Building baby’s brain
“Children come into this world ready to learn, love and play.” Ingrid Bauer
Many of us live busy, goal-oriented lives in which we race about, eager to achieve quick results and succeed in all manner of tasks, great or small. This cultural tendency permeates everything we do — even our nurturing. As a parent, you may be eager for your children to achieve and, even when they are babies, you are encouraged to watch them closely, ticking the boxes of optimal development as they grow.
Panic may set in at the first sign of inadequacy but, although fears relating to autism and learning disabilities are sometimes warranted, in most cases a child who learns to walk first is not necessarily Einstein in the making, nor is the child who crawls last destined to be Bart Simpson. All children are different, they progress at individual rates and neurological development naturally ebbs and flows.
While it is certainly useful for parents to have an understanding of developmental milestones, it’s better again for them to learn how to enrich their child’s environment and appreciate which lifestyle factors may dampen their child’s capacity to grow.
The amazing baby brain
Did you know that babies have far more brain cells than adults? When a baby is born their brain has more neurons (specialised cell-transmitting nerve messages) than it will ever have later in life, giving the child an enormous capacity to learn and develop. It is a baby’s environment that creates the stimulus to get these neurons firing and wiring — in other words, the environment primes the brain.
Baby brain-training DVDs
Interestingly, a survey of more than 1000 parents of two-month to 24-month-old babies found that for each hour per day an infant watched a “brain-training” DVD, there was a significant decrease in the pace of language development. This was compared to the act of reading books with a parent; the latter was associated with a seven-point increase in language scores, while the DVD viewing was associated with a 17-point decrease.
This research suggests that, while infants learn quickly about their world by watching parents or caregivers, much less is learned when this information is presented via audiovisual media. The fact that DVDs attract the attention of infants does not mean they induce learning. The American Academy of Pediatrics officially recommends that parents avoid screen time for children under the age of two years: “These early years are crucial in a child’s development … Any positive effect of television on infants and toddlers is still open to question but the benefits of parent-child interactions are proven.”
Indeed, there seems to be no adequate substitute for making time to bond and connect with your children. So if brain development paraphernalia is not the best answer, are there other ways for parents to support their children’s development? The answer is there are many simple things you can do assist your baby’s brain development.
Simple ways to help baby’s brain development
First and foremost, the greatest gift you can give your baby is yourself, meaning your attention, your time and your energy. There are times when this level of devotion can be trying but in years to come you will delight in having spent quality time with your child — reading, cuddling, playing and building a lifelong bond and connection.
Alternate sides when feeding
Mother Nature is so clever. Take, for example, the fascinating fact that a newborn has her clearest visual acuity at 20–25cm — the exact distance between her own face and her mother’s face when she is attached to the breast! Indeed, each time the newborn is fed, she is being nourished nutritionally and emotionally.
The second fascinating fact is that Mother Nature provides two breasts, not one, so that Mum will naturally swap her baby from side to side while feeding. This ensures that even right-left brain development occurs. Therefore, if you are bottle-feeding your baby, be sure to swap your baby from one arm to the other to mimic this natural phenomenon.
Prioritise tummy time
From a neurological perspective it is vitally important that babies (from three weeks of age onwards) start to have short bursts of tummy time — time spent lying on their tummies and holding their own heads up. This simple act builds up their neck muscles and activates brainstem pathways that are critical for healthy brain development.
If you have your baby lie on your chest and talk to him, you will encourage him to lift his head and look you in the eyes. Also, each time you change your baby’s nappy, roll him on his stomach for a few moments. Note: if your baby does not appear to like lying on his stomach, this could be an indication of spine or nerve irritation and it’s best to have him checked by a chiropractor.
Give your baby objects to gaze at
Babies love visual stimulation. As well as hanging mobiles, you can provide wall charts with shapes to look at, ideally at varying distances. Start with black-and-white shapes because initially newborns see only in black and white. If you would like to download free developmental charts, go to welladjusted.me/au/developmental-charts
Encourage your baby to have lots of free playtime
Whenever possible, allow your baby time to move about, explore her world and entertain herself with a variety of objects, such as cups, balls, spoons, string, a plastic mirror etc. Every time a baby reaches out to touch something new her neurological synapses connect, eventually building circuits that are strong enough to trigger the next developmental milestone. As your baby grows older, teach her stimulating activities such as blowing bubbles or balloons, building with blocks, doing puzzles and counting beads.
Have your baby’s nervous system checked
To maximise your child’s nerve function have him assessed by a chiropractor or cranial osteopath skilled with children. Clinical studies indicate that rapid growth of the entire brain occurs during the first year of life. The Journal of Neuroscience (2008) states that, although the first year of life may be a period of developmental vulnerability, it may also be a period in which therapeutic interventions would have the greatest positive effect.
Massage your baby
Massage provides wonderful stimulus and feedback to the brain. Alternate soft, all-over body massage with firmer pressure holds, working slowly down one arm, across the torso and down the opposite leg to the foot. Repeat this on both sides. This massage is great for calming the nervous system, particularly if your child is upset or over-stimulated when it’s time for sleep.
Make sure your child is getting ample sleep
If a baby or child does not wake up easily and with energy each morning, this could indicate he is not getting enough quality sleep. As parents we often miss our children’s tiredness cues and then we have great difficulty trying to put them to bed when their brains have moved back into fourth gear. A set routine for dinner and bedtime makes life easier for everyone. Start these activities well before your child is likely to be tired and ready for sleep.
From an early age it’s important to teach your child a range of physical activities so she can learn to balance and co-ordinate her body. Activities such as standing on one leg, hopping, skipping and walking along a beam or ledge (under supervision) are all helpful for balance, while spinning, swinging, ball games, clapping hands and cross crawling all provide wonderful brain feedback and can be introduced early.
Prime your baby’s senses
Whenever possible, introduce new sensory experiences to your baby. Let him play with a range of objects that have different textures and temperatures or that make different sounds. Use the everyday world to excite his senses; have him run barefoot on the grass or sand, dip his fingers and toes in water, or play with rustling leaves.
Understand your baby knows more than you realise
Just because babies and young children cannot articulate their thoughts doesn’t mean they don’t understand more than we typically give them credit for. Using baby talk to communicate does not serve your infant’s developing brain. You can extend her lingual and comprehension skills using language; for example, rather than just pointing to a dog and saying “puppy dog”, you could say, “See the puppy dog. He barks and says ‘woof, woof!’” As your child grows, ask her questions that test her short- and long-term memory.
Turn down the TV
Studies have found that 40 per cent of households keep the television on in the background and that this negatively affects children, decreasing both the quantity and quality of parent–child interactions. If you want to keep the television on, turn the volume down as this keeps the brain active.
Know the milestones
The movement, behaviour and language your baby should ideally be demonstrating at different ages are known as age-appropriate developmental milestones. Knowing these kinds of milestones can be useful for helping to ensure your baby’s brain is wiring and firing in an ideal manner and whether to take action if your baby needs additional help. If you would like to download free developmental charts, go to welladjusted.me/au/developmental-charts
Minimise your child’s exposure to toxins
Pollutants in our modern environment, such as pesticides, heavy metals, herbicides and fumigants, have been linked to abnormalities in behaviour, perception, cognition and motor ability during early childhood, even when exposure is at so-called harmless levels. Try to provide your child with fresh air, organic food and a low-toxin environment. Educate yourself about the metals and harsh chemicals in everyday products such as prescription and non-prescription drugs.
Go organic where possible
Choosing organic food is not a luxury but rather an integral step in securing good health. Organic food allows a child’s body to focus on growth and development rather than having to combat the residues of antibiotics, hormones, artificial pesticides and genetically modiï¬ed organisms now found in much produce.
Prioritise brain foods
Essential fatty acids (EFAs) and omega-3 fatty acids are great brain foods and are found in cold-water oily fish, plant oils such as macadamia, flaxseed and olive, some nuts and seeds, goat’s milk products, blueberries and egg yolks. Omega-3 fatty acids, specifically DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), are critical for the development of baby’s brain to the extent that low levels of omega-3 in the maternal diet have been linked to reduced problem-solving skills and slightly lower IQ in the children of those mothers. These foods should be introduced at the age-appropriate time.
Help your baby develop profound self-acceptance
Another extremely valuable gift you can offer your children is an authentic belief in themselves. A baby is intimately attuned to his caregiver’s feelings, so as parents we need to be mindful of sending babies the message that they are unconditionally lovable. Whenever you are delighted and pleased with your baby’s behaviour or capacity to try something new and to learn, let him know! As you children grow older, tell them how amazing and clever they are. Aim to “talk them up and build them up” and to reduce criticism as much as possible. Tell them you believe in them and give them permission to shine and be wonderful.
Consider your baby’s head shape
There is a myth that an odd-shaped baby’s head is of no concern and will “right itself” with time, however, anomalies of shape can be the first indication that your baby is susceptible to developmental delay. If his head looks uneven or you notice flat areas, this can indicate restrictions between the skull and the soft layers that cover the brain and spinal cord. A healthy brain requires good movement of the skull and spine; when this movement is impaired, brain and nerve function are also impaired. It’s best — whether your baby’s head is odd-shaped or not — to have your newborn’s skeletal system checked as early as possible by a chiropractor or osteopath.
Prioritising your child’s early brain development is one of the most important gifts you can give him or her. Spending quality time with your child and fostering a healthy lifestyle are far superior to the use of any parenting paraphernalia. By focusing on wholesome brain development in your infant’s first few years, you can truly influence the child’s lifelong learning, social relationships and overall wellbeing.
Dr Jennifer Barham-Floreani is a mother of four, a chiropractor and a best-selling family health author. For more extensive information on the topic refer to her book Ticklish. W: www.TicklishBook.com