How to Feed the Growing Brain

Ever look at a baby and wonder what she's thinking? Well there's a lot more going on in there than previously thought. According to the newest brain research, babies' brains begin crackling with activity before they're even born!

At birth, an infant's brain houses 100 billion nerve cells, or neurons. Immediately, connections -- or synapses -- between the cells form as the baby experiences her surroundings and makes attachments to caregivers. This network of neurons and synapses controls various functions, such as seeing, hearing, and moving. By the age of three, a child's brain has about 1,000 trillion synapses -- twice as many as an adult. But if a child's brain is not stimulated from birth, these synapses don't develop, impairing her ability to learn and grow.

What does this mean for parents?
"Basically, the latest research confirms the importance of what many parents do instinctively, such as reading, cuddling, and talking to their children," says Angie Dorell, director of curriculum at La Petite Academy, the nation's second-largest preschool. She says these five parenting practices will help ensure a child's healthy brain development.

  1. Be warm, loving, and responsive: Studies show that children who receive responsive caregiving, such as touching, rocking, talking, and smiling, cope with difficult times more easily when they are older. They are more curious, get along better with other children, and perform better in school than kids who are less securely attached.

  2. Talk, read, and sing to your child: Communicating with your child gives him a solid basis for learning later. Talk and sing about daily events. Read stories in a way that encourages older babies and toddlers to participate by answering questions, pointing to what they see in a picture book, or by repeating rhymes and refrains.

  3. Encourage safe exploration and play: While many of us think of learning as simply acquiring facts, children learn through playing. Blocks, art, and pretending all help children develop curiosity, confidence, language, and problem-solving skills. Let your child choose many of her own activities. If she turns away or seems uninterested, put it aside. Let her pick it up again later when she's interested.

  4. Use discipline as an opportunity to teach: It is normal for children to test rules and to act impulsively at times. Parents need to set limits that help teach children, rather than punish them. For example, tell your child what behavior is acceptable and communicate positively: say, "Feet belong on the floor, please," instead of "Get off the chair!"

  5. Choose quality childcare and stay involved: Research shows that high-quality childcare and early education can boost children's learning and social skills when they enter school. For free tips on how to choose quality care, call Child Care Aware at 800-424-2246. After choosing your provider, stay involved. Drop in unannounced, and insist on progress reports.

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