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How to boost your baby's development

Baby flying on knees

Until a few years ago, scientists believed that a baby’s development depended on genes and the environment. But, more recently, we’ve learned that early experiences are what shape brain-development. Take advantage of these windows of opportunity to boost your baby’s development.

Nature determines how many brain cells children are born with (usually about 100 billion). But it’s nurture that determines how many connections grow between them.

The brain starts forming about 3 weeks after conception, and before birth the brain produces trillions more neurons (brain cells) and synapses (the connections between them) than it actually needs. During the first years of life the brain undergoes a series of extraordinary changes, says human development specialist, Judith Graham in Children and Brain Development, published by the University of Maine.

Experience plays a crucial way in ‘wiring’ a young child’s brain

In line with these amazing changes are precious windows of opportunity when specific types of learning take place. For instance, vision neurons become very active at 2 to 4 months of age, peaking in intensity at 8 months. It’s no coincidence that babies start to take a keen interest in the world at this time.

Experiences grow brains

At birth a baby’s brain is in a “remarkably unfinished” state. Most of the neurons are not yet connected in networks. As the neurons mature more and more connections are made. At birth the number of synapses per neuron is 2 500; by age 2 or 3, it’s about 15 000 synapses per neuron. “This is like going from 100 to 600 friends on Facebook, and each of those friends in turn, is connected to 600 more!” says Graham. If the connections are not used often enough they are eliminated. “In this way, experience plays a crucial way in ‘wiring’ a young child’s brain,” she says.

Early childhood is the time to build either a strong foundation or a fragile one for future life.

Forming and securing these connections are the key tasks of early brain development. Connections are formed in response to the growing child’s experiences and attachments to parents and caregivers, science tells us.

So, while babies are born with a more or less finite number of brain nerve cells, the connections between them develop in response to stimulating interactions. This way, you can quite literally shape your child’s brain.

Why stimulation is important from an early age

Early childhood is the time to build either a strong foundation or a fragile one for future life.

Dr Nils Bergman pointed out that good sensations allow for higher-level development, while negative sensations send an infant into fight-or-flight mode. The latter experience can wear down basic nerve pathways and this may later show up as physical or behavioural problems triggered by life stresses.

Research done in Bucharest on the differences between abandoned children raised in institutions (where they invariably receive less adult interaction) and those who are either never institutionalised or moved to foster care, reveals that those that remain institutionalised score significantly lower on cognitive tests. “This research further revealed that there were improved outcomes for those children transferred to foster care and, the younger the children were when moved, the better their cognitive outcomes,” says clinical psychologist Claire Toi.

This research supports the idea that there is a sensitive period for cognitive development: a period of time when a child is biologically ready to master a new skill, given the right environment and experiences.

Language is one of those skills. Talking and reading to a child is the best way to offer exposure to language. If a child were simply handed a book to look at on their own, they wouldn’t get much out of the experience. A book only becomes a valuable development tool when there is someone to read it, to point at pictures and model language. Caregiver interaction is essential, says Toi.

“Children whose parents have read to them for 10 minutes a day from 6 months of age will have received more than 300 hours of this type of stimulation by kindergarten,” says Nubabi paediatrician Dr Martin Bailey.

How early can I start?

There’s no such thing as too early when it comes to appropriate stimulation. A baby is born with her senses intact and fully developed. She comes out ready to learn and grow. The period of the highest sensitivity to learning new skills is in the first four years of life, and it drops off dramatically after that.

Take vision for example. “Right from birth a baby can see round shapes, red colours, and contrasts of light and dark,” says Dr Bailey. “At around 6 weeks of age, a baby can see faces and smile back in response.”

Before you groan under the awesome responsibility that is shaping your baby’s brain, note that everything your baby needs to develop and grow optimally already exists in your home, and you’re probably doing most of instinctively already.

“Every interaction is valuable and it’s the quality of the interaction, rather than the quantity of time that is important. See everyday tasks as opportunities to interact with your child. For example: use meal times and bath time to chat or sing or be silly. Bear in mind that your child’s ‘job’ is to play, so be playful,” says Toi.

How can I support baby’s early development?

Parents often ask: Do I need expensive toys? Do I need fancy supplements?

“The answers are more simple: They need lots of love, quality time, your understanding of the importance of parenting as the most significant job you’ll ever have, and having an appreciation for the appropriate activities for your baby’s stage,” says Dr Bailey.

Remember that all children are unique so don’t be governed by age bands, rather cater to the unique needs and stage of your own child. He will probably give you clues as to what ‘window’ is open when. Following a program like Nubabi’s Weekly Stimulation Guide can really help parents provide the right kind of stimulation at the right time, customised to their baby’s developmental stage without needing to buy expensive toys and equipment.

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