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It takes a bit of brain power to understand the ins and outs of the human brain. The pace at which a baby’s neural (brain) network is built is truly mind boggling: In utero, brains build 250,000 neurons a minute to result in about 100 billion neurons by the time the baby is born. That’s a heck of a lot of potential learning.
To work efficiently, your baby’s brain needs to be able to adapt—to learn new things, to forget old things. Fortunately, our brain can be molded and shaped. Because of this plasticity, the brain can adapt to its environment, learning things it needs to and not spending resources learning things that are irrelevant. You help your baby decide which those are.
Building a neural forest
During early development (pregnancy and infancy), the job of your baby’s brain is to grow like a forest and get as many trees as possible. Make it thick, make it lush, make it rich with powerful neurological redwoods. When your baby reaches full term in pregnancy (40 weeks), most of the neurons that will ever exist are in their correct locations, even though your baby’s brain is only about one-fourth the size of an adult brain.
Most of the synaptic connections (connections between brain cells that convey info) form during the first year of life, a period during which the brain rapidly expands to near-adult size, and the total number of synapses approaches twice that seen in adults. First come the primary sensory synapses, so baby can sense the world around him; followed by those synapses that control gross motor skills, so that he can escape from any threats; then fine motor skills, so he can write about what he just did. Last come the synapses that control his brain functions such as motivation, judgment, and reasoning, so that he learns what he may have done right or wrong in any given situation. These final pathways aren’t fully functional until the late teens or even early 20s, which explains a lot, doesn’t it?
Starting at about age 1, as baby is exposed to his new environment, the emphasis in his brain’s development shifts from growth to pruning. Think of it as forest management: To encourage growth of the strongest, healthiest trees, deadwood and underbrush need to be cleared away. The brain does this by eliminating redundant and underused synaptic connections. Baby doesn’t need to know how to tap dance? Cut those. Baby hears both Spanish and English in the home? Strengthen the language connections. Baby gets put in a room all day to watch videos? Connections look kind of sparse.
This is why it’s essential for you to nurture your baby’s brain development both during pregnancy and in his earliest years. He will have the maximum number of synapses he will ever have by the time he turns 1. By age 3, that number is cut in half (and research shows that children lose synapses faster if the TV is constantly turned on.) This is why it’s so crucial for a child to have appropriate stimulation from birth to age 3 so that he prunes neurons wisely.
Brain Building Strategies
Add DHA: Remember that the most important component of brain is healthy fat, which helps improve the insulation of those brain cells to strengthen the communication of information from one neuron to the next. Children whose diets are supplemented with adequate levels of DHA perform better on cognitive tests and even have a higher IQ. Our recommended dose for kids: (there’s no hard data in youngsters up to 4 years) 30 milligrams a day for every year out of the womb up until age 20 (i.e., 60mg at age 2, 90mg at age 3, to 600mg at age 20). You can break up the pills and pour the liquid in healthy drinks.
Slow It Down: Your baby’s noggin is churning right from the start, but at a slow, steady setting. So especially in the first year of life, take things slow. It’s great to expose your child to stimulation, but there’s no need to create a circus-like atmosphere. Talk slowly and repeat your words. You’re carving a channel in the brain, and the best way to make sure it’s deep and wide is to take your time. “Motherese,” or that singsong voice in which mommy repeats what baby says or describes what’s going on at the dinner table, actually augments learning. It’s okay to do singsong; just use real words that are pronounced correctly.
Read It Loud and Proud: We can’t say it often enough: Read aloud. Read aloud. Read aloud. Besides serving as wonderful one-on-one time, reading to your child will do amazing things for his future vocabulary. In fact, the vocab that a child has at age 2 is proportional to the number of words he’s heard spoken to him before that time. Kids might not be able to respond verbally to you when they’re little, but they’re processing. Remember those neurons: With every sentence, you’re building stronger language connections.
Make Convo: The best way to talk to your child is by pretending that he can converse. “Do you need a nap? It’s been a long day hasn’t it? These yams are pretty nasty looking, aren’t they?” Talk to him as if he were filling in the gaps. That will help him recognize language and word patterns that he’ll need and use soon enough. Speak slowly and in short phrases, using gestures and facial expressions to reinforce the meaning of your words.
Show and Tell: Whenever you’re out, be one of those pointer-outer parents. Point to things you see, hear, and smell; teach your child about the world. This applies wherever you are, whether it’s in nature or at the mall. It’s also really helpful to show your child how things change: Leaves change color, flowers bloom, batter turns into cookies, and so on.
Feed Baby's Brain
Neurons are encased in a tough myelin sheath. This protective coating prevents the branches from tangling—and, thus, mixing up messages and disrupting connections—and ensures that messages travel fast. Because myelin is made up of 80% fat and 20% protein, healthy fats via mom’s diet and supplements are important for growing and maintaining a healthy brain.
That’s why we recommend that moms-to-be take a DHA supplement during pregnancy. DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid, comprises more than 97% of the omega-3 healthy fats in brains. It’s also why we recommend breast milk (or infant formula fortified with DHA) until baby reaches a full 12 months of age. And the longer you nurse your baby, the greater the amount of fats in your breastmilk with as much as 17% fat in breastmilk of women who nursed for more than 12 months compared to 5% in women who nursed for less than 6, according to one study.
Then, after that first birthday, choose whole milk (some brands are now fortified with DHA) until at least age 2. You should also try to incorporate healthy fats such as avocadoes, olive oil, and DHA-fortified milk into your child’s diet from an early age.