by Mary Jessica Hammes
May 17, 2011
A DVD series claiming it can teach babies to read, even those just a few months old, is gaining popularity but it defies the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation on the amount of screen time children should get (none, for children under age 2), and its claims are being investigated by the Federal Trade Commission.
Countless products exist claiming cognitive benefits for young children—from slick video programs to talking stuffed animals. In the unending race to produce smarter kids and be the best parents, American mothers and fathers spend millions on these products with visions of future Einsteins dancing in their heads. Sugarplums are so twentieth century.
The fact is there is little if any proof that these products do what they claim. Experts believe young children may recognize or memorize words, but not read them as the “Your Baby Can Read” program suggests. Research shows that so-called educational DVDs can actually significantly decrease language development. In fact, “educational” screen time can have harmful effects on a young child’s physical and developmental health. Even background television can adversely affect cognitive development.
Yet, the “Your Baby Can Read” advertisement goes straight to parents’ sensitivities around their babies’ intelligence. Want the smartest kid in day care? Want to get into that exclusive private school? Then you want your baby to have the most developed brain as soon as possible. But do you think Einstein watched “Baby Einstein” videos?
“Seize this small window of opportunity before it closes to enhance your child’s learning ability!” That’s how the DVDs, “Your Baby Can Read,” goes straight for the parental jugular. What caring parent doesn’t want to do that? Let that window slip past, one assumes from the sales pitch, and those prime years of learning will shrivel up, leaving behind a child at a severe disadvantage. But it’s totally false.
It’s true that your baby’s brain is very busy. The adult brain has about 100 billion nerve cells (or neurons). A baby’s brain weighs about one quarter as much as an adult brain, but it already has most of the neurons it will ever have. As soon as a baby is born, an intricate network of connections, or wiring, between these nerve cells is constantly trying to make connections. By age 2, the brain’s energy consumption is operating on adult levels.
So how should parents seize the opportunity to foster growth and enhance their child’s learning?
“We’ve always known that what good parents and caregivers do for babies is exactly what babies’ brains need,” says Diane Bales, associate professor of child and family development at the University of Georgia. “This is not something magical that only the best educated parent with millions of dollars to spend can do… it simply requires being involved and interacting with your child, and enjoying it.”
Indeed—research shows that there are some activities that support cognitive development, and they are all things every parent (moms, dads, working mothers, stay-at-home moms) can do, no cash, no monthly subscription required.
Breastfeed your baby
Does breast milk make babies smarter? It’s a nearly impossible hypothesis to prove given the many unknown variables (you can read more about this here). Breast milk has long been associated with brain development and higher scores on cognitive function tests, but there are a lot of unanswered questions about how much of that has to do with the breast milk itself, and how much has to do with the act of breastfeeding and the bond it provides, plus other factors.
For example, in addition to breast milk, there is a physical aspect to breastfeeding that might aid baby’s brain development, according to Bright From The Start author Jill Stamm, associate clinical psychology professor at Arizona State University and cofounder of New Directions Institute for Infant Brain Development. When parents bottle-feed, they often favor a certain side for holding baby. When breastfeeding, mothers switch sides, making babies’ arms, hands, and even gaze cross the midline of the body, which helps build the corpus callosum—a band of fibers that connect the left and right hemispheres of the brain. A well-formed corpus callosum makes for better processing of information in both hemispheres. (Bottle-feeding parents are urged to switch sides each time they offer the bottle to their baby.)
Scientists know that breast milk contains long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (such as DHA and ARA), which are important in brain development and help with myelination (the development of a protective fatty sheet around the conducting nerve fibers). Naturally occurring DHA found in breast milk helps develop neural pathways. Meanwhile, a lack of these fatty acids has long been associated with learning disabilities.
Infant formula contains synthetic versions of the fatty acids DHA and ARA, made from oils extracted from fermented algae and fungus with the aid of the neurotoxic chemical hexane. There are known concerns about introducing synthetic fats to infant formula, especially as there is no substantial evidence that they aid development. Last year, a study revealed that infant formula supplemented with these synthetic acids had no effect on developmental scores at 18 months. A ban on synthetic fats will eventually impact infant formula. In the meantime, you can consider claims of beneficial synthetic oils in infant formula to be not much more than a marketing ploy. In today’s branded world, one of the skills parents need to have is the ability to cut through the marketing and advertising to discern what is fact and what is fiction. Sadly, too much marketing goes unregulated.
While no one can say for certain why breastfeeding and breast milk aids in a child’s cognitive development, the fact is, it does, and there are studies to prove it. Click here to learn other benefits of breastfeeding for both mother and baby.
Keep close contact
Parents who practice attachment parenting (which includes babywearing during the day and co-sleeping at night) may do so out of convenience or a desire to bond with their baby, but there are many physical and emotional benefits to keeping your baby close throughout the first year of life.
Being consistently close to your child means responding quickly to her needs. When a parent responds to their baby, day and night, the baby will learn to expect the caregiver’s soothing and cuddling, love and responsiveness, and become securely attached to her parents. In short, a foundation of trust is established.
This bond of trust promotes circuitry in the limbic system of the brain. The limbic system includes many parts of the brain, which support many different functions, including emotions, behavior, and long-term memory. The limbic system is also connected to the prefrontal cortex, which regulates personality, social behavior, and complex problem-solving.
A crying baby who is ignored may become stressed, and a stressed-out baby’s brain produces an abundance of the chemical cortisol, which can slow brain development. High levels of cortisol make your baby unable to focus on anything other than distress, and over time, can even cause structural brain damage. Neglect, abuse, and prolonged stress are associated with reductions in the volume of the hippocampus (part of the brain’s limbic system that is involved with memory), amygdala (groups of nuclei deep in the brain’s medial temporal lobe, and another part of the limbic system that deals with emotional learning), and corpus callosum (the bundle of fibers that connects the left and right cerebral hemispheres).
Emotion has a direct impact on attention and learning. Your baby’s security that comes from a caregiver’s responsiveness is directly related to his or her intellectual capacity. Close contact with your baby also means your child can see your face. Newborns can see a distance of around 8–14 inches, and they want to see you. Daphne Maurer, author and psychologist at McMaster University in Ontario, researches infant visual development. Her research on facial and object recognition in infants shows that 6-week-olds prefer to look at faces over objects. Face-to-face interaction gives your baby ample opportunity to imitate your expressions. When babies watch and try to copy, they use mirror neurons. Research on mirror neurons in humans is relatively recent and suggests that these cells help people understand other people’s actions and intentions. Research shows that when babies watch an action performed, the motor region of their brains activate, as if the babies themselves performed the action. When babies actually copy actions, they learn by imitation, but they also start understanding how and why other people behave.
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