Empowering You to Parent with the Brain in Mind
Parents are the first and most influential teachers in a child's life... 85% of the human brain develops in the first three years of life so we want to help you with tips and tools to make every day count and help you maximize your child’s potential.
Our goal is to help you raise smart, capable, and compassionate children.
We hope these Simple Ideas With Profound Impact will make the difference in your child's life.
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…Learn More +
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…Learn More +
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.