Your newborn is like an empty slate waiting to be filled. The first three years of his life represents a time of immense growth in all areas of his development. While his brain may only weigh roughly a quarter of the weight of an adult’s brain when he is first born, yet it is packed with millions of cells and starts making hundreds of trillions of synapses (or connections) between these cells. This also happens to be one of the critical periods for different aspects of brain development, such as vision, language, cognitive, and motor development.
The National Academy of Sciences (which is a private, non-profit society of scholars) also did some research on child and brain development before releasing a report of their key findings, namely:
- The foundation of your child’s healthy development is dependent on your relationship with him.
- His development is influenced by both the traits he was born with (nature), and what he experiences (nurture).
- All the development areas (namely social, emotional, intellectual, language and motor) are inextricably linked. They each depend on, and influence the others.
- His development as he adapts to the world is shaped by his experiences, which includes how his parents respond to him.
In this article, we look at your child’s first year and how you can encourage his brain development to get him off to a good start in life.
Fuel for growth
Genetics do play an integral part in your baby’s development but parents themselves play an equally important role. However, in your efforts to devote the necessary time and care to shower him with your love and attention, do remember to keep his nutritional requirements in mind. As your baby grows, he will eventually be weaned off breast milk.
The Malaysian Dietary Guidelines for Children and Adolescents recommends that milk and milk products should be consumed every day as part of the daily diet. Milk and milk products are rich sources of essential nutrients such as protein, several minerals (e.g. calcium, zinc, magnesium and potassium), and several vitamins (e.g. vitamins A, B2, B3, B12, and D). These are critical nutrients needed to support the growth and development of children.
You should also ensure that his diet follows the principle of balance, moderation, and variety (BMV), which means a balanced diet (includes foods from all five food groups in the Malaysian Food Pyramid), served in moderate portions (according to the recommended number of servings per food group), and made up of a variety of foods that will meet all his nutritional needs. By meeting all his nutritional needs as well, you will ensure optimal brain development.
Baby Is His Own Person
Always bear in mind that every child is unique and will develop at their own pace and, in a manner of his own choice. Thus, it is important that you understand your child and learn what his strengths are and where you will need to offer him support. In essence, this is the best way for you to promote his healthy development.
To begin with, it is important that you help your newborn feel comfortable with his new world in his first two months of life. Everything is new to him, and he is still learning how to regulate his eating/sleeping patterns and trying to sort out his emotions. Do your best to keep him content and ensure that he feels safe and secure.
- Careful observation required – active observation will help you to figure out what his cries are telling you. Any experienced paediatrician (or parent) will tell you that babies have different cries for different needs. Learning how to identify them will make your life just that little bit easier!
- Take appropriate action – after observation comes response. By responding promptly, you are ensuring that he feels loved and important. This will help build a positive sense of self and encourages him to communicate more. Remember, you cannot spoil a baby. A loving response helps him to learn the skills he needs to eventually to soothe himself. Best of all, you are forging a strong bond with him, thus ensuring healthy brain development.
- Entertain him! Keep a running commentary about the goings-on around him. This is the time in his life when he starts to establish eye contact with you, grasp your finger, enjoy your touch and respond to your voice. Objects which are brightly coloured may also start to interest him. While he may not understand the words you say, hearing your voice goes a long way to forging a closer bond with him. Do keep in mind that your tone of voice and a lot of eyecontact go a long way!
- I wanna talk too! Babies tend to be very interactive at this stage as they try to communicate with you. They will smile and babble, with occasional pauses as they wait for your response. Your baby will also start to imitate you, which is all part of the process of learning new skills. By actively participating in these early ‘conversations’ with him, you will have plenty of opportunities to expose him to many new words before he learns to talk.
- Exploring is a great way to learn – by looking at, holding and putting their mouths on different objects, he is actually learning about his world. Most babies will start reaching for, and trying to hold things, at around three months. For safety, ensure that any object he can get to is safe for babies and that it does not fit entirely in his mouth.
- Going places – by the time he is four to six months old, his control of his body would have improved. He may be able to roll left/right, be better at reaching for and grabbing things, and may even be able to sit up with some assistance. Make sure you get down to his level and check your house to ensure that it is safe for baby, e.g. plug up all electrical outlets, block off access to stairs, cover all sharp edges to prevent injuries to baby, ensure all cabinets/drawers are baby-proof, etc.
- Focus on communication – most babies at this age love to communicate with sounds, gestures and facial expressions. They start of with monosyllable babbles but you can associate some sounds with specific people e.g. ‘mama’ for Mummy and ‘papa’ for Daddy. Be sure to keep talking to him, even going to the extent of narrating your actions, e.g. “Here’s your favourite toy, see how fluffy it is?” If he responds to you, be sure to reply to him. Keep your ‘conversation’ going as long as possible.
- Going places, part two – his motor skills should improve even more by this age. Encourage him to roll, creep, crawl, or stand as much as possible. If he wants to get a toy, don’t keep getting it for him but let him work for it instead; hold it up so that he has to grab it, or put it just out of his reach so that he has to walk to you. By letting him do things on his own, you are also building up his confidence. However, remember to create a baby-safe environment.
This is quite possibly the most delightful stage for most parents, as most babies are able to communicate effectively with actions and sounds.
- Baby is a great listener – at this stage, your baby can understand more words than he can verbalise and can even follow simple instructions such as “Pick the ball up”. At this point, you should continue with your ‘conversations’ as it does help him to learn language. If you see him looking at things, tell him about them, e.g. “Isn’t the moon lovely? See how bright it is!” Imitation of sounds may emerge and it is important that you associate these sounds with actions or objects around him e.g. ‘mum-mum’ for food,
- Going places, part three – he still can’t get enough exploring and will creep, crawl or walk all over. Let him have his ‘exercise’ but make sure you check that it is safe for him to do so. Alternatively, you can play with him as he moves about; make a trail using his toys or play peekaboo or hide-‘n-go-seek.
- Out of sight is not out of mind – by now, he knows that things (and people) still exist even though he can’t see them. Playing hide-‘n-go-seek helps him better understand this concept. In the same vein, if you need to go somewhere without him, do not sneak out! Be sure to tell him so and say good-bye. This helps to build up his trust in you and it also aids him in working out difficult feelings.
- Repetition is the key – by repeatedly doing things, he is actually working on his motor skills and memory through play. This also helps him to figure out how things work. You can help by playing along, e.g. if he keeps banging building blocks together, try to see if he would prefer stacking them instead. Try to enrich his experience with other activities, e.g. rolling or tossing a ball, shaking or banging a rattle, or letting him play with a bead maze/puzzle. This will help to teach him how things work, while building up the muscles in his hands that he will need when he starts to write.
Other Things To Try
Demonstrate how cause-and-effect works by letting your baby be involved with actions that have observable effects, such as letting him turn on the lights or turn on a tap. At this point, it is important for you to follow his lead.
Take note of what piques his interest and if it is safe to do so, allow him to explore it. Try to encourage him and remember to talk to him as he explores it. You can help him to fully engage his senses, pointing out things such as smell, sound, texture, taste, or look.
Showering Him With Love
Like it or not, your baby is learning every single second of every day. So make it a point to show him that he is loved, is important to you and he is fun to be with. In this way, you will help ensure that you give his social-emotional skills the boost it needs, to ensure that he develops a healthy helping of self-esteem and selfconfidence, which will stand him in good stead as he grows into adulthood.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to talk to your child’s paediatrician if you have any questions about his development. Remember, early intervention may help to minimise any delays in his development.
An educational contribution by Malaysian Paediatric Association.