How To Help Your Baby Become A Math Genius (Or Not)

Raise your hand if you don’t want a brilliant child.

Honestly. Ensuring our child’s good health, happiness, kindness and compassion may well be our highest priorities, but wouldn’t we do all in our power to have the brightest, most talented, top-of-the-class kid? Or, at least, one who doesn’t have to struggle too hard to make the grade?

And here is where it gets really unfair. If we didn’t have enough issues to puzzle out as new parents with bleary-eyes and sleep-starved brains (like diapering with cloth or disposable, making breast or bottle feeding work, bed sharing or crib sleeping, and interpreting our baby’s cries), we are then presented with a torrent of persuasive, conflicting advice about how to help our babies become the quick thinkers and successful, highly motivated learners we hope they will be. No matter what choices we make, we are bound to have doubts.

A mom commented (on my post “Baby, Interrupted – 7 Ways To Build Your Child’s Focus And Attention Span“) that the information I share on my site has made her question the early learning programs she bought for her son. She asked what I thought she should do to utilize them. I suggested that she wait until her boy was 4 or 5, and then allow him to peruse the videos, flashcards, etc., if he was interested in doing so.

She replied:

“Hmm. Wait until he’s 4 or 5 years? For the math thing the whole idea of doing it now is because baby’s until 2.5 years are able to perceive true quantity and that makes it much easier for them to learn math. And when I look at how terrible I am at math, I don’t want him to miss this opportunity…

I like the idea of taking the middle path — to teach him what will benefit him to learn at an early age, and to leave the rest alone on the floor for him to examine if he’s interested.

Do you have any tips I should bear in mind to not affect his attention span negatively?”

This mom’s worries about math, since she has struggled with the subject herself, make total sense. After all, being a parent is our golden opportunity to do better, to learn from our mistakes and correct them for our child (therefore ensuring not only our child’s success, but the evolutionary assent of our lineage!)

It is true that infants and toddlers begin to perceive quantity. They also learn fractions, addition and subtraction, even multiplication, division and geometry.  In recent studies conducted by Berkeley psychology professor Alison Gopnik and reported in her New York Times article “Your Baby Is Smarter Than You Think”, babies as young as eight months old demonstrated astonishing capacities for “statistical reasoning, experimental discovery and probabilistic logic” that allow them to “rapidly learn all about the particular objects and people surrounding them.”

But Gopnik warns, “Sadly, some parents are likely to take the wrong lessons from these experiments and conclude that they need programs and products that will make their babies even smarter. Many think that babies, like adults, should learn in a focused, planned way. So parents put their young children in academic-enrichment classes or use flashcards… “   Instead, “Infants and toddlers need plenty of open-ended play time to be able to build the brain synapses necessary for higher learning abilities.”

Babies relish the time to learn this way, naturally and organically, with joy, wonder, and all five of their senses. When infants and toddlers examine the patterns on a blanket or cotton scarf, mouth the shape of a teething ring, experiment with blocks, balls or plastic beads, stack cups, pour water, shovel sand, make mud pies, watch and interact with us or even just stare at corners of the ceiling they are stimulating neural connections that build a strong foundation for math and language skills.

Parents can help by giving simple acknowledgments. “Your bucket is ¾ full.” Or, “You gave me two blocks and you kept one.”

But interrupting a baby’s inborn desire to explore and discover to give a lesson in letters, numbers or reading is like painting a house before the foundation is built. It discourages them from working on what is really important, and wastes both our child’s time and ours.

Over the years, I’ve enjoyed observing babies naturally practicing math skills. In one of my parent/toddler classes, a 2 year old boy spent much of the 90 minutes each week repeating the task of fitting little plastic dolls into the opening of a huge Arrowhead water bottle. I sensed him counting inside his head with quiet concentration as each doll ‘plunked’ to the bottom of the bottle.

One of my most flabbergasting moments ever as a parent was when my 4-year-old daughter was staring at a framed poster on our wall, “Les Animaux de La Ferme”. There are three vertical rows of different breeds of cows, five in each row. After a minute or two my daughter proclaimed. “Five by three is fifteen!”

Do we want our toddlers to learn how to use simple math and language symbols, or do we want them to truly understand mathematical concepts, develop their higher learning skills, be deep thinkers and creative problem solvers — discover who they are and what they are passionate about?

So, the short answer to this dear, caring mom’s question is: Any time we interrupt what an infant or toddler might be working on to “teach” him, we discourage focus and attention span. Attempting to plant seeds of knowledge in our babies inadvertently plants seeds of doubt.  How can our child believe that the activities he chooses are valuable, when we signal that we want him to do something more…or different?

The truth is we don’t know where our children’s talents lie, but if we trust our baby, allow him to explore and experiment, and choose activities he is naturally drawn to, he will utilize the gifts he has to the fullest, and with great confidence. He may become that math whiz we hoped for…or something even cooler.


I share more about natural development, focus, and the power of play in my book:

Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Piaget was correct – sensory motor play and development precede and prepare for children’s cognitive development. Nice post, Janet!

    1. This is so true. I’m a primary school teacher and see many children who don’t seem to have the basic conceptual understandings which are the foundations of mathematical learning. My own children are in their 20s and found maths very easy at primary school and I’ve often reflected on their experiences in an effort to work out why some children find it so hard. I’ve also read a bit of the research into this and think it’s absolutely to do with these very early child-led observational and tactile experiences. To what you’ve written I’d like to add that I think screens are interfering in the experiences children need to have. For example, some parents set their children up with maths apps which are designed to teach sorting activities but we know that the motor and sensory activity which happens when little ones sort physical objects is important and doesn’t happen with an app on an iPad.

  2. Can I throw this one out? I have seen so many parent “concerned” about their young child’s academic performance but not committed to communicating with their child. These “programs” do give SOME parents a foundation, a common schema, for interacting with their children. Play based math with young children shouldn’t be a taboo, but it shouldn’t supplant exploratory time and incidental learning that occurs when a parent/caregiver observes and provides positive feedback and further “organic” opportunities for growth. It may be more of a teaching tool for parents than the children themselves. When I first saw the guy on TV with the baby and the flashcards I thought, “How grotesque!” But on reflection, hey if it a way (NOT my way) for a parent to spend 1:1 time with their child the benefit may not be what the parent expects but maybe they will learn that paying close attention to their child’s communication can pay off big time. Do WE need the programs? No. But some children need their parents to need them so they can have a little 1:1 time together. Granted this is Not the ideal attachment but perhaps they are Baby Steps!

    1. Hi Dawn,

      Thanks so much for “throwing” your thoughts out both here and on the Facebook page. I understand what you are saying about parents needing a specific structure to be able to enjoy interacting with babies. It isn’t always easy to know how to connect with a pre-verbal person. Infant expert Magda Gerber taught us that the perfect time for that structure, that one-on-one attention is while we “care” for our baby — during bathing, feeding, diapering and bedtime rituals.

      I’m not saying it is taboo for parents to teach, but I do believe that teaching academics, even with a light touch, can easily create a relationship in which the child feels that he must perform to please the parent — he is not interesting enough on his own. When an infant or toddler is valued for who he is and what he chooses, his self-confidence grows. But if lessons are the only way a parent enjoys giving attention, I agree that it is better than nothing!

      1. Hey Janet, I just want to chime in that I see where Dawn is coming from. First time moms in 2013 are inundated with so much commercialism and marketing and stuff with everything that when we look at our babies, it’s like …shouldn’t we be doing SOMETHING?

      2. What are your thoughts on homeschooling? If parents want to communicate that their child alone is enough, wouldn’t the parent as a teacher in a homeschooling scenario create a different dynamic?

        1. I think the key idea behind home schooling is for it NOT to be like a school. I know there are some folks who home school for cultural reasons rather than academic ones, but from what i understand the benefits of homeschooling are that you are able to let the child go at their own pace, choose their interests and be there to provide them with a means to discover more about their interests, rather than to be a traditional “teacher” that sits them down and instructs them in what YOU want them to learn. So i think in answer to your question, you can home school without making your child feel as though just them being who they are is not enough. You avoid pushing your own agenda and simply answer every question they ask and provide them with lots of opportunities to find out more about the world and all the things it contains, including maths. If they are the ones requesting information, then your interaction with them is not requiring “performance” from them. This is the way i would home school. Perhaps if a parent couldnt manage to do it that way, they could limit the “teacher” part to just some of the day, and then make a big effort to switch teacher mode off for the rest of the time so that the child doesnt feel that pressure all day, and understands that its part of their education and not the bigger part of how their parent feels for them.

  3. Roseann Murphy says:

    So glad to read this article.
    I believe it takes great courage to follow the RIE philosophy..To stand apart from the “baby business” that for years has been threatening, cajoling and literally frightening us to death. If we don’t start “early” our children will be left behind forever.
    As parents and caregivers we are innunated with products that continually interfere with growth and development.
    The belief is the more gadgets, sounds, cards, videos and talking bears the better.
    Any parent that chooses to allow their child to play uninterrupted is out of the loop…not a part of…
    All your articles continue to stress benefits of the RIE philosophy.
    Quiet times to learn and explore without interruption.
    I wish there were a “gimmick” of some sort attached to RIE. One that drew people to the importance of this time to grow and develop without pushing and prodding to do things before a child is ready. But common sense, observation and respect is not always the “in thinking”.

    For more than 30 years I was privileged to interact on a daily basis with infants and toddlers and I can attest to the fact that social-emotional development has a greater link to academic success than early introduction to flash cards and math. RIE changed the lives of many of the children in our small school through uninterrupted play.
    I am a parent of three adopted children. All of my children had challenging beginning to life. The RIE philosophy had much to do with who they are today.
    After all these years I can look back and with absolute certainty know that this philosophy works.

    1. Hi Olivia! Interesting article…thanks for sharing it.

  4. I never had a single flash card or video, and by the time I was 4 or 5, I could read, write, AND do math. I don’t believe for one second that I’m that super-special and others can’t learn to count Cheerios at age 2. *eyeroll* I think Cheerios are cheaper than flash cards, and definitely taste better!

    1. Hi Mary Ellen,

      I think that teaching sign language can only be positive, but that it is unnecessary. If it helps parents to realize that their infant is a communicative person, wonderful! Infants are definitely ready to begin communicating with us right away, but because they don’t speak, we might not understand that in the beginning.

      Personally, I never used sign language, but my children were all good early communicators, because I talked to them from day one.

      One of the aspects I love most about Magda Gerber’s philosophy is the idea that babies learn all they need to know naturally when we treat them respectfully, meet their physical needs, give undivided attention sometimes, and allow for lots of play and exploration. We don’t have to give lessons.

      1. I believe that sign language is an amazing way to communicate with infants and toddlers as well as spoken language. I don’t really understand a difference as if one language is inferior to the other. I don’t believe a lot of parents “give lessons” of sign language but use both as their household language to communicate. Some do like programs which in turn help them learn but I know many parents as well as us as parents just use both languages in day to day lives and make it natural. Not as strict “lessons”.

        1. I completely agree. I spoke with my son from Day One, but I also introduced sign language around six months. I never gave “lessons” or used cards/videos but simply modeled the sign while saying the word. It was incredibly helpful – especially when he began talking and so many of his most-used words began with the same letter or sound (B, C, D, and M). Knowing the sign, he was able to make a request or “talk” about something without the frustration of having to repeat the word over and over before we finally figured out which “B” word (or whatever letter) he was trying to say.

  5. Alexandra says:

    I really enjoyed the article that Olivia suggested about the case against teaching math and it brought two thoughts up for me: what do you and/or the RIE approach think about story-telling and singing with/to infants?

    1. Hi Alexandra,

      Storytelling and singing is WONDERFUL! So is reading! Great as part of a bedtime ritual, or just for cozy time together. That is not the same as sitting a baby down for a lesson.

      1. Janet, I am working in a nursery in NZ and we have been following a lot of Magda Gerber’s RIE practices. It has been amazing to really see the babies at work. I am also very passionate about music and have seen how magic musical conversations between infant and carer can be (music is after all their first language). We mostly incorporate music and song spontaneously through routines and transition times one on one. I am wondering how we can create a musical time to sing songs and partake in musical experiences as a social group without ‘entertaining’ or interrupting the babies’ flow. Is it enough that we don’t force babies to participate and ensure that they are given the time to respond and be musically creative rather than perform. I am aware we don’t need to ‘teach’ babies but I believe that song and dance are the cornerstones of culture and is so often overlooked nowadays. I would be very interested in your thoughts.

        1. Kerry, thank you for asking. I totally understand and LOVE that you want to share your passion for music with the children in your care. And I think you are wise to be sensitive about interrupting, entertaining and teaching the babies when self-directed learning is so developmentally appropriate and important.

          Although quiet background music would probably not interrupt the babies’ ‘flow’, singing during transitional times (as you have been doing) is the best time, if you don’t want to interrupt. You might also consider sharing music together at the end of the day, while everyone is clearing up and getting ready for the parents to arrive.

          As professional caregivers and as parents we have the challenge of balancing our enthusiasm to share experiences with our children with patiently waiting for readiness (the time when the child can actively participate) and also encouraging discovery. Babies create simple ‘music’ (or sounds, at least) on their own, and often enjoy echoing each other. As with all stimulation, less is more for babies. I have a post about music and babies if you are interested…

        2. In the wonderful RIE-based program where I am lucky to be assisting a gifted caregiver, group time often happens spontaneously. When the babies gather around us, the woman I work for will often sing a song that includes all the babies names, etc. The babies stay and sit in one of our laps or watch for as long as they like, and then move on to something else. These gatherings are always completely natural and unforced. At other times, my mentor-caregiver will offer to dance with a baby who is needing some extra one on one. We’ll put on some upbeat music and dance! Often, the other babies will join in!

  6. I am a mother of a 17 month old girl and I had her do the Baby Can Read program. I did this because I struggled with reading and vocabulary in school. My daughter has been successful with the program and can read better then my nieces and nephews who are 3 and 5 years old. I am not bragging because I watch my nieces and nephews during the day and want them to succeed as well. I only let my daughter watch the videos at the most twice a day (30 minutes) and no other TV. The rest of the day she is allowed to explore play and be a toddler. Now I have been teaching her more new words on a daily basis and has learned them after two or three times after seeing and hearing the word. I think she can read close to 200 words. I don’t see what can be wrong with this? My other nephew (who is 8 months older then my daughter) throws tantrums because he can’t communicate what he wants …my daughter who has been able to develop her speech at a faster rate does not throw fits because she is able to communicate to me what she needs. I am still struggling with the idea of parents being scolded for teaching their kids how to read when they are able and ready to learn? Is there any information or studies to show how this is not beneficial? So far I have not seen it…if I do in the next few years I will let you know…

    1. Emily, I appreciate your thoughtful comment. You bring up important issues and I’m writing a post in response… It should be up in a few days. Thanks!

  7. Dawn Marie says:

    Before returning to the elementary classroom after the birth of my daughters, I taught family math classes that incorporated songs, stories, finger play, and exploration for 4 and 5 year olds. The most valuable tool I provided for families was sharing the understanding that math is everywhere and that narrating and talking about it in a natural environment is best. The hardest thing for me to deal with was parents wanting their young children (4-5 year olds) to take the class for older children because they already knew…(fill in the blank) when the classes were not skill based, but were designed for developmentally appropriate inquiry and exploration.

    1. Dawn, that must have been frustrating. Yes, I think it is hard for parents to realize that the things our infants and toddlers children learn, especially if the learning is self-directed, don’t disappear if they are not being “taught”. A natural, early reader will continue to progress independently with his of her reading skills. The child doesn’t need instruction in reading (or math or music) to hold on to the knowledge she has. And, in fact, the instruction can interfere with an instrinsic desire to learn.


    Thank you so much for confirming what my mother keeps telling me. I want to do the baby can read thing. I read to my son and write letters, sometimes I spell tings mostly his name(made a jingle of it). my friends laughs at me and says I’m crazy hes too young and I feel 9months is old enough to start doing it daily and making flash cards. I have to keep the tv off more because I think hes in love with ni hoa, kai-len (chinese cartoon, teaches chinese). I want him to learn other languages but I’m not sure how to go about it. The hardest part being a new mom is trying not to expect so much and having patience because every child is different.

    1. The best way for a young child to learn other languages is to have one adult caregiver speak only that language when with your child – so if Mom speaks English and Dad speaks English and Chinese, then Mom only speaks English to the child and Dad only speaks Chinese to the child. Unfortunately, the way single language families often have to do that is by hiring a nanny or having their child attend daycare/school. If you can afford to have you child attend a bilingual Montessori school when he turns three, that’s a good way to introduce other languages while promoting all sorts of other stuff like independence and concentration and confidence. But there are studies that show that very young children associate the language with a specific person, at first, before they’re able to separate it, so it’s important not to speak a mish-mash of languages to your child. For expanding his language, the best thing you can do is offer him groups of real objects or child safe miniatures and repeat the language often. Don’t use flashcards until he gets older, and even then it should only be picture cards and only as he is interested. Put them in a place where he can choose them when he’s interested and let him initiate, or offer to give him a lesson but accept it if he says no.

  9. I really enjoyed ‘Einstein never used flashcards’. I can’t remember the authors off the top of my head. The main take home point for me is that many of the skills we prize (reading, math) are actually the culmination of many other processes. We often don’t see those going on (even things as simple as learning what the text is on a page, which direction we read) but they gradually build up to the skill we recognize.

    1. Yes, Elly, that’s a really good point. I think one of the biggest challenges of parenting, and it’s a worthy one, is being able to trust what isn’t necessarily evident in our child — have faith in the valuable processes that are invisible to us.

  10. i’m just not sure why we’re in such a hurry to have our babies read? i think if you care whether your child can read at age 9 months, your child will certainly not be illiterate when s/he is ready to read when age appropriate. clearly if your childrens educator can’t make it happen, you will make it happen.

    i understand that we all have concerns as parents for our children’s well being. some are completely irrational (like the ones I have everyday of my son getting hit by a car or getting caved in by walls from an earthquake) and i think the concern for not getting left behind in school are completely valid. with issues like public schools in the US losing so much funding, the world seems like it’s getting to be a harder place.

    i’m not trying to discount illiteracy in this world. it certainly is a problem but i doubt any parent who visits this website will let their child go uneducated b/c everyone cares enough to look up early childhood development issues online (you will be surprised how many parents never look at ANYTHING) .

    i know i’m rambling and repeating myself but i feel like it’s such a race. first, it was “does your child sleep thru the night?”. then it was “does your child crawl/walk?”. next it’s “can your child talk?” now it’s “can your child read?” don’t countries like sweden start teaching how to read at like age 7 and they have the one of the highest literacy rates?

    I know my child will definitely be reading eventually but until then we’ll be out playing outside!

  11. It’s hard to truly get across a key point, that interrupting and directing a child’s attention tends to disrupt the learning process. It’s hard to snap out of a cultural mindset. Thank you for these cogent reminders. Sharing, as always.

  12. “Attempting to plant seeds of knowledge in our babies inadvertently plants seeds of doubt.”

    Brilliant! The hook for me was realizing that reading and math are actually logic-based skills. It’s NOT all memorization, but being able to understand a set of rules and apply them…and logic is in the realm of frontal lobe development…which doesn’t even really begin to develop until 2-2.5…and the logic pieces don’t really start to develop until almost 6 for most children!!

  13. True. At first I was worried on how I can “teach” my son numbers. I was poor in math too. But I did not buy any flashcards or videos on how to teach a child to count or reaad. I think they are such a waste of money. It is not interactive. I am very happy that even when my son was still a year old, he can already identify certain things and as days passed by, he would sing the alphabet, count, iddentify colors and shapes, etc.

    All we did was expose him to the different things around him. We did not force him to learn anything. It was evident that he is learning the way that babies should learn, and that is by exploring and experiencing different things around him. Singing and playing music helped too. And reading. Quality time between mom and baby. 🙂

    I like this article. Thanks for sharing!

  14. This is a great post, as always Janet. I was trained as an early childhood educator and when our first son was born, over 14 years ago, used what I had learned and “educated”… I had no idea about any of the concepts in this article. As he grew older, and I saw myself on video with him, I realized how much I was “teaching” him, and that I didn’t want that for him. It was like an instant recognition for me. Somehow “seeing” it for myself made the difference. I wasn’t mothering, interacting, sharing and communicating, I was literally “teaching”…. Things changed drastically.
    I have seen a huge difference with our younger son who is now 2.7. He picks up so much completely on his own, plays independently, it’s amazing to see his skills, and you know what? He wasn’t “taught” any of it! He learned it just by being part of our family, part of his world. It just goes to show that our kids learn so much from interacting with us, watching, discovering on their own… it’s awesome to see. Thanks for sharing this!

  15. For what it’s worth, the American Library Association promotes parents helping children develop as PRE-readers by doing the following activities: talking, singing, reading, writing and playing. When they say “reading” they mean sharing good literature with children, not flashcards. The research that is behind their program Every Child Ready to Read supports many of the ideas that you have discussed here. I have a favorite quote from children’s author Mem Fox: “Children need to hear 1000 stories before they begin to read.” Find some good books from your local library and share them with your child. That’s the very best way to build a reader. My own son did not read until he was in first grade, but once he learned…he took off like a rocket, because he was prepared and ready. (And his general knowledge base was so deep)

  16. I enjoyed the post and of your thoughtful posts. The last few paragraphs from your article had me a little confused. You said your 4 y/o just threw out multiplication one day and yet the article seemed to imply you didn’t teach her this and she just figured it out all by her-self? Please explain! We all want children to be brilliant and get perfect SAT scores! ; )

    1. That’s correct, Sadie! My daughter actually discovered multiplication all by herself in a poster depicting rows of bulls. I was completely blown away!

  17. As a former pre-school teacher I am very interested in the debate about the use of flashcards, maths programmes etc. When my own children started school I was asked by the teacher which preschool they had gone to. I asked “why” and was told that in a certain preschool, children were being introduced to formal reading and maths far too early before they were developmentally ready. As a consequence, when they started on them at school the children were “seen this before, couldn’t do it, don’t want to know” Through being introduced to it at too early and age and developmental stage, they had been set up to fail. When as a teacher parents asked me about these programmes I used to ask them to think hard about their use and to consider if they were appropriate and to think if the parent on their first ever driving lesson had been taken to a city centre at the busiest time of day, how keen would they be to get back in to drive a car!! Let a 2 yr old be 2 and discover the world around them at their own pace. They’ve got the rest of their lives to write their name but not to splash in the mud or paint with their fingers.

  18. Marea Smith says:

    Both my son’s started school with maths ages of 7 – We never taught them anything except by using numbers in everyday language. Most of their advances in maths were made playing backyard games and keeping score. Rugby is fantastic. There are 5 points for a try, 2 points for a “convergin” and 3 points for a penalty. My eldest son’s party trick was to tell us possible scoring combinations given the final score. They loove maths.

  19. Hi Janet –
    My son is 17 months old. We have a mat in his playroom with the alphabet on it. When he was about 9 months old, he would remove letters and bring them to us one by one. We would tell him what the letter was, and he seemed to enjoy playing that way. A short while after that, we realized that he was remembering the letters and we could say a specific letter and he would bring it. Essentially, it was like using flash cards. Now he can identify some letters, and also say the letter name. He also does the same with a couple numbers during his reading.

    It is a big part of how he plays and interacts with others – wanting to know what things are called and being excited when he gets things right.

    What is your opinion on this and encouraging this? We give him plenty of opportunities to play in other ways and he definitely has other interests – but I see him wanting to get the right answer and get praised for it now. My thinking is that I don’t want to focus so much on “right answers” when it comes to learning, have him be afraid of being wrong and give up easily, or decrease his attention span.

    Any input? Thanks.

  20. Hi Janet,
    At the same age, my younger sister did EXACTLY the same thing as your daughter, except the context was filling the bun tin with cake cases when baking. I don’t remember precisely what she said, but it was to the effect that she didn’t need to count them in 1s because they were arranged in rows of equal numbers. My parents and I were amazed! Is this more common than you’d think? As it happens, she did turn out to be a natural with pattern spotting and maths.

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