Recent research has shown that babies are far smarter than we give them credit for.At four weeks gestation, before we even knew we were pregnant, the fetus’ neurons are developing at a rate of 250,000 a minute. At birth, he has over 100 billion neurons. And by the time he is eight months old, his brain has already formed 1,000 trillion synapses. That’s twice more than what adults have (most of us have less than 500 trillion).
Here are some interesting facts on your baby’s brain, and what you can do to support his learning and nurture his potential.
1. Grab the windows of opportunity.
About 90% of your baby’s brain structure is developed by the time that he’s 4 years old. In fact scientists have identified ‘windows of opportunity’ or periods where a child must master a skill before it becomes increasingly difficult (or even impossible) to function normally.
The window for opportunity for speech and vocabulary is between birth and 3 years of age. What he hears will largely determine the size of his adult vocabulary. Those who aren’t spoken to regularly even score lower on conceptual thinking tests than those who were included in conversations.
Emotional patterns, on the other hand, are established between birth to 2 years. While this is difficult to isolate (our personalities are shaped by so many things) some say that babies who are raised in an inconsistent, violent or unaffectionate environment can grow up to very clingy, anxious, or easily frustrated.
The theory fits with research done as early as 1970s. Pediatrics guru Dr. Terry Brazelton videotaped babies crying to get the attention of their moms. Each one reaches their tolerance level and begins to look away from her, finding it too difficult to continue making an effort with no response. Though some try again, they turn away for longer and longer periods, finally slumping down and giving up completely. That’s one experiment conducted over one afternoon. Imagine what 2 years of this sense of rejection would do for a child?
Other windows are visual acuity (birth to 2 years) and motor coordination (birth to 5 years). Let them crawl, sweat, get dirty! Too many first-time parents are scared that their babies will get too tired or sick. Don’t be! Picking up the occasional smear of dirt or even virus is far better than having limited stimulation—and possibly, lower I.Q.
2. Respond to your child’s cues and clues.
A child, no matter how young, gives you indications of how he/she is feeling. Observe how a child’s eyes move when looking at you or objects. Watch out for body language and the pitch of his cry. When a child knows you’re listening to him, he becomes calmer and more confident.
3. Use every day experiences to teach concepts.
Babies are like sponges. Name his body parts as you scrub them in the bath. Count the toys as you put them away from the shelves.
4. Speak in a way that attracts your child’s attention.
Mothers instinctively put their faces very close to a child, and speak in a high-pitched, sing-song manner. Studies show that these actually help babies understand the words. Another tip: use short sentences and speak slowly, maintaining eye contact.
5. Don’t spank!
Studies show that children who are physically abused early in life develop brains that are sensitive to danger. At the slightest threat their hearts race and stress hormones surge.
6. Take care of yourself, too!
Others studies show that a depressed mother’s interactions with a child can affect his level of brain activity. The melancholy rubs off on him, and he may become less interested in playing or interacting with others.
7. Rotate your toys.
You’ve invested a small fortune in educational toys–but most of them gather dust on the shelves or are ignored. Bring out 10 or 11 each week and put them in a box, replacing them regularly. That way, your child isn’t overwhelmed by choices or bored by seeing the same things everyday.
8. Encourage crawling.
Studies suggest that the act of crawling can actually build what neurologists call the primitive brain (or the basal ganglia). That wasn’t really a big deal before–experts once thought that the cerebral cortex was more important for daily and long-term decision making. But now they realize that memory and problem-solving involves all the structures, so even the simple routine of 1 or 2 hours playing on the mat can make a big difference in his learning ability.
9. Build a healthy attachment.
Relationships, not things, build a baby’s intelligence. Ask yourself: ‘Does my child trust his environment and feel comfortable exploring it? Does he feel rewarded for his accomplishments? Does he have fun learning, due to the encouragement and affection he receives?’
One study had toddlers playing with unfamiliar toys in an unfamiliar room. Those who had a ‘healthy attachment’ to their parents would take only a few minutes to adjust to an unfamiliar room. Children who had experienced trauma or neglect were fearful and clingy. Not surprisingly, the latter scored lower on memory tests.