These smart-start parenting tips will allow your baby’s brain to make all the right connections.
A baby’s brain grows more during infancy than at any other time, tripling its weight and reaching approximately 60 percent of its adult size by two years of age. A baby is born with 100 billion brain cells, and each one of these cells, or neurons, makes thousands of connections with other brain neurons. There is a lot going on in there.
As the brain grows, these neurons resemble miles of unconnected electrical wires. These nerve strings connect with one another to make circuits that enable baby to think and do more things. Here’s how these circuits work: The tips of each neuron resemble finger-like feelers attempting to make connections with other neurons. The more connections the nerve cells make, the smarter the brain grows. Smart-start parenting means helping your baby’s brain make the right connections. As a pediatrician and father of eight children, I highly recommend these brain-building tips to new parents.
The brain, above all other organs, is most affected by nutrition. First, give your baby a “smart milk start.” Baby’s brain is 60 percent fat — a way I get moms to remember this is by telling them, “You’re growing a little fathead!” Mother Nature put just the right brain-building fats in human milk, and research shows that breast-fed babies are more likely to have an intellectual advantage. This brain-building perk of mother’s milk is why I advise mothers in my pediatric practice to be sure they eat a smart-fat diet. The smartest fats are the omega-3 fats found in fish. Dr. Bill’s prescription: Eat around 12 ounces of wild salmon a week or take 1,000 milligrams of omega-3 fish oil supplements daily. A new and exciting test that pediatricians are now using to ensure their little “fathead” patients are getting enough omega-3s from mother’s milk is to test the omega-3 fat level from a drop of mother’s milk. In addition to smart milk, baby needs smart foods, which is why at five or six months I give new parents my “brainbuilding fat talk” — avocados at six months, salmon at seven months.
Carry your baby in a safe sling as much as you can. Babies learn a lot in the arms of busy caregivers. Carried babies may cry less, which allows them to spend more time in the state of “quiet alertness,” the behavioral state in which infants learn most by being able to best connect and interact with their environment. The more babies interact with their environment, the more meaningful the nerve connections are as they grow in their brain. Currently, I enjoy carrying my eight-month-old grandbaby, Levi. When I pick up the sling and put it on, he lights up and raises his arms because he knows he’ll soon be in my arms and exploring the world. If I mention the key word “go” he looks next to the door where the baby carrier is hanging. In infant development jargon this is known as “patterns of association,” which are like thousands of short-run movies being stored in the baby’s growing neurological library.
Babies grow their brains and learn about the world through play, not only with the toys they play with, but the interactions they have with their caregivers. For older children, it’s recommended to get outdoors and get active. Getting active for baby means moving in a safe space under the close watch of a caregiver. Movement helps build smarter brains in two ways: It grows more blood vessels to the brain as well as stimulating the brain to make a natural brain-building neurochemical called brain growth factor.
One of the most brain-building interactions is eye contact with your baby while talking. Make your facial expressions more animated while talking to baby. Watch those little eyes stare at your funny face. The back of the eyeball, the retina, is actually part of the brain. So, what comes into the eye starts making connections throughout the brain. In fact, the visual center is one of the largest and fastest growing parts of a baby’s brain. Also, singing affects more of the brain centers for language than words alone.
Not only is touch good for baby’s body, it’s good for baby’s mind. Studies show that babies receiving extra touch have enhanced neurological development. The reason for this smart connection seems to be that touch promotes the growth of nerve tissue and helps neurons connect with one another. A soothing touch also calms an upset baby. Modern neuroscience has proven that continued stress can slow brain growth. The happier and more settled the baby, the better the brain is likely to grow. Notice that all of these tips help you and your baby enjoy each other, and that’s what growing a brighter baby brain is all about.
Bill Sears, M.D., is a father of eight and the author of 42 books on family health, including The Healthiest Kid in the Neighborhood. A practicing pediatrician for over 40 years, he is an Associate Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine. Dr. Sears is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and a fellow of the Royal College of Pediatricians (RCP). More about baby brain development is in many of Dr. Sears’ books, such as The Baby Book and The Omega-3 Effect.