Newswise — Parents always believe their child is a star. Did you know when a baby is born, their brain will actually contain more neurons than there are stars in the Milky Way? But, how do we nurture this so-called “star-power” and harness intelligence in our kids? A Texas A&M Health Science Center pediatric expert weighs in on the best ways to boost your baby’s cognitive development.
During infancy and throughout a child’s first year of life is when the brain develops the most and has the best potential to be influenced. “By the time a child enters kindergarten their brain is 90 percent developed and formed,” said Alison Pittman, R.N., a clinical assistant professor at the Teas A&M College of Nursing and certified pediatric nurse. “Focusing on your child’s brain development in the first year is extremely important.”
Feed the brain—literally
There are several nutrients essential during pregnancy, and none more important for baby’s brain development than folic acid, iron and essential fatty acids.
Most expecting mothers already know to take a prenatal vitamin containing folic acid, but many may not understand the ‘why’ behind its importance. “Folic acid is essential for the formation of the neural tube in the fetus,” Pittman said. “The neural tube is what eventually forms the brain and spinal cord of the baby. Neural tube defects like spina bifida and brain dysfunction disorders are more likely to occur when enough folic acid isn’t available.”
Iron is also an integral nutrient for pregnancy. While iron is normally found in prenatal vitamins, Pittman said many babies in developing countries are still at risk for iron deficiency anemia (a condition where the body doesn’t produce enough healthy red blood cells).
“When the brain is developing it needs lots of oxygen,” Pittman said. “Iron is what carries oxygen to to every cell in the body and our brain. From conception on, we must ensure mom is getting sufficient iron. Mothers who are breastfeeding should still supplement with iron, and those who choose to formula feed their infant should pick iron-fortified formulas under supervision of the baby’s health care provider.”
According to Pittman, other nutrients essential to brain development are essential fatty acids. “Essential fatty acids—DHAs and ALAs—naturally occur in a woman’s breast milk and help form the cells of the brain,” she said. “Essential fatty acids help build the cells, regulate the nervous system, and may even protect against conditions like Type II diabetes and heart disease. We are starting to see essential fatty acids added to many infant formulas because of their immense benefits.”
Detox your environment
There are certain factors affecting brain function that parents can’t control, like genetics, but, Pittman stressed you can limit what your child is exposed to during pregnancy to combat possible cognitive issues. “What your child is exposed to during pregnancy plays a large role in brain development,” she said. “As soon as pregnancy is detected health care providers focus on protecting the mother from things that might be toxic to baby’s brain.”
Lead is one of the leading toxins new parents should be aware of. “Lead exposure is toxic to the brain,” Pittman said. “It severely inhibits cognition and can actually lower IQ or cause permanent brain damage. Water testing is important, but poisoning from lead-based paint is the larger culprit at work.”
Another surprising source of lead is pottery. “Pottery that’s made in foreign countries may contain lead,” Pittman said. “You should never serve food or eat off pottery unless you know it wasn’t made with lead-based materials.”
Other environmental toxins we may not immediately think of are pesticides and alcohol. The CDC recently released guidelines urging expecting mothers that no amount of alcohol is safe to drink during pregnancy. “We know that when a mother ingests significant amounts alcohol it can be fatal to a baby’s brain development,” Pittman said. “Pesticides are also harmful. When buying fresh produce, it’s best to buy organic or wash your produce well to remove any pesticide residue.”
Nurturing your child’s brain after birth
From infancy to age four, a baby’s brain grows substantially. We should think of the brain like a muscle—the more it’s ‘exercised’ the stronger it becomes. Pittman emphasized building a child’s intelligence isn’t about buying the flashiest toys or educational videos, it’s about interaction and relationships.
“We need our kids to have a good home base,” she said. “Do they have close and affectionate feelings and relationships with their family? Are their basic needs being met? When a child doesn’t feel safe their ability to develop the brain and learn is inhibited.”
Activities that actively engage a child’s brain are crucial to neural development, and counting objects and sensory play can be extremely beneficial. “Playing with Play-Doh or activities like putting dry beans in a cup and moving the cups back and forth help children sort, learn context and how to build,” Pittman said.
She stressed the most important takeaway is that parents must engage with their kids. “You can’t simply take your baby to a park and then sit and look at your phone the whole time,” she said. “You must be active as a parent for brain development to occur. It’s about getting down to their eye-level, and playing or reading with them to encourage success.”
Praise hard work not ‘smarts’
How we approach learning in children may hold the key to raising both a successful and intelligent child. But how does this promote development?
“One of the biggest changes we’ve seen in the last 50 years is that we used to praise how hard a child worked for their achievements,” Pittman said. “But now, kids are praised for how ‘smart’ they are instead of for their effort and commitment. A study by a Stanford psychology professor found kids are more successful when their parents teach them to value effort and hard work.”
“Of course we all know our kids are smart,” she said. “We simply should be praising them for how committed they are or a ‘don’t quit’ attitude. This is what builds resilience and instills an achievement mentality.”
About Texas A&M Health Science Center
Texas A&M Health Science Center is Transforming Health through innovative research, education and service in dentistry, medicine, nursing, pharmacy, public health and medical sciences. As an independent state agency and academic unit of Texas A&M University, the health science center serves the state through campuses in Bryan-College Station, Dallas, Temple, Houston, Round Rock, Kingsville, Corpus Christi and McAllen. Learn more at www.vitalrecord.tamhsc.edu or follow @TAMHSC on Twitter.