Many people make the mistake of undermining the cognitive potential and importance of a child’s mind, when in fact, the initial years after birth serve as the foundational phase for the development of the human mind. Within the first year itself, the baby’s brain grows double in size and continues to grow to 90 percent by the age of 5.
Thus, it’s safe to say that a human brain becomes almost fully grown by the time a human is merely 5 years old. This alone should be reason enough for you to sit up and take notice of what your infant is learning and experiencing, to ensure that the child grows up to be a well-adjusted and properly functioning individual.
Even at birth, a baby’s brain contains all the neurons it will ever possess. However, it is the connections between these neurons that enable the brain to carry out its various functions, allowing us to move, think, communicate, and everything else that comes with the territory of being alive and active.
During the first few years, a child’s brain undergoes an amazing period of development-producing more than a million neural connections each second. In fact, more neural connections are established during this phase than at any other life period.
This development of the brain is influenced by many factors, including a child’s relationships, experiences, and environment. In a positive environment, the brain’s neural connections and pathways have a better chance of becoming wired together. Based on these connections, the child gradually learns to move, speak, think, and feel in more complex ways.
This, in turn, paves the way for rich language, reasoning, and planning skills-right from childhood. All these skills that children acquire during the nascent stages of their lives lay the groundwork for them to lead healthy, independent, and successful lives as capable grown-ups.
As a parent, you can take several steps to ensure that your child has a strong start in life and enjoys optimal brain and physical development.
Encourage Your Child’s Brain Development
Below are the top 10 ways to enhance brain development in children.
1. Do Not Smoke during Pregnancy
To give your baby a healthy start to life, it is important that you steer clear of smoking during pregnancy and that you take the necessary precautions to protect your unborn child from exposure to secondhand smoke.
Smoking is the number one cause of adverse outcomes for babies. The harmful chemicals in cigarette smoke can have damaging ramifications for the fetus’s brain development, according to a 2015 study published in Acta Paediatrica. Smoking during pregnancy releases a toxic brew into your bloodstream, polluting your baby’s only source of oxygen and nutrients.
Alterations in brain structure and function have been seen in children exposed to prenatal smoking. This can lead to learning disorders, behavioral problems, and relatively low IQ in children.
2. Breastfeed Your Baby
Breast milk is very important for newborn babies. In addition to building the baby’s immunity, the mother’s milk also works as a brain tonic!
The fat and cholesterol found in breast milk ensure proper brain development.
A 2010 study published in Pediatric Research reports that breastfeeding is associated with a higher cognitive level, particularly in males.
Another study published in 2016 in the Journal of Pediatrics found that preterm babies who were fed more breast milk within the first 28 days of life had larger volumes of certain regions of the brain at term equivalent and had better IQs, academic achievement, working memory, and motor function.
Here is another good reason you should consider breastfeeding your baby. Breastfeeding in the first few weeks of your baby’s life contributes to notable gains in intelligence and motor skills.
3. Introduce Music Early
An early introduction and sustained exposure to music can help your child in the long run. Music promotes cognitive health, and the best way to avail its benefits is by enrolling your child for music lessons at an impressionable age.
In fact, music has a triggering effect on the release of a chemical called dopamine by the neurons, which in turn spurs motivation to keep learning. Music can also make studying fun and help children grasp things easily.
A 2006 study published in Brain shows a strong connection between musical training and brain development. Researchers found that young children taking music lessons have better brain development and improved memory over the course of a year than children not receiving musical training.
Another study published in 2013 in the Journal of Neuroscience reports that musical training before age 7 helped brain development. Children who started taking music lessons early had better connections across the corpus callosum, which connects the left and right hemispheres of the cerebrum.
4. Strictly Limit Screen Time
No matter how busy you are, do not use it as an excuse to add more screen time to your child’s day.
In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that screen time should be limited as much as possible, especially for children under age 2. As for older children, limit screen time to just a couple of hours a day.
This is particularly important as excessive screen time has been linked to impaired academic performance and less time for creative play as well as contributes to problems such as obesity, violence, sleep problems, and behavioral issues.
Also, increased screen time means less interaction between you and your child. Such personal interactions are critical as children learn and adapt most of the skills that sustain them throughout their lifetime from exchanges with their parents and caregivers during this highly malleable age.
Additionally, unsupervised TV or mobile exposure can make your child vulnerable to picking up all sorts of wrong traits and habits.
As a parent, it’s important to spend more time with your child, and keeping them occupied with TV, mobile phones, or other gadgets amounts to negligence that can have long-standing ramifications for your child’s mental well-being.
Dr. Caroline Leaf, a cognitive neuroscientist with a Ph.D. in Communication Pathology and a BSc in Logopedics and Audiology, specializing in metacognitive and cognitive neuropsychology proposes to “keep TV and technology use to an absolute minimum, and never use them as babysitters.”
She also suggests that when watching TV, keep your child active by encouraging them to doodle, draw, play with Lego and other activities.
Dr. Leaf further emphasizes on the importance of talking to children, telling them stories & explaining things, and sharing your emotions and ideas with them. And of course, read read read! Join your local library and make it a weekly excursion to get books that they choose. It is equally important to play outside a lot. You don’t always need to buy them expensive toys and games; they need a garden, objects, friends, and animals.
5. Read Books to Your Child
As a parent, you must ensure that your child starts reading books at an early age. The best way to help build your child’s appetite for reading is to teach them by example. By reading to your baby every day, you will inculcate the same habit in them as they grow up to pick a book for themselves.
According to Dr. Leaf, reading is one of the most powerful ways of teaching a child how to think, feel and choose. It helps them see the world from multiple perspectives, and it teaches them about relationships and communication. Their imagination and creativity are also fired up when children read, which activates the internal networks of the brain. These networks are essential to healthy intellectual and brain development.
Moreover, reading improves memory because a story is an easy way to read in order to understand, which is a crucial part of memory development, she further adds.
“In my 25 years of clinical practice, reading played a major role in all of my therapy sessions: every one of my patients, no matter their age or problem, had to read. In the schools where I consulted, we used the first 30 to 60 minutes of the day as a reading period. It is an excellent practice, no matter what age. Developing a love of reading is a vital component to leading a meaningful and successful life as it teaches self-reflection and compassion. My own children grew up on books and spent hours at the library from a young age and always love having a book in their hands” – says Dr. Caroline Leaf.
Make it a bedtime ritual to read something interesting to your child every night. Even though babies can hardly recognize and make sense of the words, they learn to attach great value to the practice of reading.
With time, they would realize the worth of books, magazines, and newspapers and start relying on them as indispensable sources of information. This, in effect, helps nurture and consolidate your child’s interest in books and reading.
According to a 2015 study by AAP, reading to young children is associated with differences in brain activity. It can help with language acquisition and literacy skills. AAP thereby encourages parents to begin reading to their children from birth, in order to foster early learning and create connections in their brain that promote language development.
6. Exercise is Important
Exercise is important for everyone, whether a small child or an adult. Yes, that includes babies, too. In fact, regular physical exercise is one of the simplest, yet important, method of ensuring good cognitive development in your child at an early age.
It helps boost memory and improve learning capabilities, while also reducing the risk of cognitive impairment and dementia in later stages of life.
Exercise also helps improve the circulation of blood and oxygen to the brain. This ensures improved nerve functioning that enhances your child’s overall physical, cognitive, and psychological health.
In the words of Dr. Leaf, “babies start grasping from the day they are born, initially as a reflex and then as a developmental and relational process. By 4 months they can grasp large things, and by 8-12 months they will develop what is called a pincer grasp. Allowing them to use their hands regularly, handing safe things to a baby and helping them clutch and pick up things is important. Once they are crawling, you should continue to do this. Lots of crawling is essential to their intellectual, cognitive and motor development.”
A 2008 study published in Educational Psychology Review reports that systematic exercise programs may actually enhance the development of specific types of mental processing known to be important for meeting challenges encountered both in academics and throughout life.
7. Feed Your Child Healthy Food
The habit of eating healthy food should be cultivated right from childhood. Growing bodies need good nutrition not just for physical development. It is important for mental development, too.
To provide the right nutrients for your child’s growth, feed them spinach, berries, apples, oatmeal, broccoli, dark chocolate, oranges, kale, watermelon, milk, legumes, and all sorts of nuts and seeds.
Conversely, minimize fast food, junk food, processed food, and beverages loaded with artificial sweeteners from your child’s diet. Such foods do not provide the necessary nutrients to your child and can even cause great harm to their health.
Dr. Leaf also suggests, “sustainable, locally produced farm-to-table fruits and vegetables to ensure your child’s optimal brain development.”
Also, allow your infant to eat with their hands (make sure they wash their hands properly before eating) to help develop fine motor skills. It also lets your child explore textures, understand what foods do, and develop hand-eye coordination, and it makes eating more fun and engaging.
No matter what, never have the TV on in the background when you serve food to your child. Once they get accustomed to eating with the TV on, it becomes increasingly difficult to shake this unnecessary habit off later in life.
8. Say No to Caffeine
Be it in energy drinks, soft drinks, and chewing gums; caffeine is everywhere. Given that children and young adults are the target market for these products, they are at an increased risk of the adverse health effects engendered by caffeine.
Too much caffeine can hamper your child’s brain development by disrupting the formation of key connections in the brain, especially as a large amount of brain development is still occurring in adolescence. Plus, it affects the behavioral and structural markers of brain maturation.
Caffeine use in adolescents may affect areas of the brain that control reward and addiction.
Keep a close eye on and limit your child’s caffeine consumption to ensure healthy brain development.
There are a number of healthier alternatives which can be administered to your child instead. Dr. Leaf recommends, “water, organic, pasture-raised kefir, organic whole fruit juices (with the pulp), herbal teas like rooibos and fruit and vegetable smoothies are great options.”
9. Invest in Creative Toys
In order to ensure optimum brain development in children, it’s important to be selective and buy toys that engage them and let them tap their creative potential.
The right toy can go above and beyond just being a mere distraction for your baby. It can help a child develop a wide array of essential life skills that include coping mechanisms, language and communication, emotional regulation, cognitive flexibility, and social skills.
The worth of a toy is not estimated by how much money you had to shell out for it. Instead, the ideal plaything for children must be simple and safe, allowing imagination to flourish, freedom of movement, and range of complexity.
Thus, invest in simple toys that can keep your child engaged and contribute to making him or her more constructive and creative as an adult. Be sure to get some toys that involve the hands, as small children respond well to learning simple sequential games.
10. Spend Time with Your Little One
Last but not least, you must give your valuable time to your child to ensure proper brain development. Speech development starts as early as birth, so it may be helpful to talk to or sing a song to your little one while breastfeeding.
Keep the baby engaged even when you take him/her outdoors by pointing things out and repeating their names to help the baby form an association early on.
As per Dr. Leaf, “a child of 3 or 4 years of age is generally considered old enough to be introduced to the world of alphabets and numbers. But be careful of hot-housing! Hot-housing a child is one of the worst things a parent can do. The more the child experiences being spoken to, read to, crawling and free play inside and outside (with adult supervision of course) the better. A child will usually let you know when they are ready to start learning. Forcing flash cards or word games on young infants can create a toxic stress environment, which can have lasting emotional consequences.”
Don’t always engage in mindless babble when interacting with your baby. Enjoy your child’s early years by talking with them, taking walks with them, going to the park together, enjoying meals together, and reading together. Listen and attend to the needs and concerns of your babies by responding sensitively, as this will make them feel stable, safe, and stress-free, which is a prerequisite for them to grow into healthy adults.
Furthermore, reading, singing, and talking to your toddlers not only stimulate their brain but also contribute to their emotional and speech development.
“Reading illustrated books with big pictures is a healthy way to promote interaction between the parents and child from a young age, and can prove conducive to their brain development as well as general wellbeing,” as suggested by Dr. Leaf.
- Have meaningful conversations with your growing child.
- Be attentive and pay heed to what your child is pointing at or saying.
- Build trust in your child by listening to their concerns and responding to them in a sensitive manner.
- Use body massage to reduce your infant’s stress and enhance feelings of well-being and emotional security.
- Set up a safe environment for your crawling baby or toddler, to minimize the risk of injuries and subsequent trauma.
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- Children-and-Media-Tips. American Academy of Pediatrics . https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/news-features-and-safety-tips/Pages/Children-and-Media-Tips.aspx. Published January 5, 2018.
- Healey A, Mendelsohn A. Selecting Appropriate Toys for Young Children in the Digital Era. Pediatrics. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2018/11/29/peds.2018-3348. Published December 3, 2018.
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