One of the wonderful gifts that comes with 4+ decades of working on the cutting edge of practical neuroscience is the many friendships developed over the years with extraordinary people who, like us, are dedicated to helping everyone (children and adults) realize their full potential. They come from many fields of endeavor – medicine, education, anthropology, social work, music, philosophy, theology, to name just a few. We are indeed blessed.
Today, I am delighted to introduce you to one of those extraordinary people, our dear friend and colleague Dr. Deborah Gordon. We’ve known Deborah for 27 years as our doctor, collaborator, and friend. She’s one of the best! What I think is exceptional about Deborah is her incredible curiosity, her need to know why, and her marvelous intellectual honesty. I’ve seen Deborah shift course several times over the years when the evidence pointed in a direction different from the one she was headed. That takes clear thinking and, most of all, humility.
Dr. Deborah Gordon graduated from the University of California San Francisco Medical School and completed a Family Practice Residency in Santa Rosa, California, where she served as Chief Resident. She has been in Southern Oregon for 30 years, and for the last 25 years has had an integrative practice emphasizing lifestyle solutions to health complaints. Deborah has a particular interest in Alzheimer’s and trained with Dr. Dale Bredesen in 2016. She lives in the country, rows competitively with Rogue Rowing Club, and raises chickens for eggs and lambs for meat.
Optimum brain physiology is an important part of being a BrainFit Kid and good nutrition is one of the pillars of optimum brain physiology. With that in mind, here’s Dr. Deborah Gordon with some thoughts on nutrition for growing children.
Food for Growing Children
I was pleased to see a “mother and baby” visit on my schedule: I love those appointments that are truly family-centered, with at least two generations included! Karen came to her appointment with her four-month old cherished and cheerful son, Tyler.
“I had hoped to nurse for a full year, but it’s just not working for me. With the house remodel and my husband’s work schedule, I just need to transition him to food. We eat great, but does that diet work for him?”
Karen’s situation was fairly simple: after loving her pregnancy, she was surprised to not enjoy nursing her baby. She had no real problems with it, and loved holding her baby son, so she stuck with it. I encouraged her to nurse for two more months, pat herself on the back for giving her son a great start, and our conversation moved on to the more challenging topic of feeding her cherished child. Karen had been raised on a standard American diet and changed herself to a nutrient rich menu several years previously, but she had no knowledge of healthy choices for children.
“He reaches for my food when I’m eating. Do children just get smaller portions of our meals? What about Fortified Rice Cereal, should that really be his first food?”
So glad you asked, and the answers are no, and no, so let’s talk. We’ll start with babies and move on to children: once they’re toddlers, the principles of healthy eating stay fairly consistent through childhood and teen years.
Babies: Nutrients and Tolerance
Tyler had already let Karen know that he understood the attraction of food: interest in what the parents are eating is a good sign of readiness for introducing foods and usually occurs at about his age, four months old. Variation can be wide, but four months is a good age to start thinking about solids: less than three months would be too young, and at six months I’d recommend solid food encouragement even without a show of interest. Waiting longer can work in some cultural settings, but also raises the risk of raising a fussy eater by exclusive reliance on nursing without inclusion in the family ritual of mealtime.
So, great, Tyler is interested and Karen is ready to start the transition, what’s next? My first choice for an infant is pureed or strained meat, better made at home for freshness but also acceptable as an actual baby food, so long as there are no additives. Without added flavorings, meat actually well suits the baby’s preference for bland tastes and digestive familiarity, after months of a fat and protein rich breast milk diet!
I remember thinking how a smashed banana would be a great treat for a baby: my daughter quickly let me know that was too strong a taste for an infant and I put bananas away for a later time. She enjoyed it a few months later.
Meat is an excellent source of protein (needed for growth), iron in an absorbable form, and zinc, and essential B vitamins: elements needed for the important tasks of building healthy brains and bodies. I recommend starting with pureed red meat for greater iron, but poultry and bland fish sources are also good protein and zinc sources. Liver would be great and children usually like it more than adults do!
To whatever extent any form of milk is continued, iron-rich foods are very important, as calcium-rich milk can lead to iron deficiencies. Karen was ready to stop nursing, so I encouraged her to visit the website of the Weston A. Price Foundation and consider whether she had the energy to make homemade infant formula or whether she wanted to switch to a commercial formula. The least problematic commercial formula is Baby’s Only Organic Formula, which is a very reasonable alternative for busy moms.
The other absolutely crucial nutrient for babies is dietary fat, a key component for brain development. The best and most well-studied source of fat for babies are egg yolks, avoiding the white until your child is one year old. Additionally, egg yolks can contain the omega-3 fatty acid known as DHA, if the yolks come from pasture-raised eggs. Another source of DHA is either fish oil or cod liver oil (which also offers vitamins A and D.) ¼ teaspoon of a fish-based oil can be stirred into yolks (which can be eaten raw) and usually enjoyed by babies.
Second only to liver, egg yolks are an excellent source of choline, key to the health of both liver and brain. Another nutrient crucial for growing children is (don’t be shocked) cholesterol. Cholesterol is a key component of every cell in the body and makes up 20 percent of the brain. Adequate cholesterol levels are assured if foods rich in both cholesterol and saturated fat are generously included in the diet, most importantly in children
By six to eight months of age, a wider variety of food can be pureed and offered to babies: vegetables, other meats, and dairy. Well-cooked rice is a perfect first grain, and all other grains can wait for that first birthday, when grains, nuts, and seeds can be introduced one at a time.
Toddlers and Children
Once children are sharing meals with the family, they can indeed eat most of the foods (not the glass of wine!) that parents and siblings are eating, with a few key differences. If your family enjoys particularly savory or spicy food, you can begin to offer stronger tastes to your infant: babies can surprise us with their adventurous palates!
Spicy curry enjoyed as a twelve-month old just might encourage a twelve-year-old to be appreciative and even curious about new foods.
A French family once stayed with us, and I worried that the dinner I planned for the adults would not suit their three children. Their mother was surprised at my concern: “Well, first of all, our children are not allowed to reject food generously cooked for them, and secondly, why would they not want to try something new?” An excellent attitude to have shared with their children!
Key nutrients for growing children include those mentioned above. Foods rich in protein, saturated fat, and cholesterol will offer needed amounts of zinc, iron, vitamins A, B and D, choline, and DHA. As a child’s diet expands, she will also naturally find the full range of other vitamins, antioxidants, and calories.
The essentials of a healthy diet for a growing child are an expansion of what we fed our weaning infant and in many ways similar to what we eat as adults. Let’s go through an overview, in different categories, each category with its own caution in italics.
- Protein is essential for children and adults, a healthy serving at each meal.
- A serving is healthy if it is a bit bigger than the palm of the diner, and
- Contains the fats that are naturally part of that protein, and
- Best if raised in a healthy way: wild or pasture-raised meat and poultry, wild-caught and cold-water fish.
- Plant-based proteins do not provide all the nutrients needed by a growing child and require significant supplementation of iron, zinc, and essential fatty acids to avoid malnutrition. Soy in particular is poorly suited to the special nutritional needs of growing children.
- Fats are needed, particularly those derived from or included in healthy foods, but should not be cooked at high temperatures that result in excessive browning or crisping
- The fats in meat or in the skin of poultry are valuable and often include collagen, useful for healthy joints.
- Full-fat dairy is the only smart choice in dairy, which can be enjoyed fresh (milk, cream) or fermented (butter, cheese.) Please avoid all low fat dairy and all butter substitutes.
- Healthy oils can be eaten raw or gently cooked and include olive, avocado and coconut oils; nut oils can be eaten raw and should be cold-pressed. So-called “healthy” oils made from vegetables (corn) or seeds (sunflower, canola) are actually not healthy: they are extremely heat-sensitive and thus often damaged in industrial preparation, food processing or cooking, and should be avoided. Deep-fried commercial foods are almost always prepared in fragile and thus damaged vegetable oils; homemade deep-fried foods can be a big hassle but not a problem IF you have access to healthy lard or don’t mind the taste of coconut oil.
- Nuts are wonderful sources of protein and fat together. I like to soak my nuts for 24 hours in salty water and dehydrate until they’re crispy; raw nuts are well tolerated by some. Nut butters can be healthy if they are simple nuts and salt, without added oils or sugar. Roasted nuts are usually roasted in vegetable oils: avoid! Hmm… dry roasted nuts are an unknown: if you roast them at home, keep the temperature below 175 degrees. Roasting at high heats can damage the oils in the nuts. PEANUTS are not nuts, and should be introduced carefully if there is a family history of peanut allergy.
- Carbohydrates can be valuable sources of vitamins, phytonutrients, and dietary fiber. The main difference between adults and children is that children benefit from greater proportions of carbohydrate calories in their diet.
- Vegetables are the least controversial area: all sorts of vegetables in all colors, cooked and raw and drenched in butter to entice if necessary!
- Fruits can be enjoyed more freely by children than by adults. Consider fruits as desserts, so they can follow a protein-rich meal or snack. For consideration of fruit juices, see “SODA” below.
- Grains should be carefully prepared; again the Weston A Price Foundation offers wise advice about soaking before cooking (from steel-cut oats to brown rice.) Sensitive individuals, sensitive in any way (emotionally or in their physiology) might consider complete avoidance of gluten (wheat, rye, barley) for one to six months to evaluate its possible effect on health. Boxed breakfast cereals not only lack nutritional value, they also contain artificial and overly processed ingredients and should be avoided as much as possible.
- Sweet foods are a treat to enjoy in limited amounts, and always in the setting of a full and wholesome meal. Sweet SODA is something that need never cross health-conscious lips! Mineral water sweetened with fruit juice is a great alternative! Sweeteners should benatural (honey, maple syrup) and limited. Chocolate is fine for children, the darker the better, just like with adults!
Supplements for children might include fish or cod liver oil (unless they eat fish regularly), vitamin C (when colorful vegetables and fruits aren’t eaten), and vitamin D to keep blood levels optimal (40-60 ng/mL). Other supplements might be guided by blood tests: children should be tested every year or two for anemia, vitamin D levels, and other areas of individual concern.
“Wow, I guess that wasn’t a simple question!” I know Karen will be mulling this over for a while and I have every confidence that her weaned baby will be well-fed!
If you’ve been following along since we started posting about the science of child brain development, you now know far more than most parents do about what is actually driving all of those amazing changes in ability that you see in children in the early years of life. So far we have looked at two simple laws that govern brain development.
The first law is the very basic law of nature that says that function determines structure. The end result of this law for us is that the human brain grows through use in very much the same way that muscles develop and grow when we get regular exercise.
The second law is a basic law of neurology that influences how effectively information (stimulation) can reach the brain. The law states that in order to increase the transmission of nerve impulses across the central nervous system, you must increase the stimulus in frequency, intensity, and duration.
By applying this law we can ensure the growth of new neurons and dendrites and the production of more myelin. This increases the speed with which the brain takes in and processes information, turning the brain into a neurological superhighway.
The third and final law that we want to look at is also something quite simple. Just like the other two laws it has a tremendous effect on brain development and the development of functional ability. The third law says… where there is a need, there is a facility.
Doctor Temple Fay, the brilliant neurosurgeon who pioneered many of the ideas that form the foundation for much of what we do, was one of the first people in the medical field to relate this idea to the brain. Speaking about the development of speech in early humans, Fay said, “Man came to speech and verbalized means of communication not by extra cortical cell layers alone but because of the physical contours of the face, jaw, teeth and tongue. Which came first – the chicken or the egg? We may be sure that first there was a need, and then a facility!* Nature is an opportunist! Can you blame her for wanting to put “words” to “song”? *my italics
When saying that nature is an opportunist, Fay was referring to the well established biological phenomenon known as opportunism. An opportunist organism is generally defined as a species that can live and thrive in variable environmental conditions, and sustain itself from a number of different food sources, or can rapidly take advantage of favorable conditions when they arise, because the species is behaviorally sufficiently flexible. The human species, homo sapiens, is a master at adaptability.
Here’s another way to think about this law. Remember Aesop’s Fables?
One of Aesop’s most popular stories is The Crow and the Pitcher. Here’s the text of the fable (translation by George F. Townsend, the standard in English since the 19th Century):
A Crow perishing with thirst saw a pitcher, and hoping to find water, flew to it with delight. When he reached it, he discovered to his grief that it contained so little water that he could not possibly get at it. He tried everything he could think of to reach the water, but all his efforts were in vain. At last he collected as many stones as he could carry and dropped them one by one with his beak into the pitcher, until he brought the water within his reach and thus saved his life.
Necessity is the mother of invention.
The expression “necessity is the mother of invention” is another way of saying that “where there is a need, there is a facility”! So, how does this law work in the brain and in the development of functional abilities? Basically, what the law means is that before a baby can develop an ability there must first be a need for that ability. Increase the need and it is more likely that the function will develop. Decrease the need and it is less likely that the function will develop. While the law applies to the development of both sensory and motor functions, it is particularly applicable to the motor functions of mobility, language, and manual ability.
To give you a sense for how this plays out in everyday life, here’s a scenario that we encountered many years ago. It’s happened a number of times since. A friend, the mother of three young children, contacted us concerned that her youngest child was not speaking. He was nearly three years old so she had some good reasons to be worried. Because functional problems rarely occur in isolation, we asked her about his other abilities. Was there anything else about his development that concerned her? No, everything else was going beautifully. He was well coordinated, bright, curious.
Basically, he was developing very well in every way… except speech. That was our first indication that the problem might not be in him but in his environment. So, we got together so we could spend some time observing him and the family dynamics.
We found that, just as his mother had said, his development looked really good in every way except for the fact that he didn’t speak. He could communicate with gestures and the occasional sound but didn’t say any words. We also found that his older brother and sister doted on him constantly, making sure that he was always happy, and serving as his interpreter.
He had virtually no need to speak because his brother and sister spoke for him! And he was perfectly happy to go along for the ride! So, the good news was that there was really nothing to be concerned about. He was, in fact, developing very well. He just needed more need to speak. We talked about that with his mom, gave her some ideas for how she could increase his need to speak, and within a few months she couldn’t keep him quiet!
One of the popular parenting trends today is teaching baby sign language. Sign language is a wonderful form of communication for children who are deaf and who do not have the potential to develop spoken language. It can also be helpful for removing frustration from children who are struggling with the development of spoken language. Of course, a baby can learn how to sign just as easily as they can learn almost anything else. Indeed, most babies will develop their own sign language all on their own. Pointing fingers and reaching out with arms are perfect examples. But, when used with a baby who has no hearing problems there is a very real risk of delaying spoken language when signs remove the need for speech. And there is really no reason to take this risk if your baby is developing and functioning well. It’s a fad that we discourage because of this.
The same process that happens in speech is also at work in the development of mobility and manual ability. Here’s another great example of this. Since the development of velcro, and its use in the manufacture of shoes and sneakers, the age at which children learn to tie shoes has been dramatically delayed.
Forty years ago most children learned how to tie their shoes by the time they were four years old. Today, few children learn to tie their shoes before six years of age and many do not acquire this ability until they are nine or ten years old! That’s a huge difference! Why? No need. It all boils down to removing the need to develop sophisticated manual ability.
Most likely you’ve heard the expression “dumbing down”. It means the purposeful lowering of standards and expectations and is usually used in reference to intellectual and academic pursuits. This is a physical version of dumbing down. The issue is further complicated by the fact that so many children today are using iPads and iPhones. We often hear people marvel at the fact that a young child can tap an icon on the screen of an iPad and knows how to swipe their finger from left to right. What?!! Seriously?!!
There is simply no comparison between the manual ability required to use an iPad and the manual ability required to build with Duplos / Legos, let alone tie shoelaces; no comparison in terms of the complexity of the task and no comparison in terms of the degree of brain development required to carry out the task.
So, the moral of the story is really quite simple. If you want your child to develop the sophisticated motor abilities that lead to independence, you have to make sure they have enough of a need to develop those abilities.
This means stepping back and allowing your child to learn through trial and error. It means slowing down and taking more time, because learning how to use motor ability takes time. It means you either have to allow more time to get ready to leave the house or you will probably be late occasionally, perhaps often, because letting your child button his buttons and tie his shoes (instead of you doing it for him!) takes time.
When you get anxious because you are not getting done what you think you should be getting done, sit down with a nice cup of tea and remind yourself that it is a good thing to slow down and smell the roses. And know that you are participating in the greatest adventure of them all, the miracle of your child’s brain under construction.
Daniel Coyle has examined the ways in which people, as individuals or as groups, get better in a number of his books. And it all links back to the brain! We’ll be sure to review each of them (listed at bottom of review) in time but will start with the first in his series: The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How.
Name of Book:
Summary of Book:
A New York Times bestselling author explores cutting-edge brain science to learn where talent comes from, how it grows—and how we can make ourselves smarter.
How does a penniless Russian tennis club with one indoor court create more top 20 women players than the entire United States? How did a small town in rural Italy produce the dozens of painters and sculptors who ignited the Italian Renaissance? Why are so many great soccer players from Brazil?
Where does talent come from, and how does it grow?
New research has revealed that myelin, once considered an inert form of insulation for brain cells, may be the holy grail of acquiring skill. Journalist Daniel Coyle spent years investigating talent hotbeds, interviewing world-class practitioners (top soccer players, violinists, fighter pilots, artists, and bank robbers) and neuroscientists. In clear, accessible language, he presents a solid strategy for skill acquisition—in athletics, fine arts, languages, science or math—that can be successfully applied through a person’s entire lifespan. (Summary courtesy of goodreads.com)
Why We Like It:
Let’s change that to why we LOVE it! This is one of the books we recommend most often to parents. There are many reasons why.
First of all, we recommend it because Daniel Coyle GETS IT! More than any other author writing about the human brain, he understands that the bottom line for everything we do is the development of our brain. He understands this at a very deep level, something we have rarely encountered in more than 4 decades of working with children and the human brain.
Second, Coyle makes an extremely complex subject understandable to a non-scientific audience. This makes The Talent Code perfect reading for our parents, who want to understand more about how their children develop but who, for the most part, are not scientists and don’t want to become scientists! We appreciate this because it is something we have done for many years in working directly with parents of brain-injured children. There are lots of people who know a lot about the brain but there aren’t many who can talk about it in a way that the man or woman on the street can understand.
Ever heard of the 10,000 hour rule? It was formulated by Swedish psychologist, Anders Ericsson. The rule says that expertise in any endeavor is the result of about 10,000 hours of dedicated practice. That’s about ten years. It’s been proven to be true across many fields of endeavor. The Talent Code explains why.
One of the wonderful things about The Talent Code is the way in which it shows the broad application of the neurological principles in many areas of life. Coyle explores the idea in relation to football (soccer), tennis, baseball, music, writing, skateboarding, painting, sculpture, etc. This is important because it highlights just how critical brain development and function is to everything that we do.
Another reason we like this book is because it also looks at the neurological basis of talent with regard to coaching and mentoring. What is the best way to practice a skill? What are the qualities to look for in a good coach or mentor? As children develop interests in various endeavors they will need people in their lives who can foster those interests and help them develop their abilities. The Talent Code can be an invaluable resource for parents as it gives good guidelines for learning how to spot those people.
The Talent Code ends with a look at how we can apply the neurological basis of talent outlined in the book to the fields of education, business, psychology, aging, and raising children. Finally, someone who sees the bigger picture! As I said at the beginning, author Daniel Coyle GETS it!
Others in the Series:
OK, so I’ll come right out and say it. We believe that every child, providing they have an intact brain, has the potential to become an athlete. Indeed, based on the science and our experience, we are absolutely convinced that every child can become an athlete. Let’s take a look at elite athletic performance a little closer so I can show you what I mean and why.
2018 is turning out to be quite a year for watching extraordinary athletic skill on display. It started off with my beloved Philadelphia Eagles stunning fans of American football with their wonderful display of athleticism and grit as they surprised everyone and won the Super Bowl. Then there was the Winter Olympic Games in South Korea earlier this year. Then, Philadelphia’s Villanova Wildcats basketball team steamrolled every opponent they faced to win the NCAA championship. And this summer, the best football (soccer) players in the world will test their skills at the FIFA World Cup in Russia.
When we watch athletes perform at such a high level we marvel at their technical skill, balance, coordination, stamina, and strength. Even those athletes who fail to medal or make the starting team are inspirational to watch because all of them are operating at a level of physical ability that most of us can only dream of reaching. Or are they? Is their talent for skiing, snowboarding, ice skating, running, kicking, throwing, something that is available only to a small number of gifted people? Or are all of us potentially capable of performing at high levels of physical excellence? If so, what does it take to get to the highest levels?
To answer those questions we need to look beneath the surface of the athletic performance because there is far more going on than meets the eye. What most people don’t realize is that for every one of these athletes, behind the scenes, there is a highly developed and finely tuned brain directing those bodies. We have such a tendency to think of the brain only in terms of its cognitive or intellectual prowess. This became very clear to me a few years ago when my brother suffered a stroke that left him with significant motor problems while his cognitive abilities remained intact. Despite the loss of motor function, which is only possible because of the brain, many people said to me that it was a relief to know that his brain wasn’t damaged! What?!!
Of course, there are good reasons for our focus on cognitive function. In comparison with other mammals, our abilities to create, reflect, analyze, and communicate are unmatched. We can’t say the same thing about physical ability. The elephant is stronger than the strongest human. The cheetah, at 70 mph, can easily outsprint even the fastest of Olympic sprinters. Gold medal winner, Usain Bolt was clocked at just under 28 mph in his fastest race so the cheetah easily doubles his speed. The point is that when it comes to specific physical skills like speed and strength we’re really not so special. So it is easy to take human mobility for granted.
What is beautiful about sports and athletic endeavors, in general, is that they spotlight the combination of human mobility with human cognition and the incredible level of brain development necessary to make those sports possible.
My father was a gymnast so I’ve long been a fan of Olympic gymnastics. Many years ago I taught gymnastics to very young children. The combination of coordination, balance, kinesthetic awareness, strength, speed, agility, and flexibility needed to perform gymnastic routines is mind-boggling. However, what I really appreciate about the sport is how it combines all of those physical attributes with extraordinary creativity. For a stellar example of this, check out this gold medal performance by Epke Zonderland (Netherlands) on the high bar in the 2012 London Summer Olympics. It was so spectacular that it left the crowd gasping in awe and compelled his two closest competitors to embrace him in admiration.
“Practice doesn’t make perfect.
Practice makes myelin, and myelin makes perfect.”
Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code
This is brain development and organization at its highest level. What all elite athletes have in common is that they are devoted to developing their brains. Most likely, very few of them are even aware that this is what they are doing. But that is the bottom line. It all boils down to the basics of good brain development.
If you’ve been following this blog this will sound quite familiar. If not, check out my post on Harnessing Brain Plasticity. The use of function with increased frequency, intensity and duration results in increased dendrite growth, increased neural connections and increased production of myelin. Translation? Practice, practice, practice. Try, fail, make corrections, and try again. This is neuroplasticity in action. It creates the neural pathways required for learning new skills and cements those skills into memory. This is how you grow the human brain!
So where does that leave your kids and the rest of us who are not elite athletes? Well, surprisingly, provided that our brains are functioning well it leaves us in pretty good shape. The truth is that each of us is capable of being his or her own Olympian. Our objective is to give children the opportunity to develop to their full potential whatever that might be. We do that by ensuring that their brains are well developed and functioning well. Two things are required. First, we must develop the function of mobility along the ancient progression (tummy crawl, creep, then walk) that is most advantageous for both good brain development/organization and good physical function. Second, we must use the function of mobility with sufficient frequency, intensity and duration. Do that and your kids will be in good shape. They’ll have the coordination, balance, stamina, and strength to enjoy any athletic endeavor they choose. They’ll have athletic talent.
I’ve said this before but it bears repeating. Does this mean that every child will grow up to be a superstar? Not at all. But becoming a superstar in any endeavor, especially in childhood, isn’t the objective. At least it shouldn’t be the objective. It’s certainly not our objective. Our contention is that every child is born with the birthright to be an athlete, not an Olympian. There is a big difference between having talent and having superstar talent. How far a child takes their physical talent will depend on things like their passion for a particular sport, their individual motivation (not your motivation!), their level of discipline, the kind of coaching they receive, etc. Our job and your job is to give them the springboard from which to launch. If we do that well they’ll have tons of physical options to choose from and we’re perfectly happy to let the kids decide where their athletic talent leads them!
Coach John Wooden, former head basketball coach at UCLA, won ten NCAA national championships in a 12-year period, including a record seven in a row.
Coach was fond of saying that it’s the little details that are vital to creating success on the court and in life.
His wisdom also applies to the development of young children. I’ve got a little details tip for you today that can make all the difference in getting your little one’s mobility off and running… or should I say crawling?
Assuming that the brain is functioning well, every newborn baby is an athlete in the making. The mobility pathway that eventually leads to elite physical performance begins at birth and what happens in the first year of life is critically important.
In the early months of life the main mobility objective is to develop good head and trunk control and for your baby to become comfortable with being in the prone position (on the tummy). But the grand prize is crawling on the tummy for transportation. And this is where paying attention to little details can make a huge difference.
Crawling on the tummy is difficult work! Your baby has to move across the floor with the entire torso in full contact with the surface. Naturally, this causes a lot of friction, thus making movement more difficult. To the extent we can reduce friction, we can make crawling easier. Try crawling on a plush carpet compared to a linoleum floor and you will see what I mean. So, what to do?
“It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.” Coach John Wooden, UCLA Bruins
The answer lies in the little things. In order to facilitate movement we need to minimize friction with a surface that is smooth (like linoleum) and firm, but not hard. We’ve done the research and tried all kinds of surfaces in our work with children who have mobility problems. The best product we have found for them and for little babies is the Tumbl Trak Tumbling Mat. It is smooth, firm (but not hard), colorful, measures 4 ft x 8 ft and folds neatly for storage. The mat comes in two thicknesses, 1-3/8 inch or 2 inches.
For little babies, the thinner mat is perfectly adequate. If you’d like to use the mat for tumbling when your child is older, then the 2 inch mat is the way to go.
Many parents place their babies on cloth baby gyms or soft foam ABC play mats or tiles. These may be cute and comfortable but they are entirely unnecessary and make movement more difficult, not easier.
Cloth baby gyms usually have a mobile overhead so parents tend to place their baby on the back so baby can see the mobile. That’s nice for vision but it interferes with mobility because babies move on the tummy not the back. You can however place your baby on the tummy when using the cloth baby gym. And when your baby needs a break from tummy time you can flip her over and she can enjoy the mobile. You can also use it in conjunction with the Tumbl Trak Mat to provide an incentive to move forward.
Foam ABC play mats or tiles make for a cute room decoration and they cushion falls nicely but they also make movement difficult because they have a rough non-skid texture which creates friction. We want to reduce friction, not increase it.
You have to be careful how you use this kind of equipment. Our advice is don’t waste your money on things your baby doesn’t need especially if they interfere with good brain development.
The Tumbl Trak Tumbling Mat is not cheap. So, think of it as an investment in your child’s future. Nothing influences human brain development and organization more than mobility. How that mobility happens in the first year of life is critical to everything that follows. Your investment will pay huge dividends for years to come.
If you decide to purchase this mat we recommend placing it outdoors for several days to a week so that the vinyl covering can outgas. Once you’ve done that you are good to go. Let us know how it works for you and feel free to write with questions.
We are often asked, “What is the most important thing that I can do for my child’s brain?” The answer may surprise you. Put your child in the prone position, which is to say, on his tummy! That’s it. No fancy, expensive toys or equipment. No mommy/baby classes. No iPads. All you need is a comfortable surface and the time to be with your baby. This one practice will do more for your child’s brain than anything else you can do. Put him on his tummy! Pretty simple, right?
So, let’s dive right in and talk about tummy time. Parents are sometimes aware that giving their child tummy time is a good idea but they are almost never told how to do it or why it’s important. It is one of the reasons that most parents avoid it like the plague. And, unfortunately, many children are paying a price for that.
Tummy time is one of the most important developmental opportunities you can give your baby but it has to be done right. We’ll start with why it’s important and then talk about how to do it.
Why do Tummy Time
Did you know that when you place your baby on her tummy (prone position) you are not only developing her muscles but you are also developing your baby’s brain? The development of the function of mobility begins with time spent in the prone position, tummy time.
We define mobility as follows – the function we use to transport ourselves from point A to point B. The key word in that definition is transport. Mobility is useless as a function, it serves no purpose, unless it is directed towards something. That something is transportation. Developing good mobility is not complicated, but it is extremely important. Why?
All forms of mobility, including tummy crawling:
- Facilitate brain organization
- Increase production of myelin
- Increase production of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) – a protein produced in the brain during physical activity. Neuroscientists call it “Miracle-Gro for the brain” because of the proliferation of new neurons and dendrites produced whenever it is found in high concentrations.
- Develop the senses of vision, hearing and tactile ability
- Increase muscle strength
- Improve coordination and balance
- Improve posture
- Develop breathing
Mobility is key to brain organization because the brain works as a holistic system. Everything affects everything else. Primitive brain structures are connected to higher level brain structures. As in any system, it is important that each component of the system functions well for the entire system to function well.
This concept is important to mobility’s role in brain organization because the only time that human beings use all functions simultaneously is when we are moving. Every time we use an ability, we are using and developing our brain. When we move, we use vision to see where we are going. We use hearing and receive information about our position in space by way of the inner ear. We feel our arms and legs moving through our tactile sense. We use our hands when we crawl and creep. So mobility is, in a very real sense, the glue that holds all other functions together.
There are many ways a baby can learn to move but not all of them foster good brain development and brain organization. Keep in mind that we human beings are designed to start moving for transportation on our tummies and not on our backs or our bottoms! The natural progression that all babies should experience is to begin by crawling on their tummies, then to progress to creeping on their hands and knees, then to stand and cruise (often holding onto furniture), and finally, the grand prizes of walking and running.
So, what are the best practices to make tummy time enjoyable and successful for your baby and you? We’re so glad you asked!
How to do Tummy Time
When to start?
Provided your baby is healthy, begin right from birth. Why? Because when done correctly, babies who are placed on their tummies right from birth learn to enjoy tummy time. You want your baby to enjoy tummy time. Your baby should enjoy tummy time.
In the below video of my granddaughter, she is already having a tummy time session at 3 days of age . You’ll see that even at only a few days of age she is already comfortable on her tummy.
If you have not started tummy time from birth, no worries. The beautiful thing about the human brain is that we can always make up for missed opportunity. The first step is to recognize the importance of the opportunity. Begin now and follow the steps below.
Always be with your baby when doing tummy time! When placing your baby on her tummy, always be with her so you can see her face, she can see yours, and you can pick her up as soon as necessary. If you have your baby on a mat on the floor, lay down on the floor next to her. Doing this will reassure your baby that you are always there for her no matter where she is or what position she is in. That will make her happy. And if she’s happy, you’ll be happy.
For now, aside from being clean and comfortable, the type of surface on which you place your baby is not very important. What is important is that you want to make sure there is nothing around the baby (sheets, blankets, clothing, etc.) that she can pull onto her face, thus potentially affecting her ability to breathe. So, a comfortable mattress covered with a clean sheet works just fine.
When it comes to tummy time and learning to move, remember that less is more. You want your baby to be dressed appropriately for the ambient temperature in the room. So, if the temperature is warm perhaps barefoot with just a t-shirt and a diaper will work just fine. If the temperature is on the cooler side perhaps you will want to dress your baby in a onesie or pajamas with her feet covered. Do what you think is right for the temperature. The one thing you do want to pay attention to is that the clothing should not in any way interfere with your baby’s ability to move her arms and/or legs. Provided she can move freely, you and she are in good shape.
The below video is of my grandson doing tummy time at one week of age. It’s a good illustration of all of the previous points – always being present, a comfortable surface, and appropriate dress. And, there’s a great little bonus towards the end.
In our last blog post about the second law of brain development, we talked about the importance of using the correct frequency, intensity, and duration for whatever activity we are doing with a child. For a child with an immature brain (either because of chronological age, brain-injury, or lack of development), the frequency of any activity should always be high. Whatever it is, you want to do it often.
So, you want to use high frequency. You should place your baby on her tummy at every opportunity – many times throughout the day whenever she is awake. Logical exceptions to this are when nursing or bottle feeding, changing her diaper, or just spending time snuggling. A good way to get in the habit is to roll your little one over onto her tummy after every diaper change.
Going back to our post on the second law of brain development, when dealing with a child with an immature brain (either because of chronological age, brain-injury, or lack of development), the duration of any activity should always be kept short.
So, you want to use short duration. Your baby may fuss a bit at first and that’s alright. Pick her up as soon as she begins to cry or complain too much. Talk to her, kiss her, and as soon as she is happy again place her back on her tummy. The sessions might begin with just a few seconds, but if you do it frequently enough your baby will be comfortable on her tummy. Stay attuned to your baby and if she is getting tired and fussy, stop. Eventually, you will know the right duration. As your baby gets more and more comfortable, develops good head control and gets stronger, the duration should increase.
Since we are all born with a genetic imperative to move, most babies need very little motivation. But motivation never hurts. In the beginning use brightly colored toys, bright contrasting pictures, toys that play music and/or have bright lights. Place them just out of your baby’s reach. Move them slowly from one side to the other.
This is a good time to talk and sing to your baby. Have a conversation with her. Tell her how much you love her, how proud you are of her efforts. She wants to hear your voice! All children love music. Tummy time is a good time for you to sing to her. This will have the additional benefit of getting you in the habit of talking to your child and talking to her is the first step to developing understanding.
One more video of my granddaughter, this time at just shy of 6 months of age and already beginning to crawl for transportation. This clip shows nicely how by paying attention to all of the points in this post a child can be well on the road to independent mobility within a few months.
As you can see, creating good mobility really requires only three things:
- placing your child in the correct (i.e. functional) position
- providing an environment that makes movement safe and easy
- giving your child ample opportunity to move
It’s that simple!
Since Mother’s Day is celebrated today throughout much of the world, we want to shine a big spotlight on the critical role mothers play in the process of a child’s development. The importance is so much broader and deeper than most people realize.
Mom’s job begins early! Shortly after conception, before she even knows that she is pregnant, the mother becomes her child’s physiological regulating system. This means that throughout the nine months of pregnancy, mother’s and baby’s biorhythms, heart rates, hormonal balances, sleep patterns and many other physiological systems are locked into mutually beneficial, reciprocal bonded patterns. Whatever happens to one has an effect on the other. Mother’s body provides the sensory and biochemical environment that shapes the baby’s brain. Because of this, the state of the mother’s own body, in relation to her environment, is mirrored in the baby’s developing brain and nervous system. When a mother feels safe and is nurtured, her baby’s brain reaps the benefits. When a mother feels unloved or unsupported, is threatened, anxious, and fearful, her baby’s brain suffers.
What begins in pregnancy continues and expands dramatically at birth. Nature simply assumes that the relationship that started at conception will remain throughout the first years of life. How a mother is able to fulfill her role as her baby’s physiological regulating system affects how her baby’s brain develops and thus affects the baby’s future.
Mother is, and always will be, her baby’s first and most influential teacher.
Nature intends that direct intimate contact with mother’s body will provide the pleasurable stimulation, the emotional nurturing, and the essential nutrients needed for her baby to develop a normal and healthy brain and nervous system. This means that decisions regarding issues like feeding and sleeping arrangements are very important and need careful consideration. Modern culture tends to rule in favor of decisions that separate mother from baby and the consequences of this decision may be greater than we think.
Consider breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is part of nature’s magnificent design for getting this whole process started. It is important for the baby’s development for many reasons – ideal nutrition for human growth and development, antibodies for a strong immune system, skin to skin tactile stimulation which affects all motor function and cements emotional bonding, and what neuroscientists refer to as the “mutual gaze”, a fascinating exchange that takes place most effectively during breastfeeding. The “mutual gaze” is that moment when mother and baby’s eyes are locked in a visual dance of tender mutual admiration. It’s a moment that has been celebrated in art throughout history. It turns out that all of those artists were on to something important. Brain imaging studies show clear evidence of a surge of activity in both mother and baby during these exchanges. We now know that the baby’s developing emotional intelligence is greatly affected by the number of such exchanges in early life.
The same thing can be said for so many of the other ways in which mother and her baby are designed to interact. In everything from sleeping arrangements to daily care and child rearing, nature intends for the mother to be in close proximity to her baby so that she can respond to the baby’s biological and physiological needs in a timely and loving manner.
Another reason that mother is so important is that she is, and always will be, her baby’s first and most influential teacher. Nobody understands her baby in the way she does and nobody ever will. Instinctively, mother knows exactly what her baby needs and when he or she needs it. It has always fascinated us how extremely effective the maternal instinct is. In our work with brain-injured children, the first question we ask when taking a developmental history is, “Who first suspected that something was wrong in the child’s development?” If you look at over 40 years of our histories you will find that 90% of the time the answer to that question is either mother or grandmother. The truth is that mothers almost always know. Unfortunately, professionals often disagree with mother’s suspicion, causing her to mistrust her instincts and brush her worries aside. The result is that far too often precious time is lost because when mothers are able to trust their instincts they are rarely wrong.
So, as we celebrate Mother’s Day this weekend, take a moment to be mindful of the beautiful ballet being performed by mothers and their babies and marvel at the paradox of simplicity and complexity that it represents. Nothing can quite replace the nurturing touch and love a mother provides for her baby. Through this tireless and wonderful dedication to her little one, she nurtures all of humanity.
Happy Mother’s Day to all of you wonderful mothers!
“Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes myelin, and myelin makes perfect.” – Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code
In our first blog post about the science of brain development, we established that the brain grows through use. You will remember that, just like with muscles, it does so because it is subject to a very basic law of nature that says that function determines structure.
When we say that the brain grows through use, we are saying that its physical structure actually changes in the form of new neurons, new dendrites, new synapses, and… new, critically important, myelin.
Myelin is a substance produced in the brain that is composed primarily of omega-3 fatty acids. Ever wonder why everything from Corn Flakes to milk to eggs are now marketed as “enriched with omega-3 fatty acids”?
Well, now you know. It’s because science has proven that omega-3 fatty acids are important for your heart and your brain. That’s right, fat (the right kind of fat) is good for the heart and the brain. Indeed, not only is fat good for your heart and brain, it’s essential! Oh, and you don’t actually need to buy foods “enriched” with omega-3’s in order to get what you need… but that’s another story.
Myelin is critically important because it serves as a conductor of electrical impulses. Neurons connect to each other via a structure called the axon. Myelin covers the axon of each neuron in layers. You can see it in the drawing below labeled as the myelin sheath. Every time a neural circuit is fired, more myelin wraps around the axon on that circuit. The more myelin you have the faster information can travel from one neuron to the next.
Think of it this way, myelin does for your brain what the fiber-optic cable did for your internet connection. Back in the old days of dial-up modem connection, the internet was accessible but the connection was unreliable. It took time to connect, often the connection would drop, and even when there was a good connection it took a long time to transfer a small amount of data. That all changed with the fiber-optic cable. The connection became reliable, fast, and huge files of data could be sent at lightning speed.
Broadband internet allows a quantum leap in the efficiency of the internet communication system. The same thing happens in the brain when there is plenty of myelin. It creates a neurological superhighway built for speed.
Knowing that myelin is so important, the next logical question might be what is the best way to help the production of myelin? Indeed, what is the best way to grow the brain?
The answer lies in the second law that governs brain development, a basic law of neurology that says: in order to increase the transmission of nerve impulses across the central nervous system, you must increase the stimulus in frequency, intensity, and duration.
One more time… in order to increase the transmission of nerve impulses across the central nervous system, you must increase the stimulus in frequency, intensity, and duration.
First, let’s break that down and translate it into easy to understand concepts.
- Increase the transmission of nerve impulses – This simply means accelerating the speed with which a message is sent and arrives at its destination.
- Across the central nervous system – This is another term for the brain. The human nervous system is divided into two parts, the central nervous system or brain; and the peripheral nervous system or the entire network of nerves outside of the brain that convey information into and out of the brain via the spinal cord.
- Increase the stimulus – This means all sensory/environmental input that reaches the brain via the peripheral nervous system. This input is in the form of visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, and gustatory information. Which is to say the things we see, hear, feel, smell, and taste.
- Frequency – How often the stimulus is sent.
- Intensity – How bright, large, colorful, loud, strong, etc., the stimulus is.
- Duration – How long, in terms of time, the stimulus lasts.
Again, the second law of brain development says: in order to increase the transmission of nerve impulses across the central nervous system, you must increase the stimulus in frequency, intensity, and duration. Yep, you’re right… that’s frequency!
Here’s how it works. Remember that all information coming into the brain does so in the form of electrical energy. In order for a message to register in the brain, its electrical energy must reach a certain threshold, known as the action potential. Without getting too complicated, the action potential is part of the process that occurs during the firing of a neuron. Either the threshold necessary for firing the neuron (the action potential) is reached or it is not. This is known as the all or none law. We can ensure that the threshold is reached by paying attention to the frequency, intensity, and duration of the stimulus.
We apply the second law of brain development in a number of ways. As a general rule, when the brain is immature (either because the child is young or the brain has been injured and is therefore not developed) we place more importance on the frequency and intensity of an activity, and the duration is kept short. As the brain matures we shift the emphasis and, over time, the frequency and intensity will decrease as the duration increases. Specifically, with regard to duration, imagine reading a book to a six month old versus a four year old. The six month old will listen attentively for a short while but soon enough she is interested in other things. Whereas, the four year old will sit for the entire book and then ask you to read it again, or read another, and then another, and then… you get the idea!
We use this principle every day in our work with children and young adults who have developmental and functional difficulties due to brain-injury or poor brain development. When brain function is compromised by injury there is a barrier of sorts that forms between the brain and the environment thus making it much more difficult to reach the threshold necessary for triggering the action potential to fire neurons. For this reason, the normal amounts of stimulation (which are quite adequate to develop a well functioning brain) are entirely inadequate for developing the injured brain. If this were not so then the problems of children who struggle would be solved very easily.
However, by applying this basic law of brain development carefully, we can accelerate development in the brain, often enabling the child to overcome the effects of their original injury or poor development and develop functions that previously were impossible. This is one of the reasons that there is always hope for children who have difficulties in development. The possibility of growth is built into the system!
For the child who has an intact, well functioning brain, application of the second law of brain development simply guarantees that the brain will grow as it should. As the child grows and develops it provides the basic framework for the development of all ability. Author Dan Coyle writes eloquently about this in his excellent book, The Talent Code, where he looks at the development of talent in a variety of endeavors, everything from sports, to music, to writing ability. His conclusion is that the bottom line for the development of any talent is brain development.
My wife is from Brazil so I particularly like Coyle’s examination of the reasons behind the astounding proliferation of talented soccer players from Brazil. Essentially it boils down to how Brazilians introduce the sport to children when they are young, the effect this has on the development of their young brains, and the level of skill they develop as a result.
Brazilian children never actually play on a real soccer field until they are in their early teens. When they are learning the game they play in a much more confined space, often indoors. It’s a game the Brazilians call futsal, which is short for futebol de salão (indoor soccer).
Learning to play the game in a confined space has several very important results. First, because the space is confined, the number of players is reduced from eleven to five. That means that each player gets the opportunity to handle the ball far more often. In other words, with increased frequency! That’s a surefire way to develop better skill. Second, because the space is confined the ball moves between players much faster and much more often. In other words, with increased intensity! A great way to develop the ability to control the ball and pass it under pressure. Third, because there are unlimited substitutions allowed, each player plays for a shorter duration of time which is more appropriate for their age and level of neurological development. All of this adds up to the development of a lot of soccer players of extraordinary talent.
Neymar Jr., one of the current group of Brazilian greats had this to say about futsal, “Futsal had a massive influence on me when I was growing up. It’s a very demanding game and it really helped to develop my technique, speed of thought, and ability to perform moves in tight spaces. I think futsal is a fundamental part of a footballer’s life.”
Does this mean that every child who plays futsal grows up to be a soccer superstar? Not at all. There is a difference between having talent and having superstar talent. And that is where things like passion, individual motivation, discipline, coaching, etc. come into play. But becoming a superstar in any endeavor, especially in childhood, isn’t the objective. At least it shouldn’t be the objective. It’s certainly not our objective. Our objective is to give children the opportunity to develop to their full potential whatever that might be. We do that by ensuring that their brains are well developed and functioning well. We’re happy to let them decide where that leads them!
One last thing. Now that you’ve focused your attention on this science stuff for a while, give yourself a break and enjoy watching this video of Neymar Jr.. It covers his career from the time he was a kid playing futsal to his present day professional career playing for the best soccer clubs of Europe and as the captain of the Brazilian national team. It’s a beautiful illustration of how that talent developed in childhood combined with all of those intangible ingredients (passion, individual motivation, discipline, coaching) can produce poetry in motion on the soccer field.
In Lewis Carroll’s classic novel, Alice in Wonderland, the White Rabbit asks the King, “Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” “Begin at the beginning”, the King replies gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” And so we shall!
Raising a BrainFit Kid is a heck of a lot of fun and actually a lot easier than you might imagine. Because we want you to feel complete confidence in your ability to “Parent with the Brain in Mind” we believe it is important for you to understand the science that underpins everything we do. It’s absolutely fascinating and really important because raising a BrainFit Kid is really important. Here are just three reasons why. First, 85% of the human brain develops in the first three years of life! Second, there are only about 2000 days from when a child is born to when she starts kindergarten. Third, according to a study done by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, investment in early childhood development yields a 7 to 1 return (ROI) over a child’s lifetime. So you see, every day matters. Let’s get started!
The human brain is a great paradox, simultaneously complex and simple. It is, without question, the most complicated thing in the known universe. Yet, its development is governed by some very basic laws of nature. Today, we’re going to look at the first of those laws, a simple law of nature that says that function determines structure.
Function determines Structure
The relationship between function and structure is seen throughout nature and influences many fields of endeavor. The law is very easy to observe in the human body, particularly in the musculoskeletal system. If I work out regularly (lifting weights, cardiovascular exercise, stretching, etc.) my muscles will develop, becoming bigger and more effective, and my body will be well toned, flexible, and agile. How I work out will influence how my body looks. Just think of the different body types of long distance runners compared to sprinters. My body structure will change according to how much emphasis I place on one type of exercise or another.
Take this gymnast on the pommel horse. He didn’t get those muscles and that finely tuned body sitting on the sofa all day eating potato chips. He got that way working out in the gym. And he has the body type he has because of the type of exercises he does regularly. Function determines structure.
There are two important corollaries to this law. First, that a lack of function will result in a lack of structure. This is called atrophy. Let’s say you break your left leg while skiing. Your leg is placed in a cast to immobilize it and promote healing. When the cast is removed you see a big difference in the appearance of the left leg compared to the right leg. It’s smaller! Lack of function (due to immobility) has resulted in atrophy of your quadricep, hamstring, and calf muscles. The second corollary is that abnormal function will result in abnormal structure. We see this often in brain-injured children especially when their brain-injury affects motor development. Children diagnosed with cerebral palsy (read brain-injury) usually spend a lot of time visiting orthopedic surgeons because they often develop structural problems as a result of not developing proper motor function.
The magnificent thing about the human body is that the law, function determines structure, also applies to the human brain. You may have heard of the term, brain plasticity. Well, brain plasticity exists because function determines structure. So, the single most important thing you need to know about the brain is that the brain grows through use. It does so in much the same way as a muscle. Your child’s brain grows, it literally goes through structural and chemical changes, every time it is used. This is the key to understanding everything about the development of human ability.
Every face seen helps to develop vision, every sound heard helps to develop hearing, every caress felt helps to develop tactile ability… every experience changes the brain. It happens because it is a law of nature.
Let’s take a deeper look at brain plasticity. Brain plasticity, or neuroplasticity, is the ability of human brain to change its physical structure and biochemistry as a result of stimulation from the environment (visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, and gustatory), the use of motor function (mobility, language, and manual ability) and the presence of adequate nutrition. This change takes place in the development of new brain cells (neurons), new cell structures (dendrites and myelin), and new connections between neurons (synapses). The term plasticity is not meant to imply that the brain is somehow like plastic but rather refers to the brain’s malleability.
While interest in brain plasticity is all the rage these days, it was not always so. When we began our work with children more than forty years ago, the standard dogma amongst doctors and educators was that the brain could not be changed. We were often accused of being charlatans for suggesting otherwise. The story of how all of that changed is an interesting one.
Brain plasticity has been an area of scientific interest for more than a century. Boris Klosovskii, a Russian neurophysiologist, started his work in this field in 1934. He performed many classic experiments that demonstrated conclusively that placing newborn puppies and kittens on a constantly revolving turntable (think record player) increased structural development in the balance centers of their brains by an astonishing 32% in just 30 days! Neurophysiologists working with a variety of animal species, have known since the 1950’s that increased environmental stimulation creates structural changes in the brain along with improved ability.
For several decades in the latter part of the last century, brain plasticity in human beings was also suspected by many neurophysiologists and by a small number of people pioneering new approaches to the developmental problems of brain-injured children.
Glenn Doman, one of the great pioneers in work with brain-injured children, in his 1963 book, How to Teach Your Baby to Read, said:
“It had always been assumed that neurological growth and its product, ability, were a static and irrevocable fact: This child was capable and that child was not. This child was bright and that child was not. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is that neurological growth, which we had always considered a static and irrevocable fact, is a dynamic and ever changing process.”
Neurophysiologist David Krech of the University of California at Berkeley was one of the giants of his profession. Over the course of his career he studied the effect of environmental enrichment and environmental deprivation on the brains of young rats. His research clearly demonstrated that enrichment resulted in larger, heavier, more complex brains, and ‘smarter’ rats; and deprivation resulted in smaller, lighter, simple brains, and ‘dumber’ rats.
Krech proved that neuroplasticity existed in rats, but he knew in his heart that the phenomenon had to extend beyond rats. In a 1966 paper, he wrote:
“Although it would be scientifically unjustified to conclude at this stage that our results do apply to people, it would, I think, be socially criminal to assume that they do not apply – and, so assuming, fail to take account of the implications. For, if our findings do apply to people, then we are crippling many brains in their very beginnings by not providing them with an adequate, stimulating, psychological environment. And I would not use the term ‘crippling’ in any metaphoric sense but in a palpable physical sense.* We must not assume that what psychological impoverishment does to the brains of young rats cannot have some effect on the brains of children.” *My italics.
Unfortunately, it took more than thirty years for the medical and education establishments to catch up with Doman and Krech.
The difficulty was that Doman couldn’t turn his children into rats, and Krech couldn’t turn his rats into children. Plasticity in human brains was very difficult to prove scientifically without actually doing a physical examination of the brain. There was a veritable mountain of empirical evidence in favor of plasticity in humans but it was all circumstantial evidence and therefore unconvincing to most medical scientists. The breakthrough came with the invention and later refinement of CAT, PET, and MRI scanning technology, which allows one to see the brain in great structural detail and to see it in action as it is performing its functions. Everything changed in 1997, when a group of neuroscientists convened in Washington, D.C. to present their research at a conference on Early Childhood Development and Learning. Their conclusion about the brain at the end of the conference was very simple. The brain grows through use! Scanning technology proved beyond any doubt that, as Doman and Krech suspected so long ago, neurological growth is a dynamic and constantly changing process.
Throughout this month, the focus of our posts is the development of the function of understanding. Recently, a study done with 4 to 6 year olds at MIT using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) provided elegant proof that talking to children, and particularly how we talk to them, grows the brain. Building on a previous study that measured the number of words children hear, this study focused on the number of times children were engaged in conversation. Using fMRI imaging, the research team was able to identify clear differences in the brain’s response to language and correlate those differences with the number of conversation opportunities the children had experienced with their parents. The children who experienced more conversations, who had not just input but engagement, had significantly more activity in Broca’s area, the part of the human cortex directly involved in language processing and speech production. According to John Gabrieli, a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research and senior author of the study, “It’s almost magical how parental conversation appears to influence the biological growth of the brain.”
The importance of the biological reality of brain plasticity for all of us is incalculable because it means that functional ability can be created. It means that functional ability can be improved. It’s important because it represents hope for the future. It means that every child born has far more potential than anyone ever realized. It means that your child has far more potential than you realize!
At the start of this blog we said that raising a BrainFit Kid was a heck of a lot of fun and a lot easier than you might imagine. Now you have the first piece of the puzzle.
So, our hope is that you will begin your journey of Parenting with the Brain in Mind filled with the hope that brain plasticity offers. As Andy Dufresne said to Red in The Shawshank Redemption, “Remember, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
We are super excited about the launch of our new website and free email course. BrainFit Kids is a labor of love. It is the culmination of two lifetimes of research, learning, and experience; combined with the passionate application of that knowledge by two very dedicated parents. It has taken several years of hard work to bring it to fruition.
BrainFit Kids is here to empower you with knowledge and tools so you can Parent with the Brain in Mind with ease and confidence. Through weekly blog posts, social media, and videos we will share with you the science behind child brain development, practical advice, product reviews, How To Guides, and fun
Hands On Activities. Our posts will address Parenting with the Brain in Mind from pregnancy to newborns, toddlers, young kids, and beyond. We truly want to serve you, so please send us topics that you want to learn more about and questions you have along the way.
Each month we will focus our posts around a specific theme. In April, the theme is the function of Understanding. We’ll start at the beginning with a scientific explanation of how the brain grows through use, followed by some fun practical posts on how to develop understanding. In May, we move on to a discussion of Mobility, how it develops, and the broad impact it has on overall physical development as well as the range of cognitive functions. The month of June will focus on Reading and how it builds on the cognitive skills developed through Understanding and Mobility.
We hope you’ll join us on this journey.