NEW YORK -- Busy parents have their consciences soothed by a steady stream of experts who say quality is more important than quantity when it comes to spending time with children.
Dr. Miriam Stoppard further condenses that idea in her book "Baby's First Skills: Help Your Baby Learn Through Creative Play" (DK Publishing). She says babies will learn more during "the golden hour," 60 minutes of play and undivided attention, than at any other time of the day.
"One hour of focused attention will make kids happy and can cure most difficult behavior," according to Stoppard, a London-based doctor and author of 60 parenting and pregnancy books.
The time doesn't even have to be a consecutive hour or wholly spent with one parent -- although both those scenarios are preferable. A golden hour can be divided into a few different periods and split among different nurturing family members, from grandmother to older brother.
Stoppard says the key is that whoever is focusing on the baby makes constant eye contact and isn't distracted by TV or even another child's demands.
"When a child has that attention the child feels as though the sun has come out. The brain relaxes, and latest research shows that loving attention from the very early weeks onward actually helps the brain to grow," she says.
Babies learn everything through play, Stoppard explains, and it's through the bonds with those they love and trust most that they'll try something new.
And it's a win-win situation because those people who babies love and trust most, usually the parents, get some enjoyable one-on-one time with their baby.
The themes that Stoppard suggests including during this special playtime are talking, movement, hands, mind and friendliness.
It might be easiest to start with talking, which will help babies learn to understand and use language.
"I say talk nonstop," Stoppard says during a telephone interview. "Of course the baby can't talk, but you offer a running commentary on what you're doing. Say, 'Look mommy is going to put a block on top. Silly mommy; mommy knocked it off. Should we use a red one this time?' This will get babies used to the ebb and flow of conversation and expand their vocabularies."
She also encourages babies' playmates to be theatrical, using a singsong tone of voice and making big, broad gestures, and to repeat words and actions.
Until age 6, children learn from repetition of actions, says Stoppard, herself a grandmother of six with two more on the way. "Don't say, 'Close the door quietly.' Take their hand, put it on knob and show them!"
Singing, clapping games and nursery rhymes also help teach the rhythm of speech, she adds, and they help give babies' brains cues to get them to speak earlier.
Next up on the golden hour schedule is movement, which probably should get the most time, Stoppard says. It teaches control of the head and body, which leads to sitting, standing and walking.
Movement for newborns can be as simple as propping babies heads against their infant seats or your shoulder, while a 6- or 7-month-old who rolls over can play a floor game with mom or dad. "Don't be afraid to be a bit silly -- (the baby) is developing a great sense of humor and it's good for you, too," Stoppard writes.
Getting infants to use their hands also is important because it encourages accurate and fine motor skills. A clapping game such as "Pat-a-cake" is a multitasker because it touches on speech, hand and mind development.
Newborn mind stimulation isn't something dreamt up by overachieving parents, Stoppard says. Babies can "understand" from the moment of birth, and parents can even track progress from Day 1 to Day 3 -- when babies will go from becoming quiet and alert when they hear their parents' voices to actually responding with an intense gaze.
Friendliness, sociability and social skills are learned from how parents, family members and friends relate to babies, Stoppard explains.
"Patterns and reactions get set early on in life. A child that meets a lot of hostility and unkindness will learn to react negatively with stress, frustration and even destructiveness. If they're nurtured and experience joy, they're likely to learn to be calm, generous, be able to share and coping skills," says Stoppard.
But an hour of all this fun and excitement is enough for a baby because all this is work, too.
"It's hard for them. Play takes concentration, it uses a lot of energy. So many brain connections are growing and memory is being laid down, concepts are being fathomed. It's difficult, intellectual activity and a lot of play includes different physical activity, balance, strength. ... Very few adults attempt anything as complex in their days!" Stoppard says.
She adds: "It's not rocket science, but it will give them the basics."
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