When Nancy Costa looks into the face of her adorable
two-month-old daughter Bella, she can’t help but
smile. As Bella stares back, her eyes brighten and her
tiny hands begin to fidget. The more Nancy smiles and
talks, the more Bella responds. It’s a sweet and simple
moment between mother and child.
“I was never around babies much and didn’t know if I had that natural
instinct,” says first-time mom Nancy, 32, who lives in Burlington, Ont.
“It’s funny, though, that I really don’t even think about what I’m doing
with her. It just comes naturally.”
It’s easy to see the loving connection between mother and baby in this
moment. What you don’t see are the infant brain cells that are growing.
Even though Bella is so young, a powerful brain development is occurring
as a direct result of this close contact with her mom.
Indeed, her mother’s smile is serving a much larger purpose.
Parents typically respond intuitively to cues from their child, picking
them up when they cry and talking to them when they fuss. What many
parents don’t know, however, is that by simply responding to their baby’s
cues, they are helping their newborn’s brain develop.
The more Nancy interacts with her baby and the closer the connection,
the more Bella’s brain will grow, says Dr. Jean Clinton, associate clinical
professor at Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neuroscience at
McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.
That’s why when Dr. Clinton speaks on brain development to parents and
professionals across the country her motto is, “love builds brains.”
“Everything your baby sees, feels, hears and experiences stimulates
the brain. It’s about connecting, connecting, connecting with your baby
by picking up on their cues and responding to their needs. I call it the felt
Brain cells, or neurons, begin to multiply at a rate of about 250,000 per
minute at around four weeks after conception. At birth, a baby’s brain is
only about 25 percent of its approximate adult weight and will grow more
during the first three years than any other time in a human’s life.
To illustrate what brain growth looks like, Dr. Clinton holds her hands
six inches apart and moves her fingers about like tentacles to show what a
baby’s neuropathways look like at birth. Slowly she brings her fingers closer
together until they are touching. Then she overlaps her fingers and neatly
clasps her hands together. This represents how stimulation affects a fully
formed brain. These are the top 10 activities
that will help build your baby’s brain.
Baby researchers have a
term for the simple interplay
between a parent and child.
They call it “the serve and
return” because, says Dr.
Clinton, it’s like a game of
tennis in which you play back
and forth. “When they look at
you, you respond by smiling
or talking. That’s just what we
know how to do as parents.
You don’t need fancy tablets
or flash cards. You just need
to connect with your child.”
“Touch is a primal need,”
says Dr. Clinton. That’s why
babies love to be held. The
late Clyde Hertzman, who
was director of the Human
Early Learning Partnership
(HELP) and Canada Research
Chair in Population Health
and Human Development
at UBC, said touching also
helps babies begin to define
their boundaries. “There is
evidence to show that children
who were neglected and not
touched have real trouble
defining where their personal
boundaries begin.” Clyde said
even the simple motion of
picking a child up and putting
them down is an important
touch for babies. “They begin
to be able to intuitively define
where the self ends and where
the non-self begins, where
their body ends and where the
next persons begins.”
At some point all children learn
the game of throwing food
over the side of their highchair
and watching mom or dad
pick it up. Through this simple
game babies are learning
about action and reaction
and how to interact with their
environment. “They love the
anticipation of peekaboo,”
says Dr. Clinton. “It’s all about
cause and effect and object
permanence. You’re teaching
them that even when you
don’t see me, I’m still here.
That’s hugely important.”
Babies also like things
to be predictable, says
Adele Diamond, Canada
Research Chair Professor of
Neuroscience at the University
of British Columbia and
B.C. Children’s Hospital
in Vancouver. “They LOVE
seeing their actions produce
an effect and being able to
re-produce that again and
again, like kicking or pulling
the string of a mobile to see it
move or pressing on a button
to make a buzzer sound.”
Adele suggests giving babies
challenges that make them
work hard but that are still
doable. For example, between
eight and 12 months, you can
place a desired object where
the baby can see it, but out of
reach, under a cloth, or behind
a transparent pane. The baby
needs to figure out that geting
the object requires pulling on
the cloth or reaching around
Reading to your baby is one of the most powerful things
you can do because it is multi-sensorial, says Dr. Clinton.
“When you hold and rock your child while you are
reading, it involves sight, hearing, touch and smell.”
Studies show newborns even recognize books their
mothers read aloud while they were pregnant.
The sensory experience of soothing
water can help boost brain
development. For an added bonding
bonus, climb into the tub with baby to
maximize precious skin-to-skin contact.
Introducing different scents can
be a fun way to stimulate your
baby’s brain development. Try
applying lavender lotion during a
nightly massage or take a trip to
the garden to smell the flowers.
Parents often receive mixed
messages about when and
how often to respond to
their crying baby. Crying
is a response to stress for
a baby and is the only way
they have to communicate.
When we pick them up, says
Dr. Clinton, we are teaching
them that the world is there
for them, so don’t secondguess
your instinct to pick
them up. Babies who get
picked up and soothed
will likely cry less because
they’re developing their own
said Clyde. “Children are
influencing their environment
right off the bat and you
responding to the cues
they’re giving is a huge thing.
It’s telling them that you hear
what they are saying.”
Studies show that,
regardless of culture,
men play differently with
children than women,
and babies benefit from
both kinds of play. “While
women tend to cuddle
with baby, men tend to
pick baby up, hold them
out front and walk their
fingers along them from the
bottom to the top,” says Dr.
Clinton. “It’s terrific because
mom is soothing and dad
activates excitement so the
little one hears dad’s voice
and gets excited.” This
applies to grandpas, uncles
and male friends, too.
By talking to your baby, you are helping them develop their
vocabulary even when they’re infants. “All that babbling
and cooing that’s going on early, that’s the child’s prelanguage
skills developing,” said Clyde. “Babies express
their needs and start to communicate in a variety of ways.
Parents need to recognize that’s communication.” Studies
have shown that the number of words a child learns by the
age of three grows in direct correlation to how many words
are spoken in the home.
Cuddling with your baby is as important as being active with them. “Don’t make it all about
language and brain,” said Clyde. As with so much parenting advice, it’s all about balance. “If we’re
frantically saying to new parents that they have to make every single moment count, their presence
is being stolen by their anxiety. When you’re connecting with your child, think about what you’re
doing with your child as a person, not about whether you’re building your child’s brain.”
Denise Davy has written extensively about children’s mental health, and
recently won a journalism award from the Canadian Institutes of Health
Research to study the link between poverty and children’s mental health.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, May/June 2013.