First, the scary news. When your baby is born, her brain is the only major organ that’s not fully formed; it’s only 25% of the adult brain size. In the first 3 years it undergoes phenomenal growth. Her experiences in these early years help lay the brain’s foundation. So the scary part is – what you as parents do (or don’t) in these years can literally shape her brain.
And the good news? Doing this is not difficult!
We can do simple things in everyday life, which will add up overtime to help our babies be smart, emotionally well-adjusted and loving individuals. Many items on the list may come as a complete surprise – especially their role in a child’s brain development. So here goes…
19 Simple Ways to Boost Brain Power in Infants and Toddlers
1. Respond consistently and lovingly
When you respond consistentlyto your young child’s needs, you’re doing more than showing them your love. You’re actually giving their brains a solid foundation to grow. As this lovely short video shows:
But sometimes, in spite of our best intentions, we fall prey to myths and uninformed advice.
Letting a baby cry does NOT strengthen his lungs. It creates unwanted stress for him. Picking up a crying baby does NOT spoil him.It forms attachment and security. Leaving your little girl to cry herself to sleep does NOT train her to sleep. It trains her to not trust people. Each of these early experiences help wire the brain.
When his needs for food, comfort and security are not met, the baby’s brainis busy worrying about survival. Where’s the time to explore, learn and grow?
2. Give them the power of your touch
‘Because touch, more than any other sense, has such ready access to young babies’ brains, it offers perhaps the best possible opportunity, and one of the easiest, for molding their emotional and mental well-being’ says Lise Eliot in What’s Going On In There – How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life.
The easiest way to unleash the power of touch is to cuddle and hold the baby as much as we can. Not only in response to their cry but also proactively. But there are chores to be done and homes to be run. That’s where babywearing can help.
When you carry or ‘wear’ your baby in a sling or some other carrier on your body, you are baby wearing. Babywearing is found to reduce crying in babies, help them stay calm and happy overall. How does that help brain development?
‘If infants spend less time crying and fussing, what do they do with their free time? They learn! Sling babies spend more time in the state of quiet alertness. It may be called the optimal state of learning for a baby.’
This isn’t something I’ve said, it’s from popular parenting site Ask Dr. Sears!
Another proven way we can give important cognitive benefits to the child is by giving him a daily massage.
3. Talk Lots, Talk Right
There is strong, irrefutable evidence from years of research that talking to kids (especially those under age 3) is strongly linked to their IQ and future academic performance. Talking a lot to your child is the simplest and the most powerful thing you can ever do for them.
Day-to-day activities and even chores provide ample opportunities to talk. But how we talk is as important as how much, which I’ve covered in depth in this post.
‘The longer babies breastfeed, the more they achieve in life – major study’ says The Guardian, the leading British daily in an article covering a major Brazilian study. Breastfeed as much as your baby wants, for as long as you can.
Breastfeeding is not always easy, so be sure to seek help if you face any problem. There are a number of support groups, both online and offline that are more than willing to help. Remember that breastfeeding even for a short time is better than not breastfeeding at all.
5. Read aloud
We all know the importance of reading to our kids. I just want to share some of key points about reading to your child:
a) It is never too early to start reading to your baby – they can be in the womb, a newborn or a 6 month old.
b) Keep at it – don’t get disheartened if they’re only interested in eating, throwing or tearing the book. It’s natural, they’ll grow out of it.
c) Invest in a variety of books and spread them everywhere – living room, bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, diaper bag, car.
d) Set an example – The more they see you read, and the more printed material they see in the house, the more inspired they’ll be to read.
e) Most importantly – associate reading with pleasure. Never use it as a punishment and never force them to read.
6. Get them moving!
Research shows strong links between physical activity and brain development. Make sure that your child gets at least 60 minutes (even more) of unstructured physical activity.
Even when a toddler is stressed or about to throw a tantrum, getting them moving can turn the situation around. Get silly, get them to chase you or you chase them, start pillow fights, see who can jump the highest, play horse-riding on the pillow, imitate animal moves – how frogs jump, how rabbits hop… just go nuts and get them moving! It will get their brain cells moving too!
For babies, physical activity means tummy time and giving them ample space to learn how to roll over and crawl. As far as possible, avoid strapping kids in one position in rockers or prams or car seats (except when driving).
7. Give them novelty
‘Studies consistently find that the availability of play materials is important for intellectual development. Toddlers with a wide variety of playthings available do seem to have enhanced intellectual development later on, at ages 3 and 4’ writes Kathy Hirch-Pasek and Roberta Michnik Golinkoff in the book ‘Einstein Never Used Flashcards’.
Thankfully we don’t need to break the bank and buy a new toy everyday. We can get creative with the use of household objects, we can rotate their toys regularly so that even old toys are looked at with fresh eyes. We can swap toys with friends or join toy libraries.
8. Engage in Sensory Play
Sensory play includes activities that encourage kids to use their senses of touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing. The more we use our senses, the better we learn.
If you’re anything like me, you’d feel intimidated by all the beautiful, Pinterest-worthy sensory activities that some moms manage to set up. Luckily for us there are a lot of every-day household items and activities that provide excellent opportunities for sensory play.
1. Water Fun – Give them a bucket of water and toys inside it to splash about
2. Take them to the beach so that they can enjoy playing in the mud or sand
3. Explore Food – Self feeding is one of the best sensory experiences you can give your child. Let the child touch and explore the textures of various foods.
4. Wardrobe Raid – Open your wardrobe and pull out pieces of clothing of different fabrics. Play peekaboo with your woolen sweater, stuff your cotton dupatta into a container and feel the silk scarf against his skin.
5. Hot and Cold – Get them to touch ice and then a warm (not hot) tea cup to teach them about hot and cold.
9. Encourage pretend play, get help with chores
When your baby tries to feed Teddy a carrot or when your toddler dresses up as a princess and throws a tea party, they are engaging in pretend play. Pretend play helps develop their budding imagination, language skills and social skills.
Most kids naturally engage in pretend play starting around 12 months and their play gets more sophisticated as they grow. We can also help them along – by participating in the play, initiating the ‘act’ for the younger ones, helping them with props (doctor set, kitchen set, etc.), taking turns pretending with them.
When we get young kids to help us with age-appropriate chores, we are inviting them for another kind of pretend play, where they play adults.
10. Use screen time wisely
Screen time is a hot topic for parents and researchers alike – no screen time? Moderate screen time? How much is too much? What kind of shows/apps are ok? There are no straight answers. More and more research is coming to the conclusion that a total ban of screen time is not realistic and may not even be required.
The non-profit organization Zero to Three has compiled an excellent document that reviews all the research and separates hype from reality. Here are some helpful pointers:
a) Make sure that the program content is age-appropriate, non-violent, slow paced and as much as possible has real characters in real life situations.
b) Make it a shared experience – Screen time becomes beneficial when parents watch it with the kids, and discuss and relate it to the real world
c) Even when TV is on in the background, it can negatively affect a child’s focus on play and the adult’s interaction with the child. If nobody is watching, turn the TV off
d) Avoid screen-time 1 to 2 hours before bedtime as it can interfere with sleep
e) Even the most educational of screen programs should never be used as a substitute for real-life interaction with attentive adults.
11. Use simple, day-to-day activities to teach new concepts
Kids under 3 years of age don’t need a class-room type environment to learn. Day-to-day life and objects offer enough opportunities to teach them basic concepts.
For many months till he grasped the concept of colours, we’d identify colors for my son at every chance – his red tshirt, blue shorts, brown shoes, orange sippy cup, white car and so on. Similarly for shapes. Currently, at 21 months, we are in the midst of counting everything. The other day he informed us that he spotted ‘3 uncles’ by the pool. I think he’s getting the concept.
12. Encourage them to tell stories
When a child tells us a story, it puts her whole brain to work. ‘To tell a story that makes sense, the left brain must put things in order, using words and logic. The right brain contributes the bodily sensations, raw emotions and personal memories, so we can see the whole picture and communicate our experience’writes Dr. Daniel Siegel in The Whole Brain Child.
Parents can lay the foundation by modeling story-telling. Narrate to the baby events of the past and imagine ‘stories’ of the future. Once they start talking, encourage them to tell their stories, listen attentively, respond with questions that will get them talking more. The best way is to spend a few minutes every night going through the day with your child.
13. Lay the foundation for active music
Listening to Mozart doesn’t have any long term impact on a child’s intelligence. That myth has been debunked. But playing a musical instrument continues to be linked to intelligence.
‘There’s little doubt that learning to play a musical instrument is great for developing brains.’ says Time magazine in this article.
Of course we can’t teach babies to play an instrument, but we can lay the foundation for them to associate music with joy. Singing to them, acting out rhymes as we sing, encouraging them to sing along will help them see music as something that is fun and makes them happy. And then when they’re a little older, we can introduce them to different musical instruments and see which they enjoy the most.
14. Ensure that they get their sleep.
‘Sleep is the power source that keeps your mind alert and calm. Every night and at every nap, sleep recharges the brain’s battery.’ Says author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, Marc Weissbluth, MD
Parents of young babies generally try their best to ensure that their kids sleep well. Or at least just fall asleep! (ask me). We just need to make sure that we are not doing things that unknowingly hamper their sleep. Like letting them have screen time upto 2 hours before bedtime, not giving enough active play time in the day or prioritizing our schedules over our child’s sleep timings.
15. Have a predictable daily routine
‘Predictable routines and the knowledge of ‘what comes next’ helps your toddler to develop confidence and ensures that they feel secure enough in their day-to-day life to explore the wider world’ writes Sarah Ockwell Smith in her book Toddler Calm
As much as possible stick to a routine for the child. Following a routine is not about doing things exactly by the clock (I know how impossible that is). It’s about giving the child’s day a predictable rhythm. Some parents find routine charts quite helpful.
16. Get the right childcare
Daycare or a nanny/family member in the house? Childcare is a crucial decision when both parents work outside the house. What should be the deciding factor with respect to cognitive development?
‘For proper brain development, what’s essential is that the child knows there’s at least one person he can rely on for consistent, predictable, and loving care. And it should be the same person everyday, particularly during infancy.’writes Jill Stamm in Bright from the Start.
This is taken care of if the child is at home, cared for by a grandparent or a nanny, assuming care-giver is loving and responsive. If you choose to go with a day-care, give more importance to the stability and responsiveness of the staff than the appearance of the building or fancy toys.
17. Fight fair with your spouse and patch up in front of your kid
What has a couple’s fight got to do with a baby’s brains? A lot apparently. According to Dr. John Medina in his superb book Brain Rules for Babies, ‘Marital conflict is fully capable of hurting a baby’s brain development’.
But which marriage doesn’t have conflict? Does that mean our kids are doomed?
Fortunately, parents can protect their kids and even turn their fights into learning moments. When we fight, we should ensure that we fight fair and most importantly, we patch up in front of the kids. This gives them valuable life lessons in conflict resolution. And they can see for themselves that mom and dad are fine.
‘…being exposed to constructive marital conflict can actually be good for children – if it doesn’t escalate, insults are avoided and the dispute is resolved with affection’write Po Bronson and AshleyMerryman in Nurtureshock
18. Help develop emotional intelligence
‘The ability of a human being to manage his or her emotions in a healthy way will determine the quality of his life in a much more fundamental way than his IQ.’ mentions Dr. Laura Markham in this article.
For children to be happy and successful they must – understand their emotions, learn to regulate them and be sensitive to others’ emotions
How can parents help?
a) Model empathy – When parents are sensitive to their child’s needs, they give the child the best lessons in empathy
b) Help the child name their emotions – Just the simple act of helping the child name their emotions (angry, frustrated, jealous, tired) lays a strong foundation towards enabling them to cope with those emotions
c) Respect their emotions – Don’t admonish them for being jealous of their friend’s new car. Instead acknowledge, understand and help them make sense of what they are feeling
d) Help identify emotions in others – An exercise we do with our 21 month old is go through the newspaper every day and discuss what the ‘uncles and aunties’ in the images may be feeling.
19. Nourish your own (parent’s) brain
‘As children develop, their brains ‘mirror’ their parent’s brain. …the parent’s own growth and development, or lack of those, impact the child’s brain….integrating and cultivating your own brain is one of the most loving and generous gifts you can give your children.’writes Daniel Siegelin The Whole-Brain Child.
Tough as it is, please try to take time out for things that you really love doing, things that stimulate you intellectually, where you apply your mind and heart. You’d be doing it as much for your child as for yourself.
Now you know what to do!! This might seem like a long list, but they’re all really simple things that reap huge benefits for your child in the long term. So take some time out of your busy day and start activating those brain cells!!
Which of the above ideas will you start practicing today?
Krupa Shah Cordeiro is a freelance writer, passionate marketer and a thinking mother. When she isn’t writing or devouring the latest in the world of marketing, she’s on the other end of the park slide receiving her giggling monkey. Follow her quest for understanding how to raise a smart and happy child on www.raisinghappyminds.com