How what you do now can help your baby learn about everything from communication to healthy relationships.

The New Definition of a Model Parent

The actions you model for your baby have an important and long-lasting impact—here are some places to start.

There's an old saying, "Little potatoes have big eyes." In other words, from day one, your child is watching you closely, whether you notice or not.

Babies are keen people-watchers because that is how their brains are wired to learn. Even an hours-old newborn can imitate an adult sticking out her tongue or opening her mouth. Scientists have found that this ability helps babies learn right from the start. When your baby sees you move your hand, for example, the part of her brain that's linked to the hand is activated even though she doesn't yet know what a hand is.

Your actions and interactions right now can help encourage healthy patterns for your baby's future. This is especially important in the early years while the brain is growing and making new associations.

Here are some simple but powerful places where the behaviors you model can make all the difference.

Model Healthy Relationships

Be sure to respond promptly to your baby's cries. Your baby learns trust and empathy from you. Social-emotional connectedness and bonding rely on imitation.

Put down your phone, tablet, and other devices as much as possible around your baby and interact with her. When you pay attention to your baby, you also teach her to attend to you. She needs to learn from your expressions and responses in order to learn language, emotions, and how to regulate herself emotionally.

Let your baby see you show sympathy, empathy, and kindness to others. Even though it may be too early for her to understand the full meaning of what's taking place, she is picking up important cues from your facial expressions and actions about how people interact. Now, she likes to mimic you; one day, she will also understand the "why" behind your actions and delight you with her kindness and affection.

Model Communication

Imitate your baby. When you copy her smiling or waving, you encourage her to have a turn at doing the same. Imitation is a form of body language that relies on turn-taking, just like having a conversation does.

Play imitation games, like peekaboo and waving bye-bye.

Use hand gestures to help your baby understand what you mean, such as holding out your hand when you ask her to give you a toy. Before she can talk, your baby learns to express ideas and emotions with body language she learns from you, such as shaking her head "no" or raising her arms to be lifted up.

Model Positive Eating

Be responsive to your baby's signals. For instance, it's not a good idea to start feeding her solid foods before she's developmentally ready.

Eat as a family when possible, so your baby can observe everyone at the table.

Seat your baby in a high chair when serving food, for safety's sake and to develop the habit of focusing on the meal.

Smile when you offer new foods as a means of encouragement. Say "mmmm!" or eat some pureed carrot yourself.

Show her smart choices. Let her see you choose from a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Try to avoid letting her see you liberally salting foods or snacking too much.

Say "please" and "thank you" at meals to help your child develop a basic understanding of social graces and when to use them.