Today we are delighted to feature another guest post, this time by our dear friend and colleague, Gail Engebretson. We’ve known Gail for more than forty years. She taught Juliana how to play the violin and worked with us in France for many years. She’s really part of the family. Gail probably has more hands-on knowledge and practical experience teaching music to children and using music to develop the brain than just about anyone on the planet.
Gail Engebretson graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1974 with a BA in Music Education. She received special training in the Suzuki violin method and studied with Dr. Shinichi Suzuki in Japan. In 1976, Gail began training in Human Development at the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential in Philadelphia. There she designed music programs for young children and babies. Gail later developed music and violin programs in California, Wisconsin, and Washington. She currently lives in the Seattle area where she teaches music and violin to a bunch of really lucky kids. Gail also volunteers her time in an after-school string program in a native American community. In addition to her music and teaching career, Gail is a life coach and a published author.
Music to Grow the Brain
What does music have to do with brain development?
Many people believe music, musical instruction and learning an instrument are nice but not very important – certainly not something crucial in a child’s development or critical to maintain in our school’s curriculums. But most people have not considered music as a way to enhance brain development in a child.
Music is a language, a very complex language. Music has pitch and tone and rhythm. It has texture and form. Learning to play a musical instrument requires fine-tuned listening skills, spatial awareness, tactile awareness, manual dexterity, and physical coordination.
The brain is made up of billions of neurons and as these neurons become stimulated they make new connections – synapses. If they receive stimulation and are used they become stronger. If they are not used, they die.
One of the three main pathways into the brain is the auditory pathway. This pathway is strengthened and grown every time a child listens to music. Listening to classical music, which has a more complex musical structure, uses even more neurons and creates more connections in the developing brain.
There have been numerous studies done in recent years about music and the impact it has on children’s mental, physical and even psychological growth.
When the brain is processing music, both the right and left hemispheres of the brain light up. It shows activity in the auditory, visual, cognitive, spatial and motor systems of the brain. Research has shown that classical music primes the brain to solve spatial problems faster. Children with music training have scored better in math and verbal skills.
Stimulating the brain through music enables a child to have better listening skills. They are able to differentiate pitches and sounds. This helps in language development and later, reading development. Even a little bit of music training can make a difference in a child’s listening abilities later in life.
There’s a window of opportunity for creating the greatest impact through music. This window exists between the ages of two and ten. This is also when the greatest growth of language and the parts of the brain responsible for language are occurring. It makes perfect sense that music has its greatest impact then.
So what can you do as a parent to enhance your child’s brain development using music? Here are eight simple but powerful suggestions:
- Put music on in your child’s environment, especially classical music, starting as early as possible – even in utero
- Encourage singing – sing to your child and with your child (even if you don’t have the greatest voice).
- Teach your child song games that involve movement such as “Pat-a-Cake” and “Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes”.
- Have your child move to music, dance, clap or bang out the rhythm of the music – help them make that physical and kinesthetic connection.
- Start your child on a musical instrument such as violin or piano as soon as you feel they’re ready, preferably around age three or four.
- The Suzuki Method is an ideal place to start.
- Use music to teach numbers and letters or other information. We remember song lyrics!
- Encourage your schools to maintain music classes, singing, string programs and band programs.
It’s very important to keep all music activities fun and enjoyable for your child. Music is a wonderful thing when it’s not being forced on a child. Many of us have gone through music lessons that became excruciating. Keep the bigger picture in mind – you’re not out to make master musicians but rather, happy, smart and capable children.
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!