“Children come into this world ready to learn, love and play.” – Ingrid Bauer
Many of us live busy, goal-oriented lives in which we race about, eager to achieve quick results and succeed in all manner of tasks, great or small. This cultural tendency permeates everything we do- even our nurturing. As parents, we may be eager for our children to achieve, and even when they are babies, we are encouraged to watch them closely, ticking the boxes of optimal development as they grow.
Panic may set in at the first sign of inadequacy, but although fears relating to autism and learning disabilities are sometimes well warranted, in most cases a child that learns to walk first is not necessarily Einstein-in-the-making, nor is the child who crawls last destined to be Homer Simpson. All children are different, they progress at individual rates, and neurological development naturally ebbs and flows.
While it is certainly useful for parents to have an understanding of developmental milestones, it is better again for them to:
- Learn how to enrich their child’s environment;
- Appreciate which lifestyle factors may dampen their child’s capacity to grow.
The Amazing Baby’s Brain
Did you know that babies have far more brain cells than adults? When a baby is born their brain has more neurons (specialized cell-transmitting nerve messages) than it will ever have later in life, giving the child an enormous capacity to learn and thrive. It is a baby’s environment that creates the stimulus to get these neurons firing and wiring; i.e. the environment primes the brain.
Thinking of buying a baby ‘brain-training’ DVD?
Interestingly, a survey of over 1,000 parents of 2 to 24-month-old babies found that for each hour per day that an infant watched a ‘brain-training’ DVD, there was a significant decrease in the pace of language development. This was compared to the act of reading books with a parent; the latter was associated with a 7-point increase in language scores, while the DVD viewing was associated with a 17-point decrease.
This research suggests that while infants learn quickly about their world by watching parents or caregivers, much less is learned when this information is presented via audiovisual media. The fact that the DVDs attract the attention of infants does not mean they induce learning. The American Academy of Pediatrics officially recommends parents avoid screen time for children under the age of two years: “These early years are crucial in a child’s development.” Any positive effect of television on infants and toddlers is still open to question, but the benefits of parent-child interactions are proven.” Indeed, there seems to be no adequate substitute for making time to bond and connect with our children.
So if brain development paraphernalia is not the best answer, are there other ways that parents can support their child’s development?
Simple Ways to Help a Baby’s Brain Development
First and foremost, the greatest gift you can give your baby is yourself – meaning your attention, your time and your energy. There are times when this level of devotion can be trying but in years to come you will delight in having spent quality time with your child; reading, cuddling, playing and building a lifelong bond and connection.
Alternate Sides When Feeding
Mother Nature is so clever; take for example the fascinating fact that a newborn has their clearest visual acuity at 20-25 cm… the exact distance between their own face and their mother’s face when they are attached to the breast! Indeed, each time a newborn is fed, they are being nourished nutritionally and emotionally.
The second fascinating fact is that Mother Nature provides two breasts, not one, so that mum will naturally swap her baby from side to side whilst feeding. This ensures that even right-left brain development occurs. Therefore, if you are bottle-feeding your baby, be sure to swap your baby from one arm to the other to mimic this phenomenon.
Consider Your Baby’s Head Shape
There is a myth that an odd-shaped baby’s head is of no concern and will ‘right itself’ with time, however, anomalies of shape can be the first indication that your baby is susceptible to developmental delay. If their head looks uneven or you notice flat areas, this can indicate restrictions between the skull and the soft layers that cover the brain and spinal cord. A healthy brain requires good movement of the skull and spine; when this movement is impaired, brain and nerve function are also impaired. It is best – whether your baby’s head is odd-shaped or not – to have your newborn’s skeletal system checked as early as possible by a chiropractor or osteopath.
Prioritize ‘Tummy Time’
From a neurological perspective it is vitally important that babies (from three weeks of age onwards) start to have short bursts of ‘tummy time’—time spent lying on their tummies and holding their own heads up. This simple act builds up their neck muscles and activates brainstem pathways which are critical for healthy brain development.
If you lay your baby on your chest and talk to them, you will encourage them to lift their heads and look you in the eyes. Also, each time you change your baby’s nappy, roll them on their stomachs for a few moments. Note: if your baby does not appear to like lying on their stomach, this could be an indication of spine or nerve irritation and it is best to have them checked by a chiropractor.
Give Your Baby Objects to Gaze At
Babies love visual stimulation. As well as hanging mobiles, you can provide wall charts with shapes for them to look at, ideally at varying distances. Start with black and white shapes because initially newborns see only in black and white.
If you would like to download free developmental charts please go to www.welladjusted.me/au/developmental-charts
Encourage Your Baby to Have Lots of ‘Free Playtime’
Whenever possible allow your baby time to move about, explore their world and entertain themselves with a variety of objects, such as cups, balls, spoons, string, a plastic mirror, etc. Every time a baby reaches out to touch something new their neurological synapses connect, eventually building circuits that are strong enough to trigger the next developmental milestone. As your baby grows older, teach them to do stimulating activities like blowing bubbles or balloons, building with blocks, doing puzzles and counting beads.
Have Your Baby’s Nervous System Checked
To maximize your child’s nerve function have them assessed by a chiropractor or cranial osteopath skilled with children. Clinical studies indicate that rapid growth of the entire brain occurs during the first year of life. The Journal of Neuroscience (2008) states that, although the first year of life may be a period of developmental vulnerability it may also be a period in which therapeutic interventions would have the greatest positive effect.
Massage Your Baby
Massage provides wonderful stimulus and feedback to the brain. Alternate soft, all-over body massage with firmer pressure holds, working slowly down one arm, across the torso and down the opposite leg to the foot. Repeat this on both sides. This massage is great for calming the nervous system, particularly if your child is upset or over-stimulated when it is time for sleep.
Make Sure Your Child is Getting Ample Sleep
If a baby or child does not wake up easily and with energy each morning, this could indicate they are not getting enough quality sleep. As parents we often miss our child’s ‘tired cues’ and then we have great difficulty trying to put them to bed when their brain has moved back into fourth gear. A set routine for dinner and bedtime makes life easier for everyone. Start these activities well before your child is likely to be tired and ready for sleep.
From an early age it is important to teach your child a range of physical activities so that they can learn to balance and coordinate their bodies. Activities like standing on one leg, hopping, skipping and walking along a beam or ledge (under supervision) are all helpful for balance, while spinning, swinging, ball games, clapping hands and cross crawling all provide wonderful brain feedback and can be introduced early.
Prime Your Baby’s Senses
Whenever possible, introduce new sensory experiences to your baby. Let them play with a range of objects which have different textures, temperatures or that make different sounds. Use the everyday world to excite their senses; have them run barefoot on the grass or sand, dip their fingers and toes in water, or play with rustling leaves.
Speak to Them Knowing They Understand More Than You Realize
Just because babies and young children cannot articulate themselves doesn’t mean they don’t understand more than we typically give them credit for. Only using ‘baby talk’ to communicate does not serve your infant’s developing brain. You can extend their lingual and comprehension skills using language; for example, rather then just pointing to a dog and saying, “puppy dog”, you could say, “See the puppy dog, he barks and says ‘woof, woof!’” As your child grows, ask them questions that test their short and long term memory.
Turn Down the TV
Studies have found that 40% of households keep the television on ‘in the background’ and that this negatively affects children, decreasing both the quantity and quality of parent-child interactions. If you want to keep the television on, turn the volume down as this keeps the brain active.
Know the Milestones
The movement, behavior and language your baby should ideally be demonstrating at different ages are called age-appropriate developmental milestones. Knowing these kinds of milestones can be a useful guide to help ensure your baby’s brain is wiring and firing in an ideal manner, and whether to take action if your baby needs additional help. If you would like to download free developmental charts please go to www.welladjusted.me/au/developmental-charts
Minimize Your Child’s Exposure to Toxins
Pollutants in our modern environment – for example pesticides, heavy metals, herbicides and fumigants – have been linked to abnormalities in behavior, perception, cognition, and motor ability during early childhood, even when exposure is at so-called harmless levels. Therefore, try to provide your child with fresh air, organic food and a toxin-free environment. Educate yourself about the metals and harsh chemicals that are in the everyday products such as prescriptive and non-prescriptive drugs.
Go Organic Where Possible
Purchasing organic food is not a luxury but rather an integral step in securing our health. Organic food allows a child’s body to focus on growth and development rather than having to combat the range of antibiotics, hormones, artificial pesticides and genetically modified organisms that are now found in generic produce.
Prioritize ‘Brain Foods’
Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) are great brain foods and are found in cold-water oily fish, various oils such as macadamia, flaxseed and olive, some nuts and seeds, goat’s milk products, blueberries and egg yolks. These foods should only be introduced at age appropriate time.
Help Your Baby Develop Self-Acceptance
Another extremely valuable gift we can offer our children is an authentic belief in themselves. A baby is intimately attuned to their caregiver’s feelings, so as parents we need to be mindful of sending them the message that they are unconditionally lovable. Whenever you are delighted and pleased with your baby’s behavior or capacity to try something new and to learn, let them know! As they grow older, tell them how amazing and clever they are. Aim to ‘talk them up and build them up’ and to reduce criticism as much as possible. Tell them you believe in them and give them permission to shine and be wonderful.
Prioritizing your child’s early brain development is one of the most important gifts you can give. Spending quality time and fostering a healthy lifestyle far exceeds the use of any parenting paraphernalia. By focusing on wholesome brain development in your infant’s first few years, you can truly influence their lifelong learning, social relationships and overall well being.
Dr. Jennifer Barham-Floreani, chiropractor and author is a published authority on pediatric health and holistic parenting with “Well Adjusted Babies 2nd Edition” referred to as “the new holistic bible for pregnancy, childbirth and beyond” for families across the globe. Jennifer’s career has been dedicated to encouraging the “health literacy” of families and she has receive many international awards for her three books. As a mother of four, Jennifer has become an authentic guide for couples and families with her website “Well Adjusted” she shares clinical and personal experience, research and inspiration to help parents raise happy, healthy children. www.WellAdjustedBabies.com