Improve Your Baby’s Brain Development

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By Nicole Gregory Of all the caregiving tasks you’ll perform for your newborn, the most daunting may be helping her develop optimally. And development of her brain seems particularly crucial. While it may feel like a big responsibility, experts say that all you need to do is what parents have done for thousands of years: Hold her, look at her, talk and sing to her, and respond to her needs. Interaction with parents does more for a baby’s brain in the first year of life than anything else. How baby’s brain grows A baby is born with 100 billion brain cells, and this number increases exponentially as her brain begins to develop. “Infancy is a period of rapid growth and change,” says Anna Penna, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of Pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine. “Neurons in the cortex [front and top of the brain] are all born by the time a baby is delivered at term,” she says, “but neurons in the cerebellum—a region at the back of the brain that is involved in motor control, cognition and error correction— are still being born for the fi rst few years of childhood.” Different parts of the brain develop at different rates. Vision, for instance, is immature at birth, designed only to see a parent’s face up close. But at 3 months, a baby can track a moving object. By age 1, her vision is like an adult’s. Hearing, however, is perfect at birth. By 3 months a baby will know your voice, and look for you when she hears it. Sights, sounds, touches and smells flood a baby’s brain and it becomes a dynamic activity center. NEXT: What does a baby’s brain need? {pagebreak} What does a baby’s brain need? Of course, for a baby’s overall healthy growth, she needs nourishment, safety, warmth and sleep. But a baby’s relationship with her primary caregivers has the biggest effect on how her brain develops. Face-to-face interaction—making eye contact with baby while you talk to and smile at her—will help her focus attention and stimulate her vision and hearing as she enjoys getting to know you. Your baby will thrive in her relationship to you; this attachment is critical for her well-being. “One of the biggest recommendations for parents of infants is to respond to them consistently and warmly every time they cry,” says Diane Bales, Ph.D., associate professor and human development specialist at the University of Georgia. “Interaction with people is crucial to brain development. It’s not possible to spoil an infant by picking him up, comforting him and taking care of his physical and emotional needs. A baby whose parents respond consistently learns that the world is trustworthy. This helps build a strong, secure attachment between baby and parents. Secure attachments, in turn, lead to more independence and better academic and social skills as children get older.” The strength of this very early attachment has a huge effect on a child’s later life. Children who were raised in orphanages by numerous caretakers sometimes have severe social difficulty later in life. “A child who has no early attachment to one or two adults will walk off with anyone who smiles at him,” says Robin Blitz, M.D., of the Arizona Child Study Center at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, who works with adopted children and their families. “Kids with attachment disorders also don’t have a lot of remorse if they do something that hurts another person.” Parents of adopted children from orphanages sometimes have to work very hard to create a strong bond when it did not happen in the child’s first years. NEXT: The power of reading {pagebreak} The power of reading One way to connect intimately with your baby’s growing mind is to read to her—no matter how young she is. The idea is not just to familiarize her with language. “Reading together is a great way to strengthen those attachment relationships,” says Bales. “By holding a baby close, using an animated voice tone and sharing touch, smiles and laughter, parents are communicating love and caring, which helps build trust.” But of course, language is at the heart of the shared reading experience. “It’s the one-on-one attention that really makes the experience so magical,” says Jill Stamm, author of Bright from the Start: The Simple, Science-Backed Way to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind from Birth to Age 3 (Gotham Books, 2007). “But you’re also pointing to an object in the book and explaining the picture or story, bathing that child in complex language and her brain is absorbing all of it.” The brain is a pattern-seeking organ, Stamm explains. “In all aspects of a baby’s brain development, there is the search for patterns.” That’s why simple books that rely on word repetition can capture a baby’s attention. “Repetition strengthens the language connections in the brain,” agrees Bales. “Reading is an opportunity to hear the same words and phrases repeated over and over.” NEXT: Brain-building stuff {pagebreak} Brain-building stuff As if books weren’t good enough, most children’s bookstores these days tout all kinds of so-called “brain-building” toys or gadgets for babies (or, more accurately, for their nervous new parents). Save your money. “There is no good evidence that buying flash cards, special videos or fancy developmental toys improve brain development,” says Penna, “but there is good data to suggest that infants who get plenty of adult attention and interaction have a better foundation for learning.” The attraction of such toys or devices is the idea that a baby’s intelligence can be ensured by buying the right object. “It’s more important for a mother or father to play with the baby than to turn on Mozart next to the crib and go in the other room to work on the computer,” says Blitz. It’s also important to note that the benefits of hearing parents speak do not translate when a baby hears talking on TV. “On television, speech goes way too fast for a baby, and she can’t connect with what’s happening on the screen,” says Stamm, who notes that when parents talk to their babies, all kinds of subtle communications take place, including body movements and a recognition of each other’s reactions. The American Academy of Pediatrics advocates that children 2 years old and younger not watch television, saying that too much television can negatively affect their brain development at the time when learning to talk and play is so important. Of course, these days, parents are busy and can’t always be fully attentive. Still, it’s helpful to remember that babyhood is fleeting. “If you had all the money in the world and could buy anything, I would suggest that you buy more time with your child,” says Blitz. “That is the most important thing.” Talk, Talk, Talk Talking to your baby, even when she has no idea what you’re saying, is an effective way to engage her brain. Research shows that “the developing brain is strongly affected by early language exposure,” says Anna Penna, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of Pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine. And if you and your husband speak two different languages, talking to your baby in both could carry some benefit. “Recent studies suggest that being immersed in two languages early on does change the way connections in the brain develop,” says Penna. “These kids may also use slightly different, more abstract strategies to decipher new words and can use multiple cues from adults to figure out which language they should be using when.” If a baby hears two languages at home at an early age, she may later do better on cognitive tests.

The best way to engage your baby's mind isn't with fancy toys or flash cards. It's you.

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