initially, he'll be captivated by anything that moves, as well as by items with clearly defined edges, such as drawings of bold geometric shapes. So place a mobile over his crib, put him tummy down on a gym mat to play, and let him look into a nonbreakable mirror so that he can watch the movement of his own face. At around 8 weeks he'll want to look at patterns, such as checkerboards, and he’ll turn his head toward the source of various sounds.
What you should avoid: Don't stimulate more than one sense at a time, as this will stress your baby. Toys with lots of lights, bells and whistles won’t be too much fun for a baby this age, so keep playthings simple. And try not to avoid competing noises, such as the vacuum cleaner and the stereo.

4 to 6 Months
What your baby learns now: She’s figuring out that her actions cause predictable responses: When she shakes a rattle, it makes a noise; when she smiles, you smile back. She's also developing the ability to process information received from two senses at a time, such as you listening to you talk to her and seeing you smile at her at the same time.
Brain boosters: Give her a chance to make things happen. She’ll be fascinated by small items she can grab and then shake to make a noise, such as rattles, plastic keys, or soft balls with bells inside them. She will also love baby gyms and toys that light up and make noise or play music.
What you should avoid: Even though she loves to make things happen, don’t let her play with a busy box intended for older children since her finger can easily get caught as she presses one of the character's back into its little box. Remember that four-to-six month olds enjoy some social interaction but can get overstimulated by too much of it. So when your baby turns her face away from grandma, recognize your baby has had too much of playtime for the time being.

7 to 8 Months
What your baby learns now:  His fine motor skills improve greatly at this age and he’ll insist on examining anything he can get his hands on, says Dr. Ramey. He may begin crawling and in any case will be hell-bent on exploring everything within reach. It will also dawn on him for the first time that words have meanings, and he'll begin to understand the most common ones he hears.
Brain boosters: Give him lots of textured toys he can manipulate and hold. (Make sure they are larger than one-and-a-half inches to avoid choking hazards.) Begin telling him the names of as many items as possible as he plays with them.
What you should avoid: Telling him "no" too many times will hinder his sense of wonder and love of exploration. So be sure to put away anything dangerous or breakable and make your child’s environment as baby-friendly as possible.

9 to 12 months
What your baby learns now: She develops what researchers call "cross modal integration"--the ability to process information coming to her from all her senses at the same time, says William A. Staso, Ph.D., author of Neural Foundations: What Stimulation Your Baby Needs to Become Smart. In addition, her word comprehension will explode during this time.
Brain boosters: Mobile, and extremely curious, your baby needs to be able to explore without restriction. Let her open and close cabinets, empty drawers, and dump toy buckets (with your close supervision); these activities will help hone her ability to integrate information from all of her senses. To give her vocabulary even more of a boost, talk to her as much as possible about what she's doing, how she's doing it, and what she's seeing and touching, recommends Dr. Staso.
What you should avoid: Although the high-pitched singsong tone moms use naturally while talking to babies is believed to help babies learn how to talk and comprehend, some experts recommend not overdoing it since you want her to get a true sense of what words sound like.