Learning toys and media, traditional books, nutrition: What works to help your baby learn?

Myth Versus Truth: What Really Helps Your Baby Learn

Come inside the latest thinking on everything from learn-to-read DVDs to brain nutrients, and see what can give your baby a true boost.

Could your baby be reading by his first birthday? Doing math at 18 months? There’s certainly a world of products and services available that promise to make your baby smarter. It can be hard to separate the hype from the help when it comes to how babies learn. Here’s what you’ll want to know.

MYTH: DVDs are better than flashcards for teaching babies to read.

Some educational media advertises that it can change your baby’s brain wiring, providing the tools to be able to read in infancy—even as early as 3 months. In reality, there’s no proof this is true, say brain scientists and educators. Babies simply lack the mental capacity for reading at such early ages, researchers say.

Learn-to-read DVDs, word-and-picture flash cards, and flip books all performed the same when researchers compared their use on babies ages 9 to 18 months: None worked. To help figure out whether these tools work in teaching babies how to read, they were used on subject babies over a period of seven months. In 13 of 14 different measures of reading skills, no improvement was shown in the 2014 study, reported in the Journal of Educational Psychology. The only so-called “improvement”: Parents’ beliefs that the teaching tools were working!

Remember, most experts (including the American Academy of Pediatrics, or AAP) recommend no screen time for children under age 2 and only two hours of screen time per day after that.

FACT: Reading to your baby helps speed language acquisition.

Babies learn about how language works before they actually learn to speak. When you read to your baby, you expose him to new words. For instance, naming objects and describing your actions during the course of the day helps build his vocabulary and understanding of how words work together, long before he can pick out the letter a or make ab sound.

Importantly, the more words babies hear in everyday talk, the better they eventually do in school, research has shown. That’s why the AAP now suggests that parents read aloud right from birth.

Reading with your child may also support reading skills, such as learning to follow along with the pages.

MYTH: Tablet and phone games will give your baby an edge on computer literacy.

Digital tools can add fun to learning later in toddlerhood and preschool, but they can’t compare to the value that babies (and older kids, too) get from you talking, singing, and interacting with them. And those activities are free!

In fact, doctors worry that as screen games have become more popular, parents are reading and talking less to their little ones. That’s another reason behind the advice to read aloud to your child from birth. Studies have shown that babies and toddlers don’t learn as well from screen media (like videos) as they do from live situations and interactions.

FACT: Everyday steps can support the brain and learning.

Try to avoid getting caught up in the bells and whistles of learning tools while overlooking other essentials of learning. Sleep, for example, is the main activity of the brain during early development; by age 2, kids have spent more time asleep than awake!

What babies eat directly impacts learning, too. Iron and DHA are important for cognitive development. Healthy, full-term babies are born with enough iron to last 4 to 6 months, but after this time period it must come from the diet. DHA can be obtained through either breast milk or formula that has it—and later through foods that are rich in the nutrient, such as fatty fish like salmon.