Max­imise it!

Food, sleep and play all help to build your baby’s brain

Your Baby & Toddler - - Contents -

DID YOU KNOW a baby’s brain con­tains about 100 bil­lion nerve cells at birth? And by the age of three, these cells or neurons have con­nected with oth­ers and in­creased to about 100 tril­lion?

These links or “brain paths” are formed through re­peated stim­u­la­tion and in­ter­ac­tion. So if you can stim­u­late your lit­tle one in the first three years, you can do a lot to help build those neu­ral path­ways and nerve cells.

Con­trary to what one might think, stim­u­la­tion does not nec­es­sar­ily hap­pen through brain-build­ing games and ex­er­cises.

Rather, the most im­por­tant thing you can do for your child’s early brain de­vel­op­ment is to pro­vide him with an emo­tion­ally safe en­vi­ron­ment and shower him with loads of love and at­ten­tion.

It’s true! Ac­cord­ing to a 2010 re­search re­port from Philadel­phia in the USA, chil­dren who got more at­ten­tion and care at home have higher IQS than oth­ers who are not that lucky. The re­searchers found a strong cor­re­la­tion be­tween nur­tur­ing be­fore the age of four and the size of the hip­pocam­pus, the part of the brain that is linked to mem­ory.

It is one of the first stud­ies show­ing how the type of child­hood you have con­trib­utes to de­ter­mine the struc­ture of the de­vel­op­ing brain and proves the im­por­tance of a happy and nur­tur­ing en­vi­ron­ment from a very early age. There are of course a num­ber of other fac­tors that in­flu­ence brain de­vel­op­ment too. We look at three of the most im­por­tant of these, namely: nutrition, play and sleep.


Mareli Con­radie, di­eti­cian, shares ad­vice: ● Breast­feed for as long as pos­si­ble. Not only does breast­milk con­tain tau­rine, but it also con­tains the cor­rect fatty acids. Con­tinue to nurse, even when your baby’s al­ready on solids. Ev­ery lit­tle bit of breast­milk he gets is worth it. If you can’t nurse or have to sup­ple­ment breast­milk with for­mula, choose one that’s en­riched with tau­rine and the nec­es­sary fatty acids. ● In­crease the fatty acid con­tent of your breast­milk by get­ting enough of it in your own diet. Eat two 120g por­tions of fish per week, or oth­er­wise make sure to eat food en­riched with omega-3 fatty acids ev­ery day. You can also take an omega-3 sup­ple­ment that pro­vides 300mg EPA and HDA. An omega-3 sup­ple­ment can also be taken dur­ing preg­nancy. ● When ba­bies start eat­ing solids, most of their food is poor in omega-3s. Ba­bies un­der a year old were tra­di­tion­ally not given fish, for fear of al­ler­gic re­ac­tions. But there is in­creas­ing ev­i­dence that chil­dren who eat fish from six months are no more al­ler­gic than kids who only start eat­ing it at a year old. ● Al­low your baby of be­tween six and nine months to start eat­ing meat to pro­vide for his tau­rine needs. ● An­other al­ter­na­tive is to give your baby a sup­ple­ment con­tain­ing the cor­rect omega-3 and omega-6 fats. It’s usu­ally avail­able as an oil cap­sule, and you can mix the oil with your baby’s food or milk.


Erica Neser, au­thor of How Ba­bies and Tod­dlers Re­ally Sleep, says sleep has a spe­cific kind of im­pact on how a baby’s brain de­vel­ops.

“Baby sleep cy­cles vary be­tween light and deep sleep. In one cy­cle of about an hour the baby’s brain first stores mem­o­ries, then paths be­tween brain cells are laid down, and at the end of the cy­cle

the brain se­cretes growth hor­mones.

A baby that sleeps on mom’s chest ex­pe­ri­ences all the cor­rect sleep phases, but if they sleep alone, they don’t ex­pe­ri­ence the cy­cle at all. That’s ac­cord­ing to well-known pae­di­a­tri­cian and aca­demic Dr Nils Bergman from the or­gan­i­sa­tion Neu­ro­science for Im­proved Neona­tal Out­comes in Cape Town. Nils also pi­o­neered kan­ga­roo care in South Africa and spe­cialises in re­search­ing ski­non-skin con­tact be­tween mom and baby.

A baby who sleeps alone might look like he’s sleep­ing soundly, but his brain­waves are scram­bled, Dr Bergman says. He be­lieves ba­bies should be in con­tact with their moms to en­sure that their brains fol­low healthy cy­cles.

Many par­ents fear that their baby’s brain will not de­velop prop­erly if they don’t sleep enough, and that drives some par­ents to try and “teach” their ba­bies to sleep through the night, Erica says. They do sleep train­ing where their baby is left to cry for longer and longer stretches while he’s ig­nored, but it does not lead to healthy brain growth.

Many psy­chol­o­gists warn against this kind of sleep train­ing, says Erica.

She be­lieves a healthy sleep pat­tern con­sists of var­i­ous blocks of about one hour each, with feeds and com­fort through­out the night. Be­tween three and 12 months of age, these blocks are grad­u­ally con­sol­i­dated.

“Ba­bies aren’t sup­posed to sleep through from very early on. It’s nor­mal to wake up of­ten in the first year to nurse or be com­forted,” says Erica.

“It’s nat­u­ral and healthy that a baby sleeps close to his mom, and it leads to healthy cy­cles in the brain and more rest for ev­ery­one.”

Erica says you can sup­port your baby’s brain growth by nur­tur­ing him and re­act­ing when he cries. It lays the foun­da­tion for love and trust, which leads to less stress.

“Ac­cept that interrupted sleep is nor­mal un­til three, four years old. And

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