Boosting baby’s brain power

Do you want to give your baby the best start in life? The years between birth and age five are critical in the development of a child’s brain. A baby’s brain develops more in those first years than it will for the rest of his or her life. Research shows that a child’s interactions and experiences during these years influence their emotional, social and intellectual development.

At birth, a baby’s brain holds more than 100 billion brain cells called neurons. After birth, however, the real work begins. During a child’s first years, he or she will grow connections called neural synapses between brain cells. These connections are like phone lines, allowing the neurons to talk to each other. They establish how information flows through the brain and how it is processed. A child’s experiences and attachments influence how neuron connections form. According to Dr. Jill Stamm, author of Bright from the Start, every time you pat your child’s back, feed him or walk to a new place, new connections form. “The brain literally evolves in response to experience and to the environment.”

Stamm also says that forming, refining and eliminating these neural connections are the main tasks of early brain development. In fact, toddlers have twice as many neural connections as an adult has. As the child ages, pathways that are not used repeatedly are pruned and lost. That is why experts advise people to “use it or lose it” when it comes to brain cells.

So as a parent, what can you do to help your child’s brain development? According to researchers, parents can encourage their child’s healthy brain development in three important ways – getting good prenatal care, building warm and loving attachments, and providing positive stimulation. Try these tips to help you get started on the right path for your baby’s healthy brain development.

Give the gift of a healthy start. Taking care of yourself while you are pregnant gives your baby and her brain the best possible start in life. Studies have found that children whose mothers’ abused drugs, alcohol and cigarettes during pregnancy have a greater chance of having learning problems. In addition, a recent Harvard University study shows that pregnant women who eat three servings of fish per week are 30 percent more likely to have children with higher developmental scores than mothers who eat less than one serving per week. Fish is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are important to a baby’s developing brain. It is important to remember, however, that pregnant women should choose fish with low mercury levels.

Breastfeed as long as you can. Breast milk contains lipids called DHA and AHA that help develop a baby’s brain. A Harvard study found that 18-month-old babies who were breastfed for ten months or longer had higher developmental scores than babies who were not breastfed for that length of time.

Give your baby lots of attention. Holding your baby and cuddling with her encourages trust and bonding. Scientists believe that positive physical contact creates stronger connections between brain cells. Studies show that babies who are infrequently touched have smaller than normal brains for their age. In addition, holding, cuddling and responding promptly when your baby cries helps to build positive connections in the limbic area of your baby’s brain. To strengthen your bond with your baby, hold, rock, sing, feed and kiss her often.
Communicate often and in many ways. Even before your baby is born, you can start talking to him or her. After birth, carry on a conversation with your infant. Change your tone and volume. Try some baby talk. Say your baby’s name often to encourage recognition. Answer her when she coos and babbles at you. Even though young babies cannot talk back, they can still absorb the words you say and the sounds you make. This stimulation helps them learn new words and make brain connections in the brain’s speech and language areas.

Read, read, read. Reading builds your baby’s receptive language areas, which helps him better understand spoken words. Choose age-appropriate books that have large colorful pictures. For toddlers, ask your child to talk about the book or predict what will happen on the next page. Some children may enjoy repeating the words and phrases or retelling the story in their own words.

Fill playtime with developmentally appropriate toys. Toys help babies explore and learn. Pushing a button to make a doll talk teaches a child about cause-and-effect. Getting messy with sand, water and mud can teach a child the different textures and the properties of solids and liquids. Even cleaning up toys can help develop a child’s brain. Sorting toys into storage bins teaches categorization while lining up toys in order demonstrates sequencing.

Play games that use your hands. Games like Patty-cake, Peek-a-boo encourage your baby to follow and predict simple sequential movements.

Have a sing-a-long. Listening to and singing songs helps to teach your baby about rhythm, rhyme and language. Add hand motions and movement to include motor skills as you sing.

Every time you interact with your baby and bond with him, you give his brain a great foundation for building neural connections. With repeated stimulation, these connections will become hardwired and boost your baby’s brain power for years to come. 

Carla Mooney is a freelance writer from Gibsonia, PA.