Boost Your Baby’s Brain Power

An edited version of this article appeared in the September 2011 issue of Ebony magazine.

From Postnatal to Pre-K: Boost Your Baby’s Brain Power

With the rush to compete in a global economy, too many of today’s parents push their young children to speak three languages by kindergarten, read chapter books before their milk teeth fall out, and outscore every 5th grader taking a standardized test from Tokyo to Timbuktu.

While all this pressure to excel can’t be a good thing for anyone less than one decade old, there are positive, affirming, and healthy things every caregiver can do to help maximize their child’s cognitive potential – without investing in expensive flash cards, workbooks, or babies-can-write-read-and-‘rithmitic DVDs.

The period from birth to age 5 is crucial to human brain development. At birth, the brain is soft and mushy and undeveloped, so baby can squeeze through Mamma's pelvis and out into the world. From the moment baby squishes through and is born to age 3, neurons connect, synapses form, the brain develops, and then, by ages 3 – 5, the brain is wired for life.

According to Washington D.C. based pediatrician Dr. Marlorie Stinfil, “In the first five (especially the first three) years of a child’s life, a significant amount of brain growth occurs. What a parent chooses to do in that time can truly affect a child forever. The brain not only grows in leaps and bounds, but establishes how to learn as well as thinking and reasoning processes.”

One surprising way to boost baby’s brain power during this crucial time? Resist the urge to tell her how smart she is. In his book Parent’s Guide to Raising a Gifted Child, James Alvino says an older child “may get As in math, but should not be called an ‘A student.’” Begin this practice of praising effort but not IQ at birth, and the results will be quantifiable. John Medina, author of Brain Rules for Baby, says “Kids regularly praised for effort successfully complete 50% to 60% more hard math problems than kids praised for intelligence.”

So, the next time your infant successfully leans forward and grasps the rattle just out of her reach, try saying “Good work!” When your toddler stacks 4 blocks, clap and say, “Great job figuring that out!” Later, when your grade-schooler brings home an A in math, tell her you’re proud she studied and practiced to get those times tables just right. Harvard will be calling her in no time.

8 ½ Ways to Build the Human Brain

Here are 8 ½ more ways to build the human brain from postnatal to Pre-K

1. Breast is Best
This is why: Medina says that American breast-fed babies score on average 8 points higher than bottle-fed babies on cognitive tests even 10 years after the breastfeeding has taken place. Breastfed babies also get better grades, especially in reading and writing. Dr. Stinfil adds, “Other benefits are improved development and visual acuity, as well as performance on standardized tests, IQ, and school performance.”

Breast fed babies and toddlers are less likely to develop ear infections, diarrhea, pneumonia, obesity, bacterial and viral infections, SIDS, and some cancers. For the mother, breastfeeding releases feel-good hormones, helps the uterus contract, and also protects her against some cancers. Breast milk never has to be mixed, is always the right temperature, and (best of all) it’s free.

So do it exclusively for the first 6 months of your baby’s life. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that mothers continue to breastfeed as solids are introduced through the first year and continue after age 1 for as long as mommy and toddler are happy with the arrangement. The World Health Organization recommends continued breastfeeding as complimentary foods are introduced up to age 2, and WHO also encourages breastfeeding beyond the first 2 years.

Because Black mothers are the least likely American women to breastfeed, your decision to nurse might raise eyebrows among friends and family, so you may have to get support elsewhere. Check if a hospital in your area has joined the international Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative. Tell your obstetrician you want support to help breastfeed within the first hour after your baby is born, and make sure there is a lactation specialist to aid during your stay in the maternity ward. When you get home, try

2.   Talk, Talk, Talk
Just using Standard English (and minimizing baby talk) from birth gets those synapses crackling. According to Medina, children who were talked to regularly from birth to age 3 had IQ scores 1 ½ times higher than 3 year olds whose parents talked to them the least. Listen to your tiny baby’s coos and gurgles. When she pauses, make eye contact and respond in a complete sentence. Something like, “Yes, Mamma is putting your left arm in the sleeve now.” or “Grandmom has a red ball for you.” or “Come sit with Pop in the big chair.” works wonders. As baby grows and starts using real words, resist the urge to reply with “Uh huh.” Listen and respond to your toddler and preschooler.
3.  Read, Read, Read
Some of the best award-winning picture books are written and illustrated by African Americans and feature beautiful brown babies to delight your own perfect angel child. Look for authors like Virginia Hamilton, Muriel Feelings, Tom Feelings, Varnette P. Honeywood, Jabari Asim, and Walter Dean Meyers to start building your child’s library. Point to pictures and identify what you and your child see on the page. Babies, toddlers, and preschoolers love to hear their favorites read over and over. Their growing ability to identify familiar characters and anticipate what will happen next builds their confidence. Cuddling against your heart as you read to them will do the same.

Start the day baby comes home from the hospital, and that little person resting in your arms and breathing against the rhythm of each word you speak will become a reader for life. As baby grows, their home library should grow, too. Ask for – and give – books as gifts at birthday parties.

Visit the library and your local bookstore for story-time. And tell stories, too. Our oral tradition is a rich source of cognitive development for your child. Encourage grandparents, especially, to tell stories of the family that anchor your child’s cultural memory in a rich past that leads through time to them.

3 ½. Turn Off the TV
The AAP recommends no television at all in the first two years of life. That includes DVDs marketed as educational. According to Medina, a University of Washington study found that none of the educational DVDs researchers tested improved the vocabularies of infants 17 to 24 months old – and some were actually harmful. For every hour per day the babies watched educational DVDs, they understood 6 to 8 fewer words than babies whose caregivers kept the TV off completely. Older kids with TVs in their rooms score an average of 8 points lower on language arts and math tests than children who can’t watch TV in bed.

4. Routine, Respond, Renew
Babies love routine. Medina says their first job is to stay alive; their second is to learn. Babies who feel safe are free to discover. Routine soothes and calms, enabling them to focus on figuring out the world around them with confidence. Maintain your baby’s routine of meal, nap, bath, and bedtimes from earliest infancy, and delight in the adorableness of it all when your toddler starts telling you when ‘it’s puzzle time’ or ‘it’s cuddle time.’

All those kisses you’ll give in response will also increase confidence – and cognition. Love enables learning. The AAP suggests caregivers promptly respond whenever your baby cries in the first few months, adding that you can not spoil your baby by giving him attention, and answering his calls for help will help him cry less overall. By 6 months, Medina says, “a typical baby can experience surprise, disgust, happiness, sadness, anger, and fear.”

At that point, you might be able to distinguish your baby’s cries and know when to remain close and attentive while providing him space; but a baby, toddler, or preschooler who is clearly upset, emotionally or physically, needs you to help him feel safe and, over time, learn to brush his own shoulders (and bottom) off.

Learning to self-soothe at night is a big step toward your child eventually achieving that independence, and an attentive caregiver will allow baby to cycle from wakefulness back into a deep sleep without too much disruption from an adult gently and over time. Dr. Stinfil adds that, because “sleep is a dynamic state, for a baby’s optimal health and brain development, establishing a routine and a sleep schedule plays an important role in physical restoration and also in consolidation of memories and overall brain maintenance.”

5. Be Creative, Be Social, Get Moving
Alvino says, “Creative behaviors begin at birth and increase to about the ages of 6 or 7. These are crucial years during which children are eager to take initiative to be original and discover on their own.” Boosting your young person’s creativity is as easy as encouraging them as they paint, scribble, shape play-dough, and play dress-up. These activities also exercise the tiny muscles in your baby’s fingertips and develop what are called fine-motor skills. The more finely developed fine-motor skills, the better the performace with tasks like grasping the pencil to form letters and numbers. According to Medina, “The greatest pediatric brain-boosting technology in the world is probably a plain cardboard box, a fresh box of crayons, and two hours. The worst is probably your new flat-screen TV.”

It might be nice for all that creative fun to happen on a playdate. Early socialization builds friendships, increases happiness, and prepares your growing child for school. Running around the local playground or park nurtures creativity and socialization – and will make your baby smarter. Medina claims that “aerobic exercise is fantastic for the brain, increasing executive function scores anywhere from 50% to 100%. And executive function (a set of cognitive abilities that control and regulate planning, organizing, strategizing, paying attention to and remembering details, and managing time and space) is a better predictor of academic success than IQ.

6. Playtime is the Right Time
On rainy days when you and the baby, toddler, or preschooler in your care remain indoors, think fewer toys, more open-ended play. Medina asserts that “open-ended activities are as important to a child’s neural growth as protein” and adds, “the box the flashcards come in is probably more beneficial to a toddler’s brain than the flashcards themselves.” There is a time and place for flashcards and rote memorization of facts, of course, but kids allowed open-ended play are more creative, more socially skilled, less stressed, and better at language; memory; and problem-solving.

Open-ended play has structure: Encourage your young one to make a play plan, like “I’m going to build a zoo with blocks and Legos.” Guide or “coach” make-believe with language like, “I’m pretending my zookeeper is feeding the bears. What is your zoo-keeper doing? What should they say to each other?” And finally, sort all the materials available for your crawler, toddler, and preschooler to get and use in a safe, clean, open space.

7. Toys that Teach
When you spend money on toys, think about nesting boxes crawlers can stack and build, beads and laces to develop toddler’s fine motor skills, and toys that encourage make-believe like pretend food; tools; animals; and dolls for your preschooler. Your toddler and preschooler are going to wear your clothes and shoes whether you explicitly provide them or not, so you may as well have a dress-up box, too.

Don’t break the bank, though. Too many toys, and your under 5 child will shift into sensory overload faster than you can say Terrible Twos. Some educational philosophies, like Waldorf, recommend simple, natural objects like pine cones, acorns, and hand-crocheted dolls for play.

8. Be Easy on Yourself
Take some chill time for you. Dr. Stinfil says, “Seek the aid of others - playdate, grandma, other parent, or older sibling - to aid you in caring for your child during that ‘special’ time of the day, when you have had just about enough. If you are the primary caregiver for your child, your ability to care for your child is only as good as your ability to care for yourself.” So don’t worry, relax, and enjoy these early years. When Havard does call, she’ll be off to college before you can say “My baby is grown!” and then, she’ll be gone for good.

Eisa Nefertari Ulen is a former teacher with an MA from Teachers College, Columbia University and 20 years experience teaching at every level from Pre-K to college. The Co-President of the Brooklyn Chapter of Mocha Moms, Inc., she is author of the novel Crystelle Mourning and lives with her husband and son in Brooklyn.

All site content © Eisa Ulen

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