For several years, parents, educators and scientists have focused on the first five years of life as the most vital in the development of a child's brain. Although research conducted at the College of Family and Consumer Sciences at the University of Georgia, does conclude that your baby's brain will develop more in the first five years of life than throughout the rest of his entire life, a significant amount of new research points to the first three years of life as being most critical to your baby's developing brain. Astonishingly, at the age of three, a child has nearly twice as many nerve connections as most adults. While the debate continues as to whether or not a child's brain continues to develop from age three to five as rapidly and efficiently as it does up to the age of three, researchers and physicians agree that stimulating or "feeding" a baby's brain has a significant impact on his brain's ability to function.
Inside your baby's brain
The more than 100 billion neurons, or brain cells, your child is born with will be virtually all that he or she needs for a lifetime. As an infant and young child, all of these young brain cells are not yet linked together to form the complex networks that are required for mature thought processes to take place. As your baby grows into a toddler and pre-schooler, thin fibers or synapses grow and connect forming the neurological foundation upon which he will build a lifetime of skills.
Health care experts and researchers studying immature brain development and processing know that during these early years, not only does a child's brain triple in weight; it also establishes several thousands of these synapses, or nerve connections. The final number of synapses your child's brain will have is largely thought to be determined by his earliest experiences.
Your role as a parent is of paramount importance in feeding your child's brain. "Parents need to recognize this and understand just how much development is taking place inside their young baby's brain from birth until the age of three," notes Cherylynne Crowther, Director of Communications of Talaris Research Institute, located in Laurelhurst, Washington.
When you touch your child's hand and he reactively grasps your finger, nerve fibers from the baby's palm transmit impulses to his brain's sensory motor center and establish a connection. When your baby cries and you talk to him, the nerves in his ears send signals to his brain and a circuit is programmed in the hearing center. Picking your baby up to see your face sends nerve signals from his eye through a link with those in his brain's visual center.
Boosting brain development
BrainWonders is a collaborative project of Boston University School of Medicine, Erikson Institute and Zero to Three, that has helped numerous parents and caregivers understand that the amount of stimulus that a child's brain receives has a significant impact on the number of connections it forms. Researchers at BrainWonders stress that repetition and consistent stimulation featuring lights, sounds, and colors are the most preferred ways to stimulate your baby's maturing brain cells.
"Although many think that watching educational videos are equally beneficial, our researchers believe that parents should limit their young child's exposure to television," Crowther adds. Replace videos, cartoons and shows with consistent communication. "Making eye contact with your child, talking to him and interacting through language, touch and visual aides are extremely beneficial," explains Pediatrician, Dr Michael Anderson, MD FAAP.
As an alternative to television or monotony, many parents find toys and games aimed at increasing your baby's development very helpful. Dr Joseph Sparling, MD and Dr Isabelle Lewis MD, both researchers at the University of North Carolina, developed a program called Learningames -- The Abecedarian Curriculum, (available at www.mindnurture.com) which provides simple and juvenile brain stimulation. "This is the type of game that should be repeated and repeated and repeated," offer Drs. Sparling and Lewis.
Location, location, location
Raising your baby in a safe, nurturing environment is also significant to his developing brain. "This includes the environment at day care or when he's spending time with a babysitter," says Neurologist and Professor, Dr Mario Taldaga, MD.
Make sure that your baby's daily routine allows for a balance of periods of quiet play and rest as well as interaction with lights, sounds and peers. "A variety of stimulus is desirable when nurturing a child's developmental progress, provided it is a well balanced variety," notes Dr Taldaga, a Highland Park, Illinois father of four.
Nurturing your own brain
Caring for your own energy and often tired mind is equally essential when promoting your baby's development. Your own attitude and environment can accentuate your mission of enhancing your baby's mental abilities when you're refreshed.
"A parent who is mentally exhausted can not enjoy the experience of nurturing their child's development," Dr Taldaga adds. Allow for moments to clear your mental slate and recharge your own battery in order to effectively and happily feed your child's growing mind. Keep in mind, if you are in a healthy, relaxed and happy environment, your baby will benefit not only from his surroundings, but also from your response to the surroundings and his actions.
Additional resources available: Your Child at Play, One to Two Years: Exploring, Daily Living, Learning, and Making Friends (Newmarket, 1998) by Marilyn Segal. BrainWonders in depth parent guide to childhood brain development -- www.zerotothree.org