Simple Ideas with Profound Impact
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 our previous blog, How to Best Develop Your Baby’s Understanding we discussed the fact that children who are spoken to a lot and from birth develop understanding earlier and generally have a more sophisticated and mature understanding of language. As a result, they tend to have better cognitive function. A key element to remember is to talk with your child not just to your child. In our last post, we noted a recent study at MIT in which they provide proof of the importance of conversation with adults in the development of understanding and language. While your child is a baby, the “conversation” is clearly more one-sided and it may feel like you are simply talking to them. Even for babies, however, be sure to give them time to coo and babble at you. In these very early stages you are beginning to teach them about the art of conversation. As your baby grows into a toddler that back and forth becomes more crucial.
Babies who are spoken to from birth and who listen to language that is varied and sophisticated will speak earlier, use a richer vocabulary and will more quickly develop proper sentence construction. Remember, garbage in – garbage out. The reverse is also true. Correct and sophisticated information into the child’s brain will result in correct and sophisticated language coming out of the child’s mouth!
In addition to having a bigger vocabulary and more sophisticated use of language, these children will have a greater ability to foster their curiosity about the world that surrounds them and they will ask more questions.
Enter the “Why?” stage. Do you remember that phase? Is your child going through this phase now? If your child is not there yet, just wait!
- “Why is the sky blue?”
- “What makes an airplanes fly?”
- “Why can’t people fly?”
- “How come this flower is yellow?”
- “Why is spinach good for me?”
- “Why do we have to go shopping now?”
- “Why is Grandma mommy’s mom and Nana is Dad’s mom?”
- “Why is it night time?”
- “Why is it day time?”
- “What makes the sun come up?”
- “What makes the sun go down?”
- “Why do slugs leave a slimy trail?”
- “Why do some birds eat worms?”
- “How long does it take to get there?”
- “How many stars are in the sky?
Here is one my grandson asked me during one of my trips to Chicago when he was 3 years old: “Vovó (Grandmother in Portuguese), why do clouds float?”
Me: “Hmm, I don’t exactly know why but let’s look it up!”
Him: “Maybe they have helium, like balloons?”. Pretty clever, actually! Here you also see the leap from simply asking questions to formulating his own hypothesis.
Sometimes you feel like the questions will never end! I strongly recommend that you not laugh and dismiss them or their questions. What a great opportunity your child is giving you. If you do not know the answer, look it up, and let them know in a way that they can understand. Yes, the constant “Why?”, “What?” and “How?” questions can wear on a parent. Believe us, we feel you! But it really is a wonderful thing for a child to be that curious. So find solace in the fact that you have an eager learner when you’re answering “why”, “what” and “how” for the millionth time.
Glenn Doman, a very important mentor of ours used to say, “The brain is the only container that the more you put in, the more it can hold!” This is so true. It means that the more you teach a child the more they want to learn, the more curious they become, and the more questions they ask! Another advantage to welcoming your child’s questions is that when a child asks lots of questions she is providing you with a great opportunity to learn about her interests and what she wants to learn. And it’s fun! Kids really do say the darndest things!
Here are some pointers to encourage your toddler’s natural curiosity and to keep those questions coming:
As your child grows, get in the habit of including your child when you are conversing with others. This doesn’t mean that your child has to be a part of all of your conversations. However, you should not carry on extensive conversations as your child just sits there being ignored, even when they are babies. By developing the habit of frequently addressing your child verbally you will get used to naturally including them in a conversation when appropriate. The message the child receives is that you are interested in what he has to say and ready to respond to his questions and to help him learn. Your children will learn to appropriately join in on a conversation and feel comfortable asking questions. Your child will learn the art of conversation because the message you are sending is that we listen to each other, and what you have to say is valued and important. Children who are ignored or dismissed get the message that they are to be seen and not heard. And that is certainly not the message we want to send.
In addition, by answering a child’s questions you are providing information while also continuing to encourage her curiosity and her excitement for learning! Why do most adults stop asking so many why’s, how’s and what’s? Is it because we take many things for granted? Is it because we were made to feel silly for asking so many questions? Is it because we were dismissed or ignored and concluded that it wasn’t important for us to know the answer? Or is it because we began to equate learning with performing on a test and not for the sake of knowledge and fun? It is likely a combination of factors. Most would agree, however, that innovation and development comes from people who continue to ask “why, what or how can I make xyz different or better?”. Answering a child’s questions with the same enthusiasm with which they ask, brings fun into the discussion, and it conveys to them that “Yes, learning is fun!”
Be sure to also remember what I told you in our previous post. When talking to your child, whenever possible make sure you place yourself at your child’s level so that you are face to face and not talking down to them.
And when it comes to the neurological benefits of conversation, remember what we said in our post, The Brain Grows Through Use – “Brain plasticity exists because function determines structure. 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.” What simpler way to achieve this than through good conversation that provides your child with new information?
So keep answering those questions and when you get to the point where you wonder if your toddler will ever stop talking and asking questions you will know you have done a good job! 😉
Oh, and one more benefit is that when your child asks questions they give you the opportunity to learn something new. Embrace looking at the world through a child’s eyes and you will both have a lot of fun learning together!
Just one more thing! In case you’re still wondering why clouds float – check out the answer from It’s Okay to Be Smart by PBS Digital Studios.
Richard Scarry books have been around for decades. There are lots of them in the series so if you’re kids are into them you’ll have lots to choose from as they grow. The Best Word Book Ever is a great one to start with.
Name of Book:
Summary of Book:
Words, words, words! They define everything and kids want to define their world. Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever is frankly the best word book ever!!! From the Bear’s home to the beach, from the airport to the zoo, verbs, numbers, parts of the body, every oversized spread has hundreds of things to look at, point to, and identify
Pigs, cats, rabbits, and bears, all doing what we do every day—playing with toys, driving fire engines, and experiencing life, just like the avid readers of this classic favorite. In print for fifty years, this book has sold over 4.5 million copies. . . . That’s over a billion words learned by children all over the world. Learning has never been more fun! (Summary courtesy of goodreads.com)
Recommended Age Range:
1.5-3 years. Note this is a younger age range than listed by Penguin Random House. They list the range as 3-7 years. Our kids have LOVED this book starting at about 1.5 years of age and then moved on to other Richard Scarry books with longer stories in them by about 3 years old.
Why We Like It:
This classic book is wonderful for increasing your little one’s vocabulary in a fun way. Literally everything in the book is labeled and kids love looking through the pictures and talking about everything they see. We found that our kids really started to enjoy it at about 1.5 years of age. It’s also a helpful tool in developing language as it aides with the first step of developing understanding. Before children can perfect language they need to develop understanding and one of the best ways to develop understanding is through hearing and talking about anything and everything. This book provides a great canvas on which to do that. Since everything is labeled it often reminds us as adults to point out things we might otherwise gloss over. And it provides opportunities to take any number of tangents about items or topics that your child shows an interest in.
If you speak Spanish (or want to learn Spanish along with your child!) then the Spanish Edition is great as it lists everything in both English and Spanish. So it’s a wonderful way to build vocabulary in both languages.
Once your child has the attention span for slightly longer stories you can move on to some of the other great Richard Scarry books. These are some of our favorites:
- Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go
- Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day?
- Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy World
In Cars and Trucks and Things That Go our kids love looking for Goldbug on every page. Since this is really one long ongoing story we started a rule at bedtime that we would do 6 pages at a time and would keep a bookmark in the book to pick up where we left off each night. This helped keep bedtime reading from stretching on for too long! 😉 The other two, What Do People Do All Day? and Busy, Busy World are good compilations of shorter stories that you can do piecemeal with your kids. As we mentioned, these books are classics so some of the content can be outdated but it can also make for fun sharing of stories. “Kids, this is what pencil sharpeners looked like in the classroom when I was a kid…”
We hope you and your kids enjoy reading these ones as much as we have!
Children are born with a natural instinct to learn. They are constantly trying to figure out how something works: feeling it, picking stuff up, tasting everything! They love to learn. There is nothing better than looking at the world through a child’s eyes. It is a wonderful thing to experience. The more you teach a child, the more curious they become about the world around them, and the more they want to learn.
As newborns grow, the functions of vision, hearing and understanding, and tactile ability play an increasingly important role in how they learn. It’s important to take advantage of the visual, auditory and tactile pathways to begin developing your baby’s understanding of his environment.
Today, we’ll focus on the auditory/understanding function. Before we expect output we must give input. In other words, before you can expect your child to speak we must teach her to understand spoken language. The more direct language your baby hears, the earlier she will understand and the earlier she will follow instructions. As a result, children who are spoken to a lot throughout the day, and from birth, have a broader and more sophisticated understanding.
Two studies highlight just how important this simple practice is for a child’s brain.
- The first is a 1995 University of Kansas research study that focused on vocabulary and the number of words heard by children. The researchers discovered that poor children heard about 600 words/hour, middle class children heard about 1200 words/hour, and children from professional families heard about 2100 words/hour. By age 3 the poor children heard about 3 million less words than the children from professional families. This matters because in this study IQ and success in school correlated closely with the number of words heard early in life. Talking to children from the time they are born has a tremendous impact on brain development and future cognitive/intellectual function.
- The second study, just published in February 2018, builds on the U of K study and was done at MIT. In this study, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to evaluate the importance of how we talk to children, not just how much we talk to them. This study provided clear proof that the critical factor in developing understanding is to actually engage children as you are speaking with them. The children who had the highest number of conversation experiences where there was give and take between parent and child were the ones who had the most brain activity in the language centers of the brain and the most brain growth. The study also found that these results correlated strongly on standardized tests of language skills, including vocabulary, grammar, and verbal reasoning.
So, hearing words directly from a person interacting with the child face-to-face is what has the most impact. Aside from other concerns, this means that putting a child in front of an iPad, smart phone, or TV is not the same thing as a live person talking to the child.
This study helps illustrate the first law of brain development, “Function determines Structure”, which we explained in our previous blog post. When we speak to children using a rich, varied, and sophisticated vocabulary, and engage them in the dance of interactive communication, we literally grow the brain by creating new auditory pathways and reinforcing the pathways that already exist. The result is better understanding and eventually better cognitive skills in all areas of communication. Such a simple action with such powerful results!
So, how do we develop understanding?
It is actually very easy, especially for those of us who like to talk and to be around children. But it can be a bit of a challenge for those of us who are more on the quiet side and are not so sure what to say to a child. First, let’s not ignore the fact that we are all too often connected to our own devices and they take time away from us truly being with our children. So, you need to discipline yourself regarding time spent on your smartphone or other device when you are with your baby or toddler. Once you get this out of the way, you just have to be conscious of your surroundings and use this opportunity to talk.
One of the simplest ways to teach babies is to talk to them about everything that is around them. Here are just a few examples of what to say:
- When your baby wakes up – “Good morning beautiful! Did you sleep well? Let’s get you changed…”
- When you are nursing her – “I love you so much! Your skin is so soft. Your toes are so cute (as you stroke her toes)…”
- When you are changing his diaper – “Phew, you stink! Let’s get you cleaned! While changing him take advantage to touch his nose and tell him “nose”, touch his mouth and tell him “mouth”, touch his ears and say “ears” if touching both or “ear” if touching one ear and so on…
- When you are wearing her – Point out things that are close to her and name them. Stop by a flower and say “flower”, “This flower is so beautiful!”, “It is a yellow flower”…
- When you are taking a walk with baby in a stroller talk to your baby – “Let’s go for a walk”, “Look at that dog!”, “He’s a big dog”, “Wow, there are so many cars on the street!”, “Is the sun bothering you?”, “Let me put the cover up to get the sun out of your eyes…”
- When you are driving somewhere – “Let me put you in the car”, “Here is a “toy” for you to look at!”, “Isn’t it pretty?!”, We are going to visit daddy at work”, “I am taking you to daycare and after that I am going to work” and so on.
- Sing! When you are cooking, cleaning, driving or just cuddling with your child. Children love music and as they grow they love to dance! Sing children’s songs and other songs you and your child enjoy listening to.
Opportunities for talking are everywhere. You can make the most of your engagement with your child by paying attention to the following points:
Provide New Information
In order to change the brain we must regularly provide new information. If we keep teaching the same thing over and over again, past the point where the child has learned the information, eventually the brain just tunes out. But, when we provide new information the brain is at attention and it grows and develops!
Provide Correct Information
You also want to make sure that the information you provide is correct information. Another basic law is that when we put garbage in, we get garbage out. Make sure that you are giving correct information. “Baby talk” teaches language that will need to be corrected later. Best to teach it correctly right from the beginning.
Place yourself in the best position
When speaking to your baby make sure your face is facing his and that you are close to him. This is especially important for babies in their first 3 months of life when their vision is immature. As your baby grows you can begin to distance yourself but make sure your baby is aware that you are talking to her. If she is not, you are too far away.
When speaking to a toddler and young child it is best if you get down to the child’s level whenever possible. By this we mean, bend down or get down on one knee so that you are face to face with them. This puts you both on more even ground as opposed to you literally talking down to them. It makes a child more comfortable and draws their attention to what you are saying while also encouraging a response. It shows them that they have your undivided attention and that you would like the same attention from them. It is a lesson in communication and listening skills. Believe me, your child will appreciate this simple act! My grandson at 3 years of age said to my daughter, “Vovó (grandmother in Portuguese) always kneels down when she talks to me and I really like that!” I was very happy to hear that he noticed this small act and even happier that he appreciated it!
In addition to talking to your child about everything, be sure to read lots of children’s books beginning from birth.
Playing with your child gives you a great opportunity to talk and different games provide you with varied vocabulary to use. When building with legos or blocks talk about what you are doing, describe the shapes of the blocks, the colors and so on. Make up a story to go with the game! When playing outdoors you have all of nature to talk about. Be sure to bring in all the senses and talk about how things feel, smell, etc. The more you play, the more opportunity you have to use language.
Keep this in mind when you welcome your baby home – she is an empty vessel ready to learn and grow. By speaking to your child about the world that surrounds her and by using rich vocabulary you are laying the foundation for a child who will have a sophisticated level of understanding and be an enthusiastic lifelong learner.
Keep talking to and with your child no matter their age!
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.
Welcome to the BrainFit Kids blog. We’re so happy that you found us. If you’re a new parent, congratulations on landing the most important job in the world!
Our goal at BrainFit Kids is to help you raise children who are smart, capable, and compassionate. Children who have self-confidence, are not afraid to try new things, are happy in their own skin and therefore can better handle social pressures and are kind to others. Children who are curious and have a love of learning.
We want BrainFit Kids to be the resource you turn to as you navigate this wild ride of parenthood.
Who are we and why should you care?
We are a team of two sets of parents that combines extensive expertise in child brain development and “in the trenches” practical experience. For over forty years we, Charles & Conceição Solis, have guided parents all over the world. We founded the Reach Family Institute and our teaching has spanned from the worst slums of South America to cosmopolitan cities like Rio de Janeiro and Paris, including consultations for a former President of Venezuela and members of Pope John Paul II’s Swiss Guard in Vatican City. In addition to teaching parents, we have also trained more than 200 professionals including doctors specializing in Pediatrics, Physical Therapists, Occupational Therapists, Speech Therapists, Psychologists, and Special Education Teachers.
Juliana and Jack Gaither are the parents of two little ones, ages 4 and 1. Juliana is our daughter and she grew up right alongside our work. She traveled with us around the world as we worked with children and really got to see firsthand all that we teach. She always loved and admired our work but it wasn’t until having children of her own that she fully understood and appreciated what we were teaching. Seeing it in practice with her own kids makes all the difference! Juliana and Jack were friends when they studied together at the University of Notre Dame and it wasn’t until about 4 years later (when both were working on graduate degrees there and Juliana was also working for the University) that they began dating and eventually got married. Jack’s background lies more in the business and tech worlds but he is an extremely involved father and has really become passionate about all that we teach. You can read more about each of us here.
The more we talked about child development and the brain and how it all fits into the way one chooses to parent, the more we felt a need to share the information with all parents. As Jack and Juliana experienced parenthood firsthand and all the challenges that come along with it, they also better understood how many current parenting norms can actually hinder parenting in a style that is truly best for a developing baby. And so BrainFit Kids was born!
Parenting is not an easy job.
From the very first moment we look into our baby’s eyes we feel a love never felt before and at the same time a completely new sense of responsibility that can, quite frankly, be overwhelming at times. Why didn’t this small, wonderful, creature come with a manual?!
As new parents, there are endless questions and those questions only seem to grow as our children do. When should my baby be smiling? When should I put my baby in their own room? By when should she know who I am? When will he be saying his first words? We expect our pediatricians to let us know of anything special we should be doing or if there is anything going awry. Though in truth it’s hard for them to take the time during a visit to go through all the elements of your child’s development. We ask our mothers, our friends, Google. Everyone has an opinion. So many opinions!
The village is helpful. It’s crucial, in fact. But the truth is that most people have little knowledge about the important stages of development and, perhaps more importantly, what actually makes child development happen. What’s really going on in that incredible growing brain? Generally, this is because there isn’t all that much information out there that explains how each stage fits together, how they build on each other and why they are important in a holistic sense. There is certainly little out there for parents that relates these stages of development to what is actually happening in your child’s brain.
Babies have biological and physiological needs and how we meet those needs has consequences. In today’s culture, many societal norms actually hinder meeting those needs. What makes a baby go from step A to step B in any area of development? Is it time? Around the time she turns 1 she will learn to walk. By the time she is around 2 she will be speaking at least a few short sentences. Is it chance? Some children are physical and some are intellectual… girls always speak earlier than boys no matter what… etc. In any case, eventually we all grow up and we do okay. Some of us are lucky to learn easily and some of us have to work hard… Is it the luck of the draw?
We are here to tell you that nothing in a child’s development should or needs to happen by accident. Everything you do has a direct effect on how your baby’s brain will function and develop and this is especially true in the first 3 years of life. How empowering! 85% of the human brain develops in the first three years of life. How well they learn, how well they move, how well they speak and so on is a result of how their brain is developing and will have an impact on their future.
The way you raise your children in the first few years of their lives will have, for better or for worse, the biggest and most lasting impact on your child’s life. Phew! It may seem like we just heaped a bunch of added pressure onto the already stressful world of parenting. But we don’t mean for all of this to scare you. We mean for it to motivate you! The changes and growth in the first few years of a person’s life are incredible. Raising a BrainFit Kid means having an understanding of the stages of proper brain development and, with that information in mind, being intentional about how you parent. It means having an understanding of what makes babies go from point A to point B in development. It means Parenting with the Brain in Mind. The potential of those little humans you love so very much is boundless. The profound impact that you can have on them is immeasurable. The power really comes in the knowledge and understanding of how your child’s brain develops so that you can do simple things to help your child thrive.
At BrainFit Kids, we believe that every child is unique and therefore has their own strengths and personalities and every child deserves the opportunity to reach their potential. We strive to maximize every child’s potential; intellectually, physically, socially and emotionally. With that end in mind, we are here to empower you with knowledge and tools related to Parenting with the Brain in Mind. If you want to be part of a group of parents who approach their children’s future intentionally, join the conversation by following us on Social Media (Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, YouTube) and don’t forget to subscribe to our email list to get the latest updates.
Let’s build a world full of smart, capable, and compassionate young people!