The Best Gifts For Babies, According To Science

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My go-to best new infant gift, for those friends who have recently produced a tiny human, is one of two: a knitted dinosaur, or a knitted mammoth. Both contain jingles, are made by a reputable company, are gender-neutral, and are certified safe for miniature infants who don't understand how their own limbs work. If you don't have access to this kind of delight, though, you may be understandably confused about what's suitable and beneficial for infants. Is there a one-size-fits-all gift? Should they all get a soft toy and be done with it?

A lot of research has gone into the various ways in which infants react to and interact with the world, and it's turned up some surprising revelations that can help you with gift-giving. Whether you're into practical gifts, experiences, purchasing the services of experts, or going for something cuddly, there's something ratified by a rigorous study out there for the new baby's delectation. Whatever you get, though, check thoroughly about its child-safety status, its materials, and whether or not a parent has had any issues with it in the past. And nothing small and potential choke-hazardous. (And if all else fails, ask what the parents want. Sometimes a huge supply of diapers is more appreciated than a carefully selected artisanal French teddy bear.)

Here are the best gifts to get a newborn baby, according to science.

A Gift That Requires Their Mom's Voice

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According to research, one of the most vital accessories to brain development in very, very young babies isn't a thing: it's a sound. Specifically, the noise of their mother's voice is a particular boon to infant brains. And it starts very young indeed: a 2013 study indicated that babies less than 24 hours old can differentiate between vowel sounds in their own language and those in another language, indicating that they've been absorbing language in the womb itself from their mother's voice.

A study from 2010 also found that it's specifically the mother's voice that has a special significance to babies in the 24 hours following their birth. They attached electrodes to the heads of newborns and played them both female voices in general and recordings of their moms, and discovered that, while strangers speaking activated the voice-recognition bit of the brain, the mother's voice activated the language-processing parts.

If you can't get a recording of mom singing a lullaby to lull the new addition off to sleep, get the baby a toy that has to be activated or shown to them by a talking adult. If all else fails, an offer to take care of practical things around the house so that there can be an extended mother-baby conversation is likely just as good a gift.

A Properly-Installed Car Seat

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This is a serious one. Don't just get people with a new baby a car seat: if possible, get them installed by a professional. Don't think it's necessary? Tell that to scientists. In 2015, a study published in the Journal of Pediatrics surveyed nearly 300 families leaving hospital for the first time with a newborn, observed them installing an infant car seat and putting the newborn in it, and then sent in engineers to identify any errors and re-install the seat if necessary. The results showed that a whopping 95 percent of the families made at least one mistake while installing the seats, and 91 percent of them made an error that would be classified as "serious," potentially putting the infant in danger.

The good news is that it's actually perfectly possible to organize an expert visit to get things installed properly (and it really is an expert job: all the families knew they were being observed and were trying their best). Safe Kids Worldwide, for instance, offers car seat inspection stations and mobile check-up vans to do assessments for people. Try to delicately suggest this, by the way, rather than insulting anybody's seat-installing skills.

Adventures & Surprising Toys

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If you want to help the new arrival develop healthy brain activity and neural growth (which is, of course, everybody's priority with a little squirming thing), look for toys that provide novelty and strangeness. Stimulation, a Norwegian expert in baby brain development explained early in 2017, is pretty key to the growth of babies, and they adapt well to everything from diverting, jangly baby gyms to early potty training.

If you're going the route of toys, it's worth remembering some 2015 research from Johns Hopkins emphasizing the element of surprise, too. Babies, it seems, learn very quickly what things are expected to do, and benefit pretty substantially from being shocked or challenged, getting more adventurous and seeking to understand the new and confusing thing. A jack-in-the-box? Something that changes color? Novelty is a baby's best friend.

The Company Of Other Babies

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Know friends with babies (and not too many conflicting opinions about baby food, organic nappies and preschool)? Set 'em up. It's not only a community for the new parents, it's also good for the babies, who benefit from the company of others once they're a few months old. In 2015, a study found that 6 month-old babies actually prefer listening to baby talk more than listening to adult talk, even if they themselves weren't yet making any babbling noises. Babies are strongly capable of understanding and communicating even as newborns, and even if they don't interact or really play with one another in any coherent way as very small infants, there appears to be no harm in letting them babble in the same space.  

Music Classes

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Parents of newborns will likely not want to do anything with their precious new child except feed it and try to snatch some sleep. However, if you're not much one for physical presents, an experience for the family when it's a few months older might be a good idea, at least according to science.

A 2012 study of babies' brains when they hit a year or so old found that they were particularly helped by music classes with their parent or caregiver. Not only were the babies more likely to identify different bits of music correctly, they were also more communicative and smiley overall, and more willing to point and gesture at other objects or people. A voucher for a set of classes at a local baby music center wouldn't go amiss, though perhaps wait until a christening or some other post-birth event, so that the parents are more likely to remember it.