It’s easy for parents to assume that their new baby’s brain will naturally grow and develop on its own. But you’d be wrong. Let’s start with a quick look inside a newborn’s brain:
- At birth, a baby’s brain has about 100 billion brain cells (neurons) that are detached and can’t communicate with each other.
- Immediately after birth, connections called synapses begin to form between those brain cells at the amazing rate of over 1 million per second!
- These connections wire the brain cells together so it can grow, develop, and help your baby begin to interact with the people and things around them.
Every event and sensation your baby experiences after birth helps boost their brain power by connecting brain cells and significantly contributing to brain development. To help this along, your baby needs two important things: a calm environment and positive experiences.
Creating a Calm Environment
When a baby feels stress, their brain releases a hormone called cortisol that activates the body’s stress response. If the baby experiences constant stress, their physical growth and brain development can slow down — it can even cause permanent damage to a developing brain.
Tips for reducing baby stress
- Make their environment calm, safe, responsive, and predictable
- Use a nightlight or other dim lamp in their room
- Remove any threats, scary items, or physical dangers
- Respond every time they cry, especially in the first few months
- Give lots of physical affection, including caresses and cuddles
- Create a daily routine to help them learn what to expect from their environment
Providing Positive Experiences
Your baby’s brain learns best when it’s presented with new information that it then compares to what they already know. When you expose your baby to new things, it helps their brain strengthen old connections and also make new ones. Even simple activities like a walk in the park or a trip to the grocery store can uncover new things that will help strengthen your baby’s brain connections.
The secret is to avoid overstimulation. Too many new things at once or experiences that are too challenging can frustrate your baby and create unwanted stress. If your baby is unhappy, take a break.
6 Ways to Stimulate Brain Growth
1. Celebrate Story Time
Reading to your baby doesn’t just entertain them. It also helps them begin to understand spoken words long before they learn to speak words themselves. In fact, many new parents start reading to their baby in the third trimester when the baby is able to hear and recognize their voice.
A recent study published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics found that kids whose parents read them 5 books a day start kindergarten having heard more than a million more words than children whose parents didn’t read to them. Not sure about reading 5 books a day? No worries. The researchers found that reading even 1 book a day gives kids a boost of about 290,000 more words by age 5.
2. Play Hands-On Games
When you use your hands to play with your baby, it engages them and captures their attention. Your baby will love to play patty-cake, peekaboo, where is thumbkin, and this little piggy. Or watch your hands move as you sing and sign “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider” and “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.”
Babies enjoy being touched and caressed. Using your hands also shows your baby how people can physically interact with the people and things around them. Most importantly, hands-on games are fun for both of you!
3. Snuggle Skin-to-Skin
Holding your baby skin-to-skin not only helps their brain grow but also provides other important health benefits:
- Better digestion
- Temperature regulation
- Weight gain
- Improved immunity
- Better sleep
Parents or even a supervised older sibling can successfully hold the baby skin-to-skin. Simply remove your top, strip the baby down to their diaper, stretch out with your baby facing you on your chest, and put a blanket on top to keep you both warm. Holding your baby skin-to-skin also causes your body to release the feel-good hormone oxytocin, helping you feel more warm and fuzzy and less stressed or anxious. Now that’s a win-win!
4. Make Visual Connections
From birth to about 3 months of age, newborns can’t focus their eyes on objects more than 8-10 inches away. But they absolutely love to look at friendly faces! At around 3 months, their range of vision begins to increase, although they still can’t change their visual focus from one object to another.
In the early weeks, your baby will have an easier time focusing on high-contrast objects, especially black-and-white photos with contrasting patterns or images. These are also called “infant stimulation cards.” High-contrast photos or stimulation cards are easy for your baby to focus on and can help their vision develop. You can post these images or cards around your home where your baby can see them or even create a mobile to hang over their crib.
5. Schedule Tummy Time
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that full-term babies start spending shorts periods of supervised time (“tummy time”) lying on their stomachs as soon as the umbilical cord stump falls off. Not every baby will enjoy tummy time at first. But keep trying because tummy time is very important in helping your baby develop the strength and motor skills needed to reach out, roll over, sit up, and crawl.
Tummy time is also critical for your baby’s brain development. Tummy time exercises and movements help develop the lower centers of a baby’s brain. For newborns, success is 3 to 5 minutes of tummy time, 2 to 3 times a day. If your baby gets tired or starts crying, take a break.
6. Keep Talking
It may feel weird to talk to someone who doesn’t answer back. But keep doing it. Research has confirmed a direct link between a child’s intelligence and the number of words spoken to them. In the first few months after birth, your baby will be listening to the rise and fall, patterns, and rhythm of your voice. Even though they can’t understand what you’re saying, listening to you talk will help their brain get ready to acquire speech and language when they’re older.
Things to try
- Walk around the house with your baby and describe what you’re seeing and feeling.
- Talk to your baby about what you’re doing together, sort of like narrating your day.
- Make eye contact and respond to their cues. When they coo or vocalize, talk back.
- Sing to your baby because they tune into singing even more than talking.
- Encourage your partner, relatives, and caregivers to also talk to your baby.
It’s easy to see that it takes more than good genes to raise a bright, curious, successful child. It also takes caring parents who understand the importance of helping their baby’s brain grow and develop from the time they’re born. Best of all, interacting with your baby, playing games, and sharing new experiences is fun for both of you and one of the true joys of parenthood.