All parents want their children to grow and develop well. Marketers have created a number of products, from "educational" videos to electronic gadgets, which promise to optimize development.
Since research fails to support the need for such products, new parents can safely ignore the siren call of the "baby gear" industry. What truly optimizes growth and development is provision of a loving, language-rich environment that presents opportunities for exploration of the real world and its (inexpensive) objects.
A warm, loving home where appropriate limits are enforced sets the stage for good development and enhances emotional growth. Structured routines that organize a child's day also help young children thrive.
Frequent talking to infants and toddlers produces great rewards in terms of language development. Verbal interaction with young children activates language centers in the brain, building a child's ability to understand others and to get his own thoughts into words when he is ready to speak.
Playful "conversations" with a baby should include pauses for the baby to respond with smiles and vocalizations. Parents can also comment on an infant's or toddler's activities/experiences. A barefoot walk across grass, for example, might lead a parent to talk about the green grass and how it feels on the feet.
Reading to children makes the language environment richer and further enhances a child's language skills. Talking about a book as it is read (as opposed to requiring the child to sit quietly) makes this activity more interactive and enjoyable. The local library can help keep the cost of reading materials in check.
Motor and thinking skills are built through play that allows for movement and exploration of objects. The latest electronic "educational" gadget just can't compete with time spent investigating the backyard or an accessible cabinet in the kitchen stocked with old Tupperware, pots, pans, large wooden spoons and blocks.
The American Academy of Pediatrics continues to recommend no screen time — the time a child spends in front of an electronic screen — for children younger than 2. This includes television, iPads and videos. Screen time displaces active learning through exploration of the environment; it may even impede development. One study, for example, showed that greater viewing of Baby Einstein videos is associated with weaker vocabulary in young children.
In summary, parents can optimize a child's development without spending a lot of money. Expensive baby products add little to development and may even inhibit it, particularly if screens are involved.
Dr. S. David Blake of Commonwealth Pediatrics is board-certified in general pediatrics and developmental-behavioral pediatrics. He practices at Baptist Health Lexington.