Watching the development of your child’s brain is one of the most awe-inspiring experiences you can have in this world. She goes from squishy blob to talking (well, starting to talk) in a year. By 2 or 3, she’s arguing with you. A few more years and she’s winning the arguments!
A baby’s brain is primed for learning. The old view of intelligence was to imagine the brain as an empty vessel that is filled up with knowledge. We now know that intelligence is a dynamic process, and that the brain is actually sculpted by experience.
A baby learns by experiencing the world through her five senses. The things you do naturally as a parent - eye-contact, talking, holding, responding appropriately to your baby’s needs, are the essential first learning experiences for your baby. Close, affectionate relationships are important for your child’s intellectual development. Children who feel safe and secure are eager to connect and explore.
Learning doesn’t rely on flash cards or special educational DVDs, and it doesn’t just take place in the classroom, or when you are reading together. As much – if not more – learning takes place when you and your child are singing a nursery rhyme together, or pouring water from one cup to another, or matching up the socks as they come off the washing line.
Start before birthA baby’s health and development starts in utero. Infections, including German measles and sexually transmitted diseases, can adversely affect baby’s brain. Good nutrition can positively affect brain development.
- Take your folic acid. It’s the best thing you can do to prevent neural tube defects.
- Manage your stress. Stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline do reach the baby, where they may contribute to problems in behaviour and attention, and even affect cognitive development. Researchers at University of Denver found that babies exposed to high levels of cortisol in utero had higher levels themselves, and displayed more anxious behavior in childhood.
- Avoid alcohol, illegal drugs and any medications that have not been confirmed safe for use in pregnancy. Always check with your doctor.
Feed wellIt is difficult to link individual foods or nutrients to higher intelligence, but it is certainly true that a healthy, varied diet will support the development of the body and brain. Malnutrition and certain vitamin and mineral deficiencies – of iodine and iron in particular - can play a role in cognitive impairment. Many studies purport to show that breastfeeding boosts intelligence (although there have been challenges to these studies). What we do know, though, is that breast milk is a good source of the long-chain saturated fatty acids that are essential for brain development (salmon is a good source for older children).
Talk to your babyThere is much evidence that talking to your baby – even before he can talk back – boosts language processing skills and vocabulary. A study by Adriana Weisleder and Prof Anne Fernald at Stanford University, published in the journal Psychological Science, found that children whose parents spoke to them least came out worst in language tests. This disadvantage was long-lasting. At 24 months old they were behind by up to six months and the disadvantage was even felt at school over the next six years. Researchers advise parents to talk with their babies and young children in an engaged and loving way, to nurture early brain development and language skills.
Make musicThe claim that listening to classical music makes kids smarter is a rather broad and ambitious one, but it is fair to say that music can contribute to your child’s intellectual development in various ways. Music is powerfully connected to other abilities, including maths and language. Like speech, music has rhythm, pitch and tone. Through listening to and joining in with simple songs, babies and toddlers learn important auditory skills. Songs develop memory and cognitive skills, too, as your baby remembers the words and processes their meaning. There is evidence to suggest that learning an instrument in childhood can be beneficial. Studies have found that learning piano does develop children’s spatial-temporal intelligence.
Play play playThere is a lovely saying: “Play is the work of childhood.” Children learn through play, developing social and cognitive skills and exploring their world. In play, children engage physically, verbally or mentally with their environment and with other people.
There are plenty of toys and games and other resources that claim to “make kids smarter” or “boost intelligence”. There is some research to support the claim that certain toys may be beneficial in certain areas - toy blocks may enhance spatial, mathematical and problem-solving skills and card games and some board games enhance number skills. A stimulating environment that incorporates a variety of indoor and outdoor play opportunities is a good start. Kids need free unstructured playtime, where they make up their own rules and use their imaginations, as well as organised or adult-directed activities and games.
Note: Babies with sensory impairment miss out on stimulation. Undiagnosed hearing loss is quite common. Have your baby’s hearing checked, particularly if he has had ear or upper respiratory infections.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of 1Life or its employees.