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Fun & Learning: Building Baby's Brain

In this article: Resources for building babies' brains, including suggested activities, books, and other products. 

With breakthrough brain research in the last couple of decades, there has been a lot of talk about how babies learn, and the importance the first 3 years of life have on the development of intellectual, social, and emotional skills. Right on cue, products designed to enhance learning that are based on our new knowledge of how babies learn have surfaced, some with very big and loud claims. Is it all hype, or is there something to these claims?

BabyMany experts seem to think that the answer is "yes", there is something to these claims, but within reason. Much of the research has simply proven what most mothers have known all along—that certain natural motherly instincts, like talking to and frequently hugging babies and young children, in fact have a long-lasting effect on a person's outlook and personality. But other facts have been revealed that have shown us some truly fascinating concepts. For example, it would be natural to think that kids learn language skills when they start to do the most talking—at 2 and 3 years old—but in fact, most of the connections in the brain that "wire" language are formed in the first year.

The general idea is that babies are born with billions of nerve cells called neurons, and that connections (called synapses) between these neurons are formed through every experience the baby has—every sight, sound, touch, and so forth. However, if a baby is not stimulated these synapses simply do not occur or develop, or are limited. Additionally, connections that are used often become permanent, and those that are not used sufficiently often will die. "Windows of opportunity" is a buzz phrase these days—essentially, these are time periods when parts of the brain are at their peak of development. These time periods represent optimal times for learning specific skills. It only makes sense to use this information to help our babies get a head start in life with rich intellectual capabilities. The bottom line of most of the brain research so far is that early experience actually shapes the development of the brain.

More and more studies are emerging. One recent study, for example, showed that a stimulating environment early in life and then continued learning may help protect the brain from degenerative diseases later in life and help it to repair and re-grow damaged cells. Another revealed that pregnant women who increase their intake of omega-3 fatty acids generally give birth to babies with advanced attention spans, and that babies whose diets are high in these dietary fatty acids may have a distinctive edge in early developmental skills (read the full story here). Yet another study revealed that early musical training affects the way we think (read the full story here). 

Basics of Brain-Building:

Touch From birth, babies are rapidly learning about their environment through love and touch. The power of touch, which can include loving touches, massage, holding babies frequently, and plenty of hugs, is extraordinary. Studies show that babies who are infrequently held and touched actually have smaller brains.

Interaction The equation "play=learning" applies here. Babies learn through play. Talk to baby often, "converse" with baby, sing to him or her, encourage exploration and play, listen to music with baby. Offer toys of different shape, texture, and weight, and a variety of toys or objects that do different things. Build trust by being attentive to baby, and play peek-a-boo to prove that people can go away, but they come back. Build baby's self-esteem by responding to him or her, and baby's body image through loving touch and naming of body parts. Some level of routine helps to build baby's sense of security. Adjust to baby's moods so that you neither over- or under-stimulate. Be responsive—and clear in your responses—to baby's coos, babble, moods, and "requests". Be particularly mindful that you are incorporating each sense into activities—this doesn't have to be all at once, of course, and is in fact better in the early stages if you concentrate on a sense for each activity: visual, sound, touch, smell, taste, and also movement. Remember that babies are learning about their bodies and how to control them, and interaction is a powerful form of play and learning.

Nutrition Prenatal nutrition and early nutrition are essential. Omega-3 fatty acids and choline are crucial, and the avoidance of drugs, cigarettes, and alcohol essential as well. 

There are plenty of products on the market designed to encourage and stimulate brain development. Probably the best ones we've seen are books on the subject of building babies' brains. These feature brain-building activities and tips.


The Products - Books for Parents

There are some wonderful books on the market designed for parents that offer advice and suggested activities that will help stimulate brain growth and development.

One such book is entitled Brain Under Construction (paid link) and is an excellent reference and guide. Focusing on babies aged 8-18 months old, the author William Staso presents plenty of theory as well as practical suggestions of activities that parents can do with their babies that will directly stimulate brain growth. One of the nice things about this book is that the suggested activities can be done by anyone without the purchase of fancy equipment or toys (in fact, excessive use of toys is discouraged). This is excellent reading.

Staso reasons that manipulation of "real" items have much more power in terms of development of the brain than toys. For example, the idea of a child learning that if he turns a knob on a toy, an object will pop up is not as powerful as the idea of turning a doorknob to enter a room.

Throughout the book there are real-life examples of babies and their development. Staso presents a list of concepts that he feels are valuable to teach babies 8-18 months (for example, the more obvious concepts of up/down, in/out, off/on, etc., and even less obvious ones like center/edge and more/less) and presents real-life practical activities that will help a child learn them. He emphasizes teaching babies basic science concepts like placing an item at the top of a ramp to see what will happena toddler will see how a ball and a banana react quite differently. Another example activity involves taking tours around the house that get increasingly more organized ("let's find all the places where there is water") as children develop. Staso suggests activities that demonstrate the meaning of the words "who", "where", and "what", and even the more complex concepts of "why" and "how". An appendix discusses academic readiness and the expectations for a child entering Kindergarten in terms of his or her understanding of basic concepts. The book clearly helps a parent to lay a solid foundation for learning these concepts.

I have used many of the suggestions from this book and found them to be extremely practical and realistic. The activities are simple yet powerful, and it is evident that Staso actually worked with real babies before presenting his findings. The book got me thinking and inspired me to extend the activities beyond the 18 month period. After reading Brain Under Construction, never will I look at babies' play the same way! It is well-written, easy to understand, and clearly organized so that if you want to skip the theory and go right to the practical applications, it is easy to do so. Also, the 10 month period is further divided into 8-12 months and 13-18 months (which is logicalan 8 month old child's abilities are dramatically different than an 18 month old child's aptitudes). An important theme throughout the book is an emphasis on having fun with your child, and cautions about over-stimulation (quantity of arranged experiences is not as important as their quality).

Another book by the same author, Neural Foundations: What Stimulation Your Baby Needs to Become Smart : Birth Through 7 Months, (paid link) focuses on the birth through seven months stage of development. A smaller window here, definitely, but practical advice and suggested activities are included. We wish both books were combined, however. I believe that if you are going to read only one of these books by Staso, read Brain Under Construction.

What's Going on in There? : How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life (paid link) is a fantastic book for those parents who want to know all the details about how their babies' minds develop, and how important their role is in nurturing their child. Written by a research neuroscientist and a mother, What's Going on in There? addresses such things as prenatal factors that shape brain development, how the birthing process affects the brain, specific stimulating activities that promote development of cognitive skills, the effects of stress on children's brains, and more.

Baby Signs: How to Talk with Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk, New Edition (paid link) is a well-loved book that introduces parents to the concept of signing with their babies in order to improve their ability to communicate, reduce the stress of not being understood, and improve their ability to use language effectively when they do begin to speak. 

Other Media

Unless used immoderately, videos and DVDs for babies can be great fun. If parents are involved they can use videos as a means of talking about objects, colors, and more with their children, and both of their hands are free to hold their baby or cuddle up as they do so. Although many videos designed for babies suggest they can be used for babies under 9 months old, we suggest holding off until at least that age. We list our favorite baby videos here.

On the Web

There's nothing like free advice and information. While there are incredible amounts of information on the web on the subject of brain development in babies, I've found a few particularly interesting pages for your info:

One of the best articles that rounds up some of the most essential information about early experiences and their effects on learning is the following news report: presents a wealth of information about child development.

The Child Development Institute site offers information about different stages of development, including intellectual, physical, language, and more.

At the Baby Center Resource Center you'll find lots of useful information. Here you'll find an image of a child's brain. Simply click on the area of the brain to find more information about whenand howthat part of the brain develops.

Striking a Balance

One thing we do know for certain is that babies have much more going on in those adorable little heads than we knew before. The research adds yet another huge responsibility to the long list parents already have, which may make some parents feel nervous. Being aware of the studies is important, but overdoing infant stimulation will have the opposite of the desired effect. According to the book "Brain Under Construction" by William Staso, stress has a negative impact on brain growth in infants.

Experts also caution parents to strike a balancebabies and young children need peace and quiet, or "down" time, for healthy development. Stimulating a child's brain is one thing, but overdoing it would be silly. We don't want our children to grow up overanalyzing life. We want them to be emotionally healthy and balanced.

The best thing about the products recommended above is that they don't overdo their claimsthey emphasize parental involvement as a key factor in the development of babies' brains, and rightfully so.

More to explore at Edutaining Kids:

Teaching Kids the Alphabet This article discusses some activities and products most recommended for teaching kids to distinguish the distinct shapes of each and every letter of the alphabet.

Creating a Learning-Rich Home Learning Environment It's easy and inexpensive to create a home environment that is rich with educational opportunities for your young children. Children learn through play, and learning is best when all of a child's senses are stimulated.

Make Your Own Baby Videos While there are plenty of fun baby videos available for purchase, those families with the time and inclination (and a camcorder!) might consider taking on a very creative and exciting family project: making their very own, homemade and personalized baby video.

Recipes for Homemade Play Dough We offer two recipes for making playdough (clay) at home: one superior long-lasting dough, and another quick and basic recipe for play dough.

Baby & Toddler Guide to Fun & Learning

Best Baby Videos

Best ABCs and 123s Videos


Activities with Kids & Recipes:

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