Activities To Boost Your Baby’s Brain
No computer in existence is as complex as the human brain. Every second of our lives, this seat of conscious thought receives and processes information and transmits vital signals throughout our bodies. Experts estimate that the brain sends out 50 million messages per second in order to coordinate all parts of the body and to perform mental and motor tasks with skill and ease. These messages fire out along a vast network of nervous tissue, the foundation of which is laid in the first three years of a baby’s life.
“During this stage, billions of neurons, that is specialized brain cells that transmit information to other cells, are formed,” says Dr Rajas Deshpande, director of Ruby Hall Neurology Clinic, Pune. “When these neurons send or receive messages, electrical impulses are transmitted among them, establishing connective links in the brain called synapses.”
The number of neurons grown and connective links formed at this stage determines a brain’s level of neuroplasticity—that is, the ability to adapt and evolve. High degrees of neuroplasticity are critical in the building of an intelligent mind, experts say, but there’s a short window to develop this quality: After age 3, brain growth and development continue, but in a different way. No new neurons are generated, though synaptic connection does continue.
“A hundred trillion neural connections are made by the age of 3,” says Dr N Mahesh, a pediatric neurologist at Chennai’s Apollo Children’s Hospital. “To get an idea of all the activity that is going on in the brain, consider this: At birth, the brain weighs only 700 to 800 grams. But by the age of 3, it weighs 1100 grams—nearly 80% of the adult brain size.”
Too often the potential of these early years are overlooked, since babies are unable to speak. But it is during this phase that a baby’s brain is most receptive to stimulus. And certain activities can actually boost your child’s brain power, giving them a lifelong edge.
LISTENING TO MUSIC
According to a 2013 study in The Journal of Neuroscience, exposure to music, even up to the age of 7, can play an enormous role in brain development by actually increasing connectivity in the white matter of the brain.
Exposure to only one kind of music isn’t enough, however. The key here is diversity of sounds.
“It’s important to introduce your child to as much a variety as possible,” says Dr Deshpande.
He recommends a playlist of music from cultures across the world, starting before your child is out of diapers.
RECEIVING POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT
At any age, praise can act as a powerful stimulus. But for children, positive reinforcement does more than help them feel good—it strengthens neural pathways in the brain, allowing them to learn quicker, remember longer, and feel more confident, says Dr Mahesh.
But despite its effect on white matter, positive reinforcement can be a very grey area for parents. How much praise is too much? Dr Mahesh advises finding the right balance by responding to the child’s intentions, rather than his or her results.
“If your child attempts to build a Lego tower that didn’t come out quite right, the attempt was sincere and deserves praise,” he says. “You don’t have to wait till they build the perfect tower to praise the activity.”
Focusing on positive reinforcement doesn’t mean sacrificing discipline. Dr Mahesh says parents shouldn’t be afraid to gently admonish and correct their child for bad behavior and tantrums. (Read more on healthy discipline at The Swaddle.)
THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX
Many people think of creativity as something inherent—that flash of genius in a paint stroke, business idea or tinkered device. But creative thinking can actually be learned, and babies and toddlers are especially receptive to such lessons. Activities that foster unique and out-of-the-box thinking are known as “neurobics”, which are designed to engage all five senses as well as the imagination. Feeling different textures, colours and shapes; asking your child to think of alternative uses for everyday objects (for instance, could a pen be an antennae? or a tongue depressor?); writing in the sand with your non-dominant hand; walking barefoot; and guessing foods by their scent are all examples.
“Neurobics encourages lateral thinking. It’s an excellent way to stimulate the neurons and strengthen connections,” says Dr Mahesh. “That’s why engaging children in play provides an ideal climate for learning.”
The key here, he says, is to encourage kids to enjoy the activity and its originality; memorizing that a spoon could also be a mirror or a hammer does nothing for a child’s brain if it’s not his or her idea.
HEARING OTHERS SPEAK
Speaking to your child, even when he or she is too young to respond, can develop synaptic connections in the brain in a major way.
“A child responds best to the language that he first hears his or her mother speak (while in the womb),” says Dr Mahesh. “It is the sound of her voice that has the most impact on him.”
How language affects brain development is too complex a topic to do justice here. (Watch for an upcoming article on The Swaddle about how kids learn language.) But here’s a quick tip for the early years: Introduce one language at a time up until age 2.
“Speaking in several languages at once can confuse and disorient your child,” Dr Mahesh advises bilingual families. Living in a joint family where everyone speaks a single language also helps build strong linguistics skills, he says, as it exposes children to more and varied voices, more frequently.
PURSUING A TACTILE HOBBY
While brain development changes after age 3, it doesn’t cease. For older children, it’s just as important to be stimulated and challenged, albeit in a different way. Hobbies that mimic neurobics by exposing older kids to different textures and patterns can be just as beneficial as typical pursuits like art, sports, music or dance.
“Older children can benefit from activities such as knitting and crochet. These are helpful in developing fine motor skills and making those synaptic connections,” says Dr Deshpande. Sculpting with clay and sand, too, can help fire up older kids’ brain cells, too, he says.