From the moment of birth, your baby is learning. After a bit of experience in the world, your relentless researcher will begin to realize that actions have a surprising, but soon enough predictable, effect on the environment. For example: one morning baby will happen to kick off the blanket, and think, 'Did I did do that? Yes, I did!' Soon, it becomes a game: 'I'm going to do that again, just to make sure it really was me. I did it again!' Watch carefully, and you'll find baby gleefully trying out new and different ways to change and test the environment.
Babies first learn about their power to change their environment from their earliest interactions with mom and dad. When baby cries and you respond by comforting and holding, baby learns that the world is a trustworthy place. When baby cries and you respond by offering a breast or bottle, baby learns that needs will be fulfilled. Baby also learns about the ability to affect those around us. When baby's smile prompts you to smile back or lean down to give a hug, baby has just learned more about cause and effect. The more time you spend with your child, and the more forms of communication you try out, the greater your opportunity to help baby learn about making things happen.
Soon enough, baby is ready to check out the world beyond your loving arms. And as they'll soon find out, this outside world is one full of exciting stimulation and ideas. One of the surest ways babies learn to think logically about the world is by physically interacting with their environment: baby shakes a toy; it makes an interesting sound. Baby knocks food off the high chair; it makes a colorful spot on the floor. As babies slowly learn that for every action, there's a reaction, they strengthen their comprehension of cause and effect, which increases their sense of control over the world.
Hands aren't the only force at work as baby learns about cause and effect. Whole-body movement, like navigating across the room to get an object, is another way of making things happen. Once babies are crawling, they will want to play with toys and explore activities that involve pushing or pulling, because the results will delight them: wheels go round, and a toy moves forward.
Bath time provides another opportunity for learning together. Show baby how to slap hands on the water to make it splash, as you say the word 'splash.' While holding tight onto baby, demonstrate how adding weight into the tub (your hand, for instance) makes the water rise higher on your baby's body. Or, by moving baby back and forth in the tub, you can create mini-waves for your baby to enjoy. In no time, baby will get the hang of the game—and your bathroom will never be the same!
Show your baby anything and everything. Help baby discover what is touchable and what is not; what baby can create a cause and effect reaction in, and what your baby has no power over. Baby can see the bright red truck, but cannot touch it—it's too far away. Baby can see the sunbeams on the wall, but cannot catch them—they're just images, not objects. Same goes for the diamond pattern on the living room rug: baby might try to grasp the shapes off the floor, only to realize that it is impossible. Then bring your baby to objects he can affect—a toy that responds when touched, for instance, or a playground activity you join in. By sitting on a see-saw together, you can show the cause and effect reaction of your combined weight (just make sure to hold on tight!). Showing baby that some things can be 'affected' by his actions, while other things refuse to budge, is a powerful lesson for your child.
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education
Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.