Food, sleep and play all help to build your baby’s brain
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.
NUTRITION: HOW YOU CAN HELP
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.
THE ROLE OF SLEEP
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