1. A SMART WOMB START
Inhaling or ingesting substances called neurotoxins, such as cigarette smoke, excessive alcohol, and illegal drugs, have all been shown to harm brain development and increase the risk of a child having learning and behavior problems later. Besides the “don’ts” of drugs, alcohol, and nicotine during pregnancy, there are some “do’s” that affect the developing fetal brain in a healthy way. A healthy diet is a must. While it takes very poor maternal nutrition to harm a baby’s developing brain, in general, the better you nourish your body, the better you nourish your baby’s growing brain.
A baby’s brain develops faster during the nine months in his mother’s womb than at any other time in the child’s life, and the development of the fetal nervous system is affected – for better or worse – by what’s in the mother’s blood during the nine months of pregnancy.
What’s going on in mother’s mind may also affect baby’s mental development. While the science of fetal psychology is itself in its infancy, there is growing evidence that babies’ brains are influenced by events outside the womb. For example, parents who sing and play Mozart to their baby in the womb increase the likelihood of their baby’s liking Mozart later and being soothed by singing. There is a story that cellist Pablo Casals started to sight-read a new piece of music and soon realized he knew what was coming next, even before he read it. He later learned that his mother, also a cellist, had rehearsed this piece daily in the later stages of her pregnancy.
A mother whose pregnancy is filled with a consistent unresolved pattern of fear or anxiety has a greater chance of producing an anxious child. Mother and baby share hormones, and an environment full of stress hormones may affect the wiring of the developing brain. Stress is inevitable in life, especially during times of change such as pregnancy. It’s what you do about it that matters. A mother who eats well, gets regular exercise, and takes time to work through her own fears and anxieties will create a better womb environment for her baby. Other family members should be aware of the need to nurture mom, so she can be mentally as calm as possible to nurture the new life growing inside her.
Four reasons how breastfeeding can build better brains:
1. Increased nurturing. Studies show breastfed babies feed more often than do formula-fed babies who are also more likely to be fed on schedule. Also, because breastfed babies feed more often, they tend to be touched, held, and interacted with more.
The milk, in addition to the mothering, gives babies a head start. At least eleven scientific studies show that breastfed babies are smarter. And the more frequently and longer infants are breastfed, the greater this intellectual advantage.
2. Increased touch. Breastfed babies are more likely to sleep all or part of the night in the same bed with mother, a healthy parenting practice that further increases daily “touch time.” Infant development specialists believe that touch – and the lack of it – has a powerful influence on a child’s physical and intellectual development. Breastfeeding mothers may also be more sensitive to their child’s signals; to be successful at breastfeeding a mother must watch her baby rather than the clock or the marks on the feeding bottle. This sensitivity carries over into other areas.
3. Increased brain-building nutrition. Breastmilk contains around 400 nutrients that are not found in formula. For example, mother’s milk contains brain-building fats that provide the components for building myelin, the insulating sheath around nerve fibers that help messages travel faster. Human milk is adapted perfectly to the changing brain development of the human species; that is before modern science began tampering with infant feeding.
Breastmilk contains a lot of cholesterol (not too much, not too little – sort of a medium cholesterol diet), and cholesterol promotes brain growth. Infant formula contains little or no cholesterol; an executive decision probably based more on marketing than on sound nutritional principles, since people automatically avoid products that contain cholesterol. Consequently, babies do without this brain builder unless they are breastfed. Breastmilk is rich in other brain-building nutrients as well. Lactose, the main carbohydrate in breastmilk, is the sugar the brain prefers. Some formulas contain no lactose. Taurine is a brain-building protein appearing in human milk. Only recently have some formula manufacturers added taurine, but they are still uncertain about how much to add.
4. Increased responsiveness. We can’t emphasize this enough: a parent’s responsiveness to the cues of his or her child is one of the most healthy attitude builders. A breastfeeding mother is more likely to respond in a more nurturing and natural way to her baby’s needs and cries because she has a hormonal head start. When her baby cries the blood flow to her breasts increase and she has an overwhelming biological urge to pick up and nurse her baby. The more often she nurses, the higher the levels of her maternal hormones (prolactin and oxytocin) – biochemical messengers that travel throughout a mother’s brain affecting how she acts toward her baby. These hormones are thought to contribute to the immeasurable, but vitally important, mother’s intuition.
(For more information, see “How Breastfeeding Builds Better Brains“)
Infants who are carried more cry less. Infants who spend less time crying devote more time and energy to growing and learning. The neurological reason for this is that motion regulates babies. Carried babies show an increase in awake content time, called quiet alertness . This is the behavioral state in which an infant is most content and best able to interact with the environment. Newborns have disorganized nervous systems in their new environment; they must adjust to being outside the womb. Unheld, they flail their arms, arch their backs, and genuinely seem unsettled. Slings contain and settle babies by providing the motion and holding that babies need to be neurologically organized.
Another result of being carried in a sling is that babies receive more attentive parenting and more interaction with the environment, causing more brain cell connections. In fact, researchers have reported that carried babies show enhanced visual and auditory alertness. Also, the behavioral state of quiet alertness gives parents a better opportunity to interact with their baby. When facing forward in the sling, a baby has a wide view of her environment – she is able to scan her world. Baby learns to choose—focusing on what she wishes to look at and shutting out what she doesn’t. This ability to make choices also enhances learning.
A baby learns a lot in the arms of a busy caregiver. A baby’s brain grows and develops according to environmental experiences that stimulate nerves to branch out and connect with other nerves. Babywearing also helps the infant’s developing brain make the right connections. Because a baby is intimately involved in the world of the caregiver and participates in what the caregiver is doing, she has practice attending to what her caregiver does and says. Her developing brain stores these experiences as thousands of tiny short-run movies that are filed in the infant’s neurological library, to be rerun over and over.
Because we recognize the value of babywearing on a baby’s intellectual development, every new parent that comes into our pediatric practice gets a demonstration on the art of babywearing. Babywearing parents often tell us “As soon as I pick up the sling and put it on, my baby lights up and raises his arms, as if in anticipation that he will soon be in my arms and in my world.” (See )
How you talk to your baby has a profound effect on your baby’s brain development, and here’s where parents, especially mothers, really shine.
Mothers, you don’t have to learn how to talk to your baby. You’re a natural. Mothers instinctively use motherese – upbeat tones and facial gestures – to talk to their babies. They raise the pitch, s-l-o-w the rate, and E-X-A-G-G-E-R-A-T-E the main syllables. Notice that when you talk to your baby you put your whole face into the act by over-widening your mouth and eyes while talking. You naturally slow down and speed up according to baby’s attention. To make sure baby gets the message, mothers instinctively draw out their vowels – “Goood baaaby.” How a mother talks is more important to a baby than what she says.
Mothers also naturally show a brain-building phenomenon called turn taking. Mothers talk in slowly rising crescendos and decrescendos with bursts and pauses, allowing baby some time to process each short, vocal package before the next message arrives. Though you may feel that talking to your baby is a monologue, you naturally speak to your baby as if you are imagining a dialogue. Video analysis of the fine art of mother-baby communication shows that a mother behaves as if she imagines her baby talks back. She naturally shortens her messages and elongates her pauses to the exact length of time that coincides with the length of the imagined response from the baby, especially when she is talking to the baby in the form of a question. This is a baby’s earliest speech lesson, in which the mother is shaping her baby’s ability to listen. The infant stores these early abilities away and later recalls them when beginning to speak. Here are some exercises for mothers and fathers to use in brain-building baby talk.
- Look at the listener. Capture baby’s eyes before beginning your conversation and you will be able to hold her attention longer and are more likely to get an appreciative response.
- Be responsive. You may think that babies don’t talk much until 1½-to-2-years-of-age, but baby “talk” begins at birth. To a tiny baby, language is any sound or gesture that makes a caregiver respond. Early on, a newborn learns that her language is a tool for social interchange that she can use to get attention and satisfy needs. As a baby grows, so do her communication tools (facial expressions, body language, gestures, babbles, and eventually, spoken words). Also, a baby’s vocabulary is growing, even before she begins to speak. By responding sensitively to your baby’s cries, and by talking with your baby, you help her refine and develop communication skills. When babies “talk”, parents learn to listen. When baby gives a cue, say a pick-me-up gesture, caregivers read and respond by picking baby up. Because baby’s cues were appropriately read and sensitively responded to, baby is motivated to give more cues. He stores more cue-response connections in his developing brain because he trusts he’ll get an appropriate response to his cues. “My needs will be met,” baby trusts. Not so with the baby whose caregivers are restrained in their responses. These babies fail to thrive. (See )
- Address baby by name. While a baby may not associate the name with herself until later on in the first year, hearing it frequently triggers a mental association that this is a special sound she has heard before and signals that more fun sounds will follow – much as an adult perks up to a familiar tune.
- Keep it simple. Use short, two- or three-word sentences, and one- or two- syllable words with lots of drawn out exaggerated vowels: “Preeetty baaaby.”
- Keep it lively. Say, “wave bye-bye to cat” as you direct your waving bye-bye at the cat. Babies are more likely to recall words that are associated with animated gestures. Give your speech some spark with inflections at the end of the sentence. Exaggerate cue words. Babies become bored with the same old sounds.
- Ask questions. “Suzy want to nurse?” Talking in questions will naturally amplify the sound at the end of the sentence as you anticipate baby’s response.
- Talk about what you are doing. As you go through your daily maintenance tasks of dressing, bathing, and changing baby, narrate what you are doing, much like a sportscaster describing a game, “Now daddy takes off the diaper…now we put on a new one…” It’s normal to feel a bit foolish initially, but you are not talking to a stone wall. There is a little person with big ears and a developing brain processing every word she hears, storing it on an endless memory record. In my pediatric practice, I have noticed that infants of chatty mothers tend to become more talkative toddlers.
- Read to baby. It’s never too early to read to your child. Babies love nursery rhymes and poems with an up- and-down singsong cadence. Yet, there will be days when your adult mind needs more than Mother Goose. Read your favorite magazine or book aloud to baby, pepping up the story for a baby’s ears. BRAIN- BUILDING DADS Babies learn to associate fathers with fun and play, which itself is a brain-building exercise. To a baby, play is learning. For most dads, a regular time to do something means it’s more likely to be done. And routines can develop relationships. So, pick a regular night each week for “Daddy and me” reading time. Your arms, your lap, and male vocal intonations go a long way toward enhancing future reading skills.
- Say it with music. Infant researchers believe that singing affects more of a baby’s brain centers for language than do words without music. Even if you are not an opera star, you will at least have an admiring audience of one. Babies at all ages love familiar songs, either self-composed or borrowed. File away baby’s top ten favorites and replay them frequently. Babies thrive on repetition.
Not only how you talk to your infant, but also how you listen, helps build a brainy baby. Many studies show that the most powerful enhancer of brain development is the quality of parent-infant attachment and the response of the caregiving environment to the cues of the infant. A high-touch, high response style of parenting promotes baby brain development by feeding the brain the right kind of information at a time in the child’s life when the brain needs the most nourishment. If you are beginning to feel important in helping build your baby’s brain, you are! Simply stated, the volumes of new research conclude that what parents do with babies makes them smarter.
Responding to baby’s cues builds brain connections.
Not so long ago, parents were bombarded with the wrong message that what they buy for their baby is more important for intellectual development than what they do with their baby. This parental overreaction to consumer over marketing resulted in nurseries looking like bedrooms for baby zebras. Infant stimulation classes mushroomed and brain-stimulation toys were promoted to parents seeking a head start to get their children into Harvard.
There is no evidence that fancy toys and expensive classes make brighter babies. When researchers evaluated the influence of toys and programs on infant development, mothers still came out on top. In the keynote address at the 1986 annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics, infant development specialist, Dr. Michael Lewis, reviewed studies of factors that build brighter babies. This presentation was in response to the overselling of the “super baby” phenomenon that emphasized the use of programs and kits that coaxed parents into the role of teachers rather than playful companions and sensitive nurturers. In summarizing the research, Dr. Lewis concluded that the single most important influence on a child’s intellectual development was the responsiveness of the caregivers to the cues of the baby. Cues build connections. So, it isn’t the stuff parent’s buy or the cards you flash that give baby a smart start. Relationships, not things, build brighter babies.
Music relaxes mind and body. New research is proving what parents have long suspected: music can make infants and children calmer and possibly smarter. The interest in music as a cerebral stimulant stems from the observations that premature infants in newborn nurseries seem to thrive better when exposed to classical music. Studies in schools have shown that the attention and performance of students improves when listening to background classical music. Music scientists theorize that music “organizes” the patterns of neurons throughout the brain, especially those associated with creative reasoning. Doctors theorize that music has a calming effect by stimulating the release of “endorphin” hormones, )
To a child, play and learning are the same. Babies learn about their world through play, and parents can learn about what their babies are thinking by watching them play. By observing and sharing in a baby’s play, parents can begin to get a faint idea of all the decision-making and problem-solving processes going on in the baby’s developing mind.
Games babies’ play can stimulate those trillions of brain nerves to make smart connections. Be careful, though, when playing these games to respect your baby’s needs to rest now and then, or end the game, by turning away from you.
Face-to-face game. From two weeks to two month favorite games (and it doesn’t cost you a dime) are facial games. When your baby is in the quiet alert state, hold her within the best focusing distance (around 8 to 10 inches) and slowly stick out your tongue as far as you can. When baby begins to move her tongue, sometimes even protrude it, you know you’ve registered a hit. Try the same game by opening your mouth wide or changing the contour of your lips. Facial expressions are contagious. You may catch your baby making you yawn.
Mirroring games. In playing face-imitation games, you mirror your newborn’s expressions back to her. When a newborn frowns, opens her eyes or mouth wide, or grimaces, mimic her expressions and exaggerate them. Baby sees her face in her mother’s. Mirroring is a powerful enforcer of baby’s self- awareness. Babies love to mimic your changing facial expressions. Like a dance, you lead, baby follows. Nothing can entertain a baby like a face.
- Grab-and-shake games. Babies love games with rattles, rings, rag dolls, and small cuddly blankets.
- Sit-and-hit games. Dangle an interesting toy or mobile within baby’s reach. Watch him punch at it or try to gather it in his arms.
- Kicking games. Kick toys are a favorite at this age. Pom-poms, rattles, and pleasant noisemakers can be attached to baby’s ankles for her to activate with her kicking.
- Finger games. Give your baby six-inch strips of yarn to play with. See how she uses her fingers, hands, and arms and how intently she focuses on the string. Note: Supervise your baby closely when you play any game with strings in order to avoid a choking hazard. FUN AND GAMES WITH THE SIX- TO NINE-MONTH-OLD
- Play ball! Balls and blocks are and always will be some of the best baby toys. Babies can do so much with these simple toys.
- Mirror play. Sit baby within touching distance of a mirror (floor-to-ceiling mirrors are the best). Watch your baby try to match her hands and face with the image in the mirror. When you appear alongside, baby becomes fascinated at your image next to his in the reflection.
- Roll games. Playing on foam bolsters , which you can begin around four months, becomes even more fun at this age, because babies can crawl up and over these cushions and entertain themselves. Drape baby over a bolster cushion and place a toy just beyond her reach. Notice how baby digs her feet in, pushing and rolling herself forward on the foam cylinder in hot pursuit of the toy.
Babies in this stage are very curious about the relationship between toys – how a big toy is related to a little toy and how a little object fits into a bigger one. This is the stage of container play, where baby can figure out play combinations of objects (like banging, stacking, and the ever-favorite fill-and-dump).
- Banging games. Put cotton in your ears and bring out the pots and pans! Baby delights in the noise of banging and dropping.
- Stacking games. Baby also delights in putting little pots into bigger pots. Plastic bowls and measuring cups are great for these games, too.
- Fill-and-dump games. Give baby hand-size blocks and a shoe box or a large plastic cup and watch how little hands and minds work together to figure out how to put the blocks into the container and, of course, how to dump it out. While you are doing laundry, place baby in a large laundry basket half-full of small clothes, preferably socks and baby clothes. After baby takes the clothes out of the basket, put your little helper outside the basket and show her how to put the clothes back in, picking up a sock and putting it back into the basket for here.
- Water play. Encourage bathtub and sink play, always under supervision, which gives the master dumper an exercise in filing and pouring. Scooping up a cup of water and pouring it out makes a big splash on baby’s list of favorite games.
From nine to twelve months, the master mental skill that begins to mature at this age is the concept of object permanence – the ability to remember where a toy is hidden. Previously, out of sight was out of mind. If you hid a toy under a blanket, baby showed little interest in finding the toy. Try this experiment. Let baby see you place a favorite toy under one of two cloth diapers lying in front of her. Watch baby momentarily study the diapers, as if figuring out which diaper is covering the toy. By the “I’m thinking” expression on her face, you get the feeling that she is trying to recall in her memory under which diaper the toy is hidden.
- Play hide-and-seek. Baby’s new ability to remember the place where a parent’s bopping head was last seen makes this game a favorite. Let baby chase you around the couch. When she loses you, peer around the edge of the couch and call her by name. Baby will crawl to where she saw you peering. Eventually, she will imitate you by hiding and peeking around the couch herself.
- Hide-and-seek with sounds. Next, add the game of “sounding.” Instead of letting baby see where you are hiding, stay hidden but call her name. Watch her crawl, and later toddle, around the house in search of the voice she mentally matches with the missing person. Keep sounding to hold the searching baby’s interest.
Interactions, not stuff, build brighter brains.
Toys are the icing on the brain-building cake. Your relationship with your baby is the real cake. The developmental basis for baby toys is called contingency play, in which baby discovers the cause-and-effect relationship. Basically, a toy should stimulate as many senses as possible, so that baby can see, hear, feel, and do something with the toy.
While we have stressed the simple things in life—caregiver interactions, not stuff makes brighter babies—here are some fun and inexpensive toys that can stimulate your baby’s brain development during the first year:
- Handheld toys: rattles, rings (3-4 inches in diameter), toy telephones, unbreakable mirrors
- Toys that have bright contrasting primary colors, like black and white and primary colors, and big squares or dots
- Cloth books
- Baby rolls (6-inch foam rubber rollers or cushions that are great props for floor play)
- Squeeze and squeak toys
- Blocks and balls (always a favorite)
- Grab and transfer toys, such as rings
- One that fits your child’s developmental level
- One that encourages imaginative play rather than “doing” something for the child on its own
- One that encourages parent-child interaction
- One that will last and grow with your child
- One that is safe