BORN BRIGHT

Even in the first three months of baby’s life, there is lots you can do to en­cour­age his brain to grow op­ti­mally, writes Shanda Luyt

Your Pregnancy - - Pregnancy Files -

AT BIRTH YOUR BABY’S BRAIN has nearly all the nerve cells that it will ever have – bil­lions of them. What is miss­ing, though, is the con­nec­tions or path­ways be­tween all these cells. Your baby needs these path­ways in or­der to in­ter­pret all the in­for­ma­tion that he re­ceives from his senses and he also needs them in or­der to re­act to the in­for­ma­tion. At birth, only the lower part of the brain is well de­vel­oped. This is the part that is re­spon­si­ble for ba­sic vi­tal func­tions and prim­i­tive re­flexes, such as breath­ing, heart­beat and swal­low­ing. Your new­born can’t con­trol his move­ments yet, or think about much, but ev­ery day he is learn­ing. With time, all that in­com­ing in­for­ma­tion starts to form path­ways be­tween his brain cells. In the process the higher part of his brain that was still im­ma­ture at birth be­gins to de­velop. He will be able to re­act to his en­vi­ron­ment more and more.

EARLY MILE­STONES

Even though his brain is im­ma­ture there is a lot your new baby can do. Within a few hours of birth he can recog­nise your face and the sound of your voice. Within a few days he knows both his par­ents’ smell. He has a vis­ual pref­er­ence for faces, not ob­jects, and stud­ies dif­fer­ent ex­pres­sions of emo­tions in­tently. By a week your baby can fo­cus for a short while on one thing out of all the sights and sounds around him. At about a month he will stare in fas­ci­na­tion at ob­jects in front of him. He can also re­mem­ber an ob­ject when it is taken away and then re­turned some sec­onds later. Af­ter two months his vi­sion has de­vel­oped to such an ex­tent that he will watch an ob­ject that moves in a pat­tern in front of him. By three months your baby un­der­stands that there is a con­nec­tion be­tween his be­hav­iour and a spe­cific re­ac­tion. His eyes will fol­low an ob­ject mov­ing across a room, he will reach out to ob­jects close to him and he will at­tempt to bring ob­jects to his mouth to in­ves­ti­gate them fur­ther. He will also lis­ten care­fully and qui­eten down in or­der to hear bet­ter. His me­mory is now good enough to an­tic­i­pate events that hap­pen reg­u­larly, like bath time or read­ing time. He also recog­nises music that gets re­peated ev­ery day. By three months a baby’s brain can dis­tin­guish hun­dreds of dif­fer­ent speech sounds. He can also recog­nise more and more fam­ily mem­bers’ voices and faces. HOW TO HELP BRAIN GROWTH Love, love, love is what they need. In the first three months there is no bet­ter stim­u­la­tion for your baby’s brain than to spend time in his par­ents’ lov­ing pres­ence, ob­serv­ing their move­ments, smell, voices and faces. You can help your baby by re­spond­ing to his needs. It helps a lot if you learn to read his body lan­guage. Rest as­sured, it is not pos­si­ble to spoil your baby by pick­ing him up and com­fort­ing him. All the care you shower on him helps his brain to de­velop. HERE ARE MORE POINT­ERS: Sleep. You’ll find out very soon that your new baby’s sleep pat­tern dif­fers from yours quite rad­i­cally. Full-term ba­bies sleep on av­er­age 16 hours a day, says Dr Welma Lubbe, a nurs­ing sci­en­tist and se­nior lec­turer at the Univer­sity of the North-West. New­born ba­bies de­velop a rhythm con­sist­ing of two sleep phases: REM sleep and non-REM sleep. Both are nec­es­sary for brain devel­op­ment. Ac­cord­ing to an ar­ti­cle on sleep and brain devel­op­ment in the jour­nal New­born and In­fant Nurs­ing Re­views (De­cem­ber 2008) the sleep cy­cle of a new­born is nec­es­sary for the build­ing of their sen­sory sys­tems, the pro­tec­tion of their brain sup­ple­ness and the devel­op­ment of long-term me­mory and the abil­ity to learn. Par­ents who want to sup­port brain devel­op­ment are there­fore ad­vised to let their baby sleep as he wants. Talk. One of the best ways to stim­u­late that lit­tle brain is to chat to your baby. Lan­guage is one of the build­ing blocks of cog­ni­tive devel­op­ment. Many stud­ies show that ba­bies who are reg­u­larly spo­ken to use up to 300 more words at the age of two than ba­bies who grew up in a less chatty en­vi­ron­ment. Nurse. Breast­milk is the best nu­tri­tion for your baby’s brain. It con­tains long chain fatty acids that help shape a healthy layer of fat around the nerve paths. This iso­lates the nerves, al­low­ing them to work faster. Stim­u­late. New­borns shouldn’t be ex­posed to toys packed with sen­sory stim­u­la­tion func­tions, says Welma. “Stick to toys in pri­mary colours that pro­vide con­trast, like black on white with a lit­tle yel­low or red, and reg­u­lar shapes such as cir­cles, tri­an­gles or squares. Also make sure that the sounds and tex­tures of the toys aren’t over­whelm­ing. One or two tex­tures is enough.” Ba­bies are eas­ily over­stim­u­lated, so learn to recog­nise your baby’s stress and ap­proach signals so you can limit stim­u­la­tion when your baby has had enough. Mas­sage. The ad­van­tages have been proven in count­less stud­ies. Pre­ma­ture ba­bies’ ner­vous sys­tems es­pe­cially ben­e­fit from mas­sage.

BRAIN-BUILD­ING EN­VI­RON­MENT

Only af­ter these first three months will your baby need an en­vi­ron­ment where stim­u­la­tion and ex­plo­ration are pos­si­ble. The en­vi­ron­ment out­side of the womb is al­ready jam-packed with sounds, smells and vis­ual stim­u­la­tion, says Welma. “For the skin, ev­ery sen­sa­tion is new too. Light touch can feel like pain, and temperature and pres­sure also play a large role in baby’s ex­pe­ri­ence of his en­vi­ron­ment. All this sen­sory stim­u­la­tion – voices, colours and shapes – is trans­ported to the brain via the ner­vous sys­tem. There, it has to be pro­cessed in or­der for your baby to re­act to it. In this time these nerve paths are formed and the brain is be­ing pro­grammed.”

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