Science-based Parenting Blog

3 Actionable Tips to Improve your Baby’s Brain Development

So you’ve tried searching online and looked for information about how to nurture your child when young, especially how you could increase their chances of future academic success. There’s so much information out there and you’re not sure which one to follow.

According to James Heckman, a Nobel Prize Laureate in Economics and expert in the economics of human development, you should invest in your child’s education as early as possible, especially during the years 0 to 5. Heckman argues that cognitive skills, motivation, attentiveness, self-control, and sociability, are related to each other in a dynamic and complementary way. Another group of researchers found that it is simple activities like reading or speaking more are the most effective in nurturing these complex skills and have the highest impact on baby’s speech, cognitive and emotional development. It also improves their health and maximises human capital as they are more likely to produce positive outcomes for the society as a whole.

So what can you do to boost your baby’s development during this critical period? Does this mean you need to spend a lot of money on interest classes and activities? Not necessarily. In fact, you can do it at home.

Our team of neuroscientists, psychologists and early childhood educators from Stanford and Harvard University reviewed 20 years worth of developmental research, and came up with 3 actionable tips on how to help your child grow:

1. Get more personal

We get it. A lot of parents in Hong Kong have 9 to 5 jobs, and many come home long after dinner. You or your partner work so hard to provide stability and opportunities for your child and family. However, research consistently shows that interacting with your little one in person is critical for their brain development, and some of the most impactful activities are also the most intuitive – playing, comforting and showing affection through kissing and hugging. These interactions will help your baby feel loved, secure and safe and develop emotional intelligence.

Here are some simple activities to improve your child’s Social and Emotional Development:

For all ages

1. Always give hugs and kisses!

2. Playdates! You can organise with your friends or join Play Dates HK!

3. Facebook groups (just post a message, the group is full of very helpful mothers)

4. Visit Geobaby Forum

5. Join Meetup.com groups, like Language and Cultural Exchange for KidsHong Kong Babies and Toddlers or Play Dates for Purposeful Parents

For 12-18 months old

1. Take your little one with you when travelling or simply to run errands, museum visits and lunches meetings with your friends. These opportunities will allow your baby to interact with the world and expose their growing brain to varied sources of stimuli!

2. Play games with them so they know how to share with others, take turns, and work in a team. Try out activities like:

  • Throwing Balls
  • Take turns in pressing buttons on toys
  • Handing toys to one another

3. Verbally name the emotions that they are displaying, so that they can learn to map out emotions in the future, and learn the words associated with them (even if they cannot understand them yet!). Explain to them why they may be feeling that way. Speak with empathy.

2. Use a variety of words

It’s not just enough to spend time with your child. You should also speak more complex words to them.

When speaking to your child, it’s easy to use simplified words (so-called “parentese”). Nevertheless, studies show that if you use a varied vocabulary when speaking to your baby, it stimulates their brains to form new neural connections and builds the architecture needed to support their future thinking and reading skills. The more you talk to your baby, the more words they will get exposed to and the faster they will learn to speak.

A famous research by Risley and Hart showed that babies from high-income families heard around 30 million more words by the age of 4 than those from low-income families! In addition, studies have shown that babies who heard more words by age 3 scored higher in cognitive development tests and reading assessments in Grade 3.

Does this mean you need to always chat with your child? No! You can simply try the following activities to improve your baby’s Language Development:

 For all ages

1. Be a Storyteller – tell them about your day or just make up a story by yourself!

2. Read books – you can start with some of the most popular ones like for example The Runaway Bunny, by Margaret Wise Brown, Hush Little Baby, by Sylvia Long or The Nice Book, by David Ezra Stein

3. Sing (it doesn’t just have to ‘Let it go’ from Frozen!)

4. Verbally describe the steps that you are following to help them perform activities – “I am putting you into the bathtub now!” or “Let me put some powder on your skin to keep it fresh”

5. Imitate sounds. When your baby’s making sounds like “bah” or “ah-goo,” imitate these sounds and follow up with simple words which contain the same sounds.

6. Compliment your child saying how wonderful they are. This will expose them to a wide range of abstract vocabulary and help build an important bond between you and your child. This will make your baby develop trust, interact with others more openly, and be more resilient to physical and emotional issues in the future.

For 12-18 months old

1. Ask Questions. Don’t treat them like a baby, but like an intelligent person and ask for his likes, dislikes and opinions. Listen to them with attention, and respond to them like you understand what they say. Also, try to repeat to them what they just said. This helps them to articulate and train their listening skills.

2. If your child is starting to say a sentence but with incorrect pronunciation, instead of correcting them, just say the sentence with the right pronunciation so they can model after you, e.g. if they say, ‘ I want a cookie’, instead of saying,’ No, say cookie’, say this, ‘Ok baby, you want a cookie?’

3. Ask your child to tell you a story. (Fun fact: A lot of kindergartens in Hong Kong ask children to describe a story in their school interviews!)

3. Discover their temperament

By now you probably picked some new activities that you would like to try with your baby, but you’re worried your child won’t enjoy them.  Sometimes you just can’t help comparing with your friend’s child, who loves reading and is quiet, while your child runs around in circles when you try to read them a story. Sounds familiar?

In fact, children respond to activities and actions differently because of their varying temperaments, which is their personal ‘style’ of experiencing the world. Temperament is biologically based – what goes on inside their heads is reflected through their reactions to the outside world.

This means that you should not be trying to change your baby’s temperament, but rather observe it, understand it and adapt the activities that you plan to match your baby’s unique developmental pathway. Here are some common traits to help you determine which type your baby is inclined to:

Sensory Reactivity

Likes lots of sounds, lights, actions?
Easily gets overwhelmed with too many sounds, lights or actions?

Emotional intensity

Squeals and cries at issues that you think are small?
Easy-going?

Activity Level

High Activity Level?
Loves just sitting down and doing quiet activities?

Persistence

Gives up easily?
Persists and finds out ways to make something work

Time to warm-up to others

Fast?
Slow?

Being sensitive towards your baby’s temperament can make your parenthood more pleasant and easier. This will guide you in making parenting decisions that will suit your child and help them grow faster. For example, if your baby has high activity level, you should let them run around and play games before trying to read them a story. This way, your child will feel that you care and understand that you are accepting them for who they are, which helps to build their self-esteem.


 

P.S. There is now a way to quantify the impact that your parenting has on your baby’s growth. We’re recruiting interested parents to an academic study led by Dr Eva Chen in Hong Kong to test a new tool for language monitoring. Through the study you will: 

  • Interact with Stanford, Harvard University and HKUST Early Childhood Educators, Neuroscientists and Psychologists
  • Receive 2 free cognitive assessments for your baby (value: $2000HKD)
  • Find out how many words you speak to your baby every day
  • Get first access to our database of stimulating activities and daily parenting tips!
Vivien Tse3 Actionable Tips to Improve your Baby’s Brain Development
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Tips on bonding with a newborn for first-time dads

As a first-time dad, Ken Phelan was taken aback by the many challenges that come along with a newborn. He was also unsure about how to connect with his son.

FOR many an expectant father, there is nothing quite so daunting or terrifying as the prospect of fatherhood.

Even for those fathers who have borne witness to the miracle of birth, life thereafter may appear as one long interminable challenge.

As a first-time dad, sleepless nights, nappy changes, feeding problems, and endless demands will all take their toll on your weary mind.

To add to your dismay, you discover that these disruptions are not conducive to a full and satisfying love life, and so resign yourself to a period of reluctant abstinence.

The moment my son was brought kicking and screaming from the delivery room, there was a palpable sense that life would simply never be quite the same again.

While mum had taken an immediate shine to the new arrival, I regarded him with suspicion and fear.

This was the burden of fatherhood, the knowledge I held not one iota of maternal instinct, not one drop of oxytocin in my body, and that I would in all likelihood never bear milk.

And so, as I sullenly left the maternity ward, one question pervaded my fevered mind: “How do I bond with baby?”

baby2

Bonding

For me, bonding was difficult.

With newborns, I reminded myself, the primary bond is between mother and child; so it seemed inevitable and somewhat fitting that I felt left out.

Despite feeling overjoyed at the birth of my first child, this was regrettably overshadowed by feelings of helplessness and inadequacy.

Simple things like nappy changes, bottle feeds, and even holding the baby instilled apprehension and fear, especially since I had not cared for children before.

For many men, like myself, the reality of being a parent doesn’t dawn until baby is born. But, according to psychologist Dr David Carey, the opportunity to bond with baby starts long before birth.

“Fathers should be involved with baby even before birth by looking after their partners and seeing they feel loved, protected, and cherished as well as physically safe,” he says.

Carey believes there is no reason why a father should face difficulties bonding with his newborn, citing work commitments as perhaps the only impediment. He also believes there is no need for dads to feel inadequate in their role.

“Men do not face any significant difficulties bonding with their infant children. The only matter of possible difficulty is the interference of work and commuting hours which tend to mean far too many men get home after their babies have been put to bed,” he says.

“It is only natural for the mother’s sole attention to be on the newborn baby. This is a matter of survival for many infants. Men can’t breastfeed.”

Self-confidence can make all the difference, he adds: “A man with intact self-esteem will not feel left out, particularly if he takes time to help his partner with childcare responsibilities.”

Research shows that the only difference between father and mother role is in physical play.

“Fathers play more vigorously with their children than do mothers,” says Carey.

“It’s important to remember that the paternal role is influential throughout the lifespan of the child.”

For many men, day-to-day activities in baby’s care will be alien. In my case, for example, the prospect of changing nappies was akin to having my teeth pulled.

Go Beyond the Usual

Apart from assisting in these decidedly challenging activities, how else can dad bond with baby?

“Dads should play with baby, hold baby, sing to baby, cuddle baby, feed and change baby,” says Carey.

“Feeding and changing baby is part of the attachment and bonding process. Skin-to-skin contact is part of what is called the somatosensory bath of children.

The skin is the human body’s largest organ and touch is important to the attachment and bonding process. All babies should be held, cuddled, rocked, and touched by both mother and father.

“Remember, being a father is a natural process. There is no need to pressurise yourself into it. We tend to be a parent based on how we ourselves were parented so that our own early life experiences can be influential”.

From my own experience of early fatherhood, bonding with baby also means bonding with mum and the consolidation of the family unit as a whole.

Despite my own fears and apprehensions, I soon discovered that even I had the natural ability to bond. The key, it seemed, was simply to become a part of baby’s life.

As I soon learned, it is exactly in times of uncertainty to become actively involved with your baby, to simply love and hold him, feed and change him, and bonding.

The hitherto mourned loss of ‘independence’ was supplanted with the knowledge that I was the parent of a loving, dependent, and innocent child.

What can you today?

That said, friends with older children tell me that all will change when the teenage years come around — it’s then when bonds become tenuous and you begin to lament the days of nappy changes and sleepless nights.

* Get involved: Bottle feeds, nappy-changes, holding baby, dressing baby. Anything involving physical contact.

* Read aloud: The baby may not understand the words but she will gain comfort and reassurance from your voice. Story time can be a great bonding experience for baby and parent alike.

* Play games: Interaction during playtime is very important in establishing a relationship between parent and child, as well as helping baby’s emotional and cognitive growth.

* Sing, talk: Any verbal communication can be comforting and stimulating for baby, and help to establish a bond with mum and dad.

* Make yourself available: Don’t let mum do all the hard work. If possible, change work commitments to better suit family needs.

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Sandra SobanskaTips on bonding with a newborn for first-time dads
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