Forgot the flashcard saying ‘you are being born’? Don’t have a curriculum beyond cuddles for your 3 month old?
If you are worried your baby may be ‘slipping behind’ his peers because you haven’t been providing enough educational enrichment, relax! New research shows that the most critical factor in helping your baby’s brain development is loving, responsive interactions between you and your baby.
The good news is that this doesn’t require special equipment, buckets of money or a whole new set of expectations and pressures for busy parents. Although there is a plethora of baby classes and these can be wonderful ‘together’ time for you and your little one, offering lots of ideas for interaction and developing skills, you don’t need to feel guilty that you are depriving your baby if you aren’t filling her week with scheduled activities.
The loving interaction and sensory experience of your cuddles, touch, eye contact, movement, conversations and ‘just’ playing with your baby are hardwiring your little one’s immature brain for emotional and neurological development: as you touch and talk to your child and share eye contact, you stimulate the development of connections between nerve cells in your baby’s brain that will form foundations for thinking, feeling and learning. This means that as well as preparing your baby’s brain for academic learning, by simply ‘tuning in’ and enjoying your baby, you will also be supporting the development of structures that enable the capacity for problem solving, self awareness, generosity, kindness and empathy, as well as curiosity, creativity and joy.
Despite all the jokes about ‘mummy brain’ these loving interactions with your baby will also be enhancing your own brain. As you respond to your baby, you will develop skills and connections in your brain that help you understand and meet your baby’s intense needs: evidence is now appearing that suggests the organization of a mother’s brain is also being influenced by interactions with her baby. A neurobiological study of early mammalian mother-infant interactions, published in Nature, entitled “Motherhood Improves Learning and Memory,” reports increased dendritic growth in the mother’s brain. The authors conclude that events in late pregnancy and the early postpartum period may literally reshape your brain, making it more able to accommodate an increasingly demanding environment.
1) Touch me
Touch is a powerful nutrient for your baby’s development – it is the first sense to develop, just days after conception, and is important for a whole lifetime: it stimulates growth hormones as well as hormones that relieve stress and those that encourage bonding and attachment. Being touched and held by a parent comforts and gives babies a secure place to view the world. And, if you wear your baby in a wrap or carrier close to your body, as well as having your own hands free, your baby will also experience movement that will stimulate her vestibular system. This is a series of canals inside the inner ear that, when fluid moves over these, will send messages to her nervous system, encouraging the development of language, balance and sensory integration, which of course are prerequisites for later learning.
Infant Massage combines all the elements of parent/baby bonding – touch, eye contact, the sound of your voice and respectful interactions. For instructions to lovingly massage your baby, check out Pinky’s Baby Massage DVD (Pinky is a Certified Infant Massage Instructor). This is available instantly as a streaming online video HERE
2) Look at Me
According to neuropsychologist, Dr Alan Schore from the University of California, Los Angeles Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, David Geffen School of Medicine, and the UCLA Center for Culture, Brain, and Development, ‘your face is the most potent visual stimulus for the growth of your baby’s social and emotional brain.’ Margot Sunderland, Director of Education and Training for the Centre for Child Mental Health in London explains, ” face to face conversations between you and your baby and the subsequent release of optimal hormonal levels into your child’s brain will help develop pathways in your child’s higher brain that encourage social intelligence, the ability to form relationships.” Ms Sunderland says, “the ability to ‘light you up’ is the very basis of your baby’s sense of himself as lovely and lovable.”
3) Talk to me
Speaking to your baby face to face as well as singing and reading to him will naturally increase his vocabulary and help him learn rhythms of speech. These interactions will also help to fire up the release of hormones such as dopamine that encourages the uptake of glucose by his tiny brain. But please be respectful and take turns with your baby, allowing him to ‘talk’ back and also leave quiet time for reflection.
4) Breastfeed me
As well as being the optimum nutrition for your baby’s developing brain – some studies show a ten point advantage for breastfeeding longer than six months – breastfeeding has been shown to increase hand-eye coordination, visual development and language and social skills. Breastfeeding is also protective against illnesses such as ear infections which have been linked to later learning problems. If you aren’t breastfeeding, of course this doesn’t rule out loving interactions with your baby or a smart baby: offer lots of skin contact and remember to change sides as you feed to stimulate both sides of your baby’s body, both of your baby’s eyes and sensory pathways, sending messages to both sides of your baby’s brain.
5) Play with me
Studies show that intimate contact between you and your baby is mutually regulated by the reciprocal activation of your opiate systems. This means that with every interaction between you and your baby, you will both experience elevated levels of beta endorphins –the hormones of pleasure and reward -in your brains. This naturally enhances and encourages playfulness and responsiveness towards your baby. In other words, the more you play and interact with your baby, the happier you both feel, so the more you want to play!
6) Tune into me
Being attuned to your baby and responding to his cues helps him regulate himself, to feel safe and to eliminate stress hormones which are toxic to baby brains and affect the development of healthy stress regulation in later life. Responsive parenting helps develop pathways between the lower, primitive brain and the frontal lobe region of the brain which will help a child to respond sensitively to others and read social cues, to manage strong emotions such as anger, to be able to think, plan and make choices, Every loving interaction between you and your baby is sculpting his tiny brain for learning and loving and living joyously.
How easy is that? You are your baby’s best toy, his best teacher and the rock of your child’s world. Love, laugh, enjoy and be present with your baby and you will be doing the very best thing for your child’s development.
Pinky McKay is Australia’s most recognised breastfeeding expert and gentle parenting advocate. She’s an Internationally Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), mum of five (so she has had her fair share of sleepless nights) and best-selling baby-care author of Sleeping Like a Baby, 100 Ways to Calm the Crying and Parenting by Heart (Penguin Random House). For more gentle, loving ways to support your baby’s development during the first year, see Pinky’s Book Parenting by Heart and her interviews with experts series ‘The Secrets of Happy Babies – a blueprint for better baby brains’