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The A to Z Guide to Boosting Baby's Brain Power


Your baby will study the world from day one. Review this A to Z of development, then get ready to cheer on your little learner.

By Sunny Sea Gold / Fit Pregnancy

A is for Attention

New research into how babies learn reveals that the everyday, loving interaction with caregivers is what matters most. The best thing you can do for your baby’s growing brain is to respond to him, says Fit Pregnancy and Baby advisor Claire Lerner, L.C.S.W., director of parenting resources at Zero to Three, in Washington, D.C. Let him know that when he cries, you will comfort him; when he’s ready to play, you will engage him.

B Is for Breast Milk

It’s powerful stuff. Brain imaging studies by Brown University, in Providence, found that kids who were breastfed exclusively for at least three months had 20 to 30 percent more white matter—a type of brain tissue that’s rich in myelin, a fatty substance that insulates nerve fibers and speeds up the brain’s electrical signals.

C Is for Calming

“Helping your infant feel secure calms the brain,” says Lerner. Even if your infant continues to cry when you hold him, your touch and response helps soothe his nervous system and prevents the stress hormone cortisol from interfering with development.

MindTrip MagazineD Is for Doubling

Your baby’s brain doubles in size the first year; the cerebellum, an area at the back of the brain that controls coordination and balance, triples in size. This is believed to be related to the amount of motor skills babies learn by 12 months.

E Is for Eye Contact

Put down your phone and stare into those sweet eyes! Doing so creates an emotional bond that sets him up to absorb information. Sharing looks can help your baby learn language and understand the world around him, says Malinda Carpenter, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist who conducts research at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany.

F Is for Focus

When your infant explores a toy or book, she’s learning. “For a 3-month-old, focusing on an object for 10 or 15 seconds is intense; it’s similar to an adult concentrating for an hour,” says Lerner.

G Is for Grouping

Babies are aware of different amounts and are mentally grouping things into categories by 11 months, says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., director of the Infant Language Laboratory at Temple University, in Philadelphia. “They’re not mathematicians, but they know when there’s more or less stuff. Biology’s made them great pattern seekers.” During play, sort the blocks by color or size with your baby.

H Is for Hearing

At birth, your baby recognizes your voice because she could hear you in the womb. “Babies can even process the tone of the voices they hear—are the voices happy or upset?” Lerner says. “One study showed that sleeping babies’ cortisol levels went up if adults nearby spoke in harsh voices.”

I Is for Iron

Infants need iron to produce oxygen-carrying red blood cells, which help fuel brain growth. Formula-fed babies may get enough from iron-fortified formula, but if you’re nursing, your little one may need an iron supplement. Babies born early may require extra iron too. Ask your pediatrician.

J Is for Jiggle

When you gently jiggle your baby on your lap to make her coo, you stimulate her brain to release hormones that are necessary for growth. In one study, premature infants in intensive care who were stroked and had their limbs flexed for 15 minutes, three times a day, went home sooner, were more alert, and had better motor control than those who were touched less often.

K Is for Kicking

Babies do a lot of communicating with their body. Let’s say you’re making funny faces and your little one is loving it. Then you stop. “She may kick her legs, reach out with her arms, or lean forward as if to say, ‘I want you to keep doing that,’ ” says Lerner. When you do so, these reflexive actions start to become purposeful, and Baby “talks” with her motions.

L Is for Looking

Starting at about 6 weeks, babies learn by looking, report researchers from the University of Iowa, in Iowa City. In their study, they found that infants looked longer at a new object when it was shown to them for the first time, then paid less and less attention to it as the object became more familiar. Don’t switch out toys and books too quickly, though: Researchers also found that infants who don’t spend a sufficient amount of time studying a new item don’t catch on as well.

M Is for Music

If you want to sign up for a mommy-and-me class, choose an interactive music one. One-year olds who did participatory music classes—the kind where you and your tot bang on instruments and sing—communicate better, smile more, and show more sophisticated brain responses to music than those who simply listened to songs, a Canadian study finds.

N Is for Nurture

“The constant interaction between a child’s genetic makeup and early life experiences shapes the developing brain,” Lerner says. Parents who make their child feel secure and provide appropriate experiences nurture their child’s brain, with long-term benefits.

O Is for Feeling Overwhelmed

Like adults, babies have different tolerance levels for stimulation. If your child starts to cry, arch his back, or break eye contact, try a simpler toy, shut off the music, or walk away from a noisy area. “When a child’s developing nervous system becomes overwhelmed, it’s important that you give his brain a break,” Lerner says.

P Is for Peekaboo

Playing peekaboo is a great way to teach the idea of “object permanence”—that people and things still exist even when out of sight. Your little one learns that you are still there even when she can’t see your face.

Q Is for Quiet Time

You know when you’re in a noisy room and can’t even think? That’s how having a TV on in the background can make babies feel, Dr. Hirsh-Pasek says. “It’s as if their brain is being accosted with sound, making it difficult to concentrate.” Let him thrive in peace!


R Is for Repetition

It’s maddening when your 10-month-old wants you to read the same book five times in a row, but repetition is how infants learn. “They tend to repeat behaviors until they feel they’ve mastered them,” says Andrew Garner, M.D., chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Early Brain and Child Development Leadership Workgroup. “Also, they get pride from being able to predict what is going to happen next.”

S Is for Synapses

From birth to age 3, the connections between brain cells, called synapses, grow at a faster rate than at any other time in life. New ones form daily! The more each one is used (say, for speech), the stronger that part of the brain becomes.

T Is for Tummy Time

“Initially, this activity strengthens the gross motor skills your baby needs to raise her head, roll over, and sit,” Dr. Garner says. But there may be brain benefits as well. “Seeing the world from this perspective could promote spatial awareness—the ability to be aware of your place in relation to objects or other people,” he says.

U Is for Understanding

“Even 8-month-olds can show ‘social referencing.’ They understand how a person is feeling,” Dr. Garner says. When a stranger approaches, your baby will check your facial expression to see if this new person is a friend or foe. If you look concerned, he won’t be happy. But if you look relaxed, he’ll relax.

V Is for You Being Verbal

The more you chat with your baby, the better. Exposure to words paves the way for more complicated learning, Dr. Garner says. Go ahead and narrate the things you do together each day.

W Is for Baby's Words

Most infants can say two or three simple words, like “mama” or “dada,” at 12 months. By 18 months, their vocabulary should expand to about 50 words. Respond to encourage his speech!

X is for Xs (and Os)

Smooch your sweetie all you want! Kissing, hugging, and smiling are like superfoods for your baby’s brain, Dr. Hirsh-Pasek says. You’re making him feel safe and loved, so he can concentrate on learning.

Y Is for You

By about 12 months, babies start pointing to communicate. You’re the one she’ll turn to for answers and explanations. At first, she’ll point because she wants you to look at what she’s seeing—say, a really big dog. Then she’ll start to point for other reasons, such as to request a snack she sees.

Z Is for ZZZs

It’s no surprise that during this period of the most rapid brain growth, infants spend 12 to 18 hours of every day snoozing. Sleep gives your baby’s brain the rest it needs to refuel and be efficient. By enforcing a nap schedule, you’re actually making your baby smarter!

 

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