When my son was little, I realized that many of the things moms say to their babies—“I’m going to tickle your tummy!”-- and many of the rhymes they recite to them—“This little piggy went to market”-- have to do with body parts. And there's a good reason for that: Helping little ones learn their body parts is one of the first ways that we help them learn about themselves in relation to the world.
Besides singing rhymes, I was able to help my baby learn about himself by talking about body parts and pointing them out when I was changing diapers or dressing him. In fact, just narrating the morning routine can be educational: "Here's your shirt -- let's put your arm into the sleeve now." I also used to point to my own face and say, "Here's mommy's nose. Noses help us smell things. Where's baby's nose?"
Around age two to three months, babies discover their hands. “Then around three to six months they discover their feet,” says Deborah Weber, Ph.D., senior manager for child research at Fisher-Price. “It’s very exciting when they realize that these parts are attached to them, and they can use their hands and feet to squeeze toys, bring them to their mouth, kick them.”
Dr. Weber says that there are lots of great toys that can help babies learn body parts and self-awareness. “Baby wrist and ankle rattles that make sounds when babies move their hands and feet are great for reinforcing body awareness. Stuffed animals, puppets, and baby dolls are also great; you can name the body part on your toddler, and then show it on the toy. ‘You have a hand, and baby doll has a hand.’ Using the images in a picture book is good, too.”
I learned that one of the best tools for teaching this kind of physical self-awareness is something that almost everyone has at home: a mirror. When my son was born, we were living in a rental apartment that had a living room with mirrored walls. I used to hate that room. I thought it was hideous, until I realized that those mirrors turned our living room into an instant playroom, providing endless entertainment for our new baby.
At first, when my son looked in those mirrors, it was as if he were looking at a television set. He didn't know he was looking at himself, but he still found the image entrancing. I would join my baby in front of the mirror, make funny faces into it, and point to myself saying, "Who is this? It's Mommy!" And then one day I could tell he recognized himself.
“At around the one year mark babies will start to realize they’re looking at themselves in the mirror,” says Dr. Weber. “One typical way to test that is put a hat on them and see if they take it off while they’re looking at themselves. Or you can put a little lipstick or food on their nose. When they reach for it and rub it off while they’re looking at themselves in the mirror, you can tell they’ve made the connection!”
Beth Weinhouse is an award-winning journalist who specializes in writing about parenting issues and women's health. She's been an editor at Ladies' Home Journal and Parenting magazines, and her work has appeared in dozens of consumer magazines and websites.
Parenting advice is given as a suggestion only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider.