If my mother had done things just a little differently, I may have gone to Harvard. Okay, maybe not Harvard, but perhaps I could have secured a scholarship to help out with my University of Calgary tuition.
Sure, mom didn’t know it at the time, but had she decided to breastfeed instead of using formula, my IQ may have been six to seven points higher. Breastfed children attain higher IQ scores, according to some studies. But a new study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, found that this isn’t true of all children. The emotional, nutritional and immunity benefits of breast milk are universal, but its brain boosting benefits are not. The study found that only infants born with a particular version of the gene FADS2, which influences the way we metabolize fatty acids, gain the IQ benefits associated with being breastfed. I recently had my genotype decoded at 23andME.com and it confirmed that I do, in fact, have the genetic code necessary for breast milk’s IQ boost. No wonder I’ve never been any good at Sudoku. It’s okay, Mom. You didn’t know any better. But parents today are bombarded with lists of brain-boosting ways to enhance cognitive development, and many of us are still not getting it right.
Too many disadvantaged kids
A new study by the Council for Early Child Development found that over one quarter of Canadian children start Grade 1 with challenges so entrenched they are at risk of not graduating high school. “Five percent of children are born with a disadvantage such as low birth weight, being premature or prenatal drug and alcohol exposure – and this will make it difficult for them to graduate from high school,” says Dr. Robin Williams, a pediatrician and medical officer of health for Canada’s Niagara region. By Grade 1, that number is higher than 20 percent. “We’re setting too many children on the wrong trajectory for life from an early age,” he says.
It’s clear that crucial brain functions in the earliest years of life set the stage for future development – but is the answer to enroll babies in every creative play and music class available? If parents don’t engage in sufficient face-to face contact with their infant, will she one day blame her parents for being denied entrance to medical school? “No one is born being a parent,” says Dr. Williams. “Most of us learn to parent by taking cues from how we were parented – whether it’s trying to emulate our parents’ style or doing the opposite. I encourage parents to do more; surround yourself with other good parents and share ideas.” In short, parents shouldn’t worry too much about making sure Baby is enrolled in enough classes or programs. Parenting is not solely about educating. It’s about having fun, teaching respect and tolerance and basically making a good human being.
One of the best ways to teach a child is to have fun with them. “If we worry too much about not having a positive impact on our child, we can inadvertently have a negative impact,” says Dr. Jean-Paul Boudreau, a developmental psychologist and director of the CHILD Lab at Ryerson University in Toronto. Child development is about love, respect and providing sufficient stimulus to engage a child’s senses. Everything in an infant’s environment contributes to brain development:
- changes in temperature
Children need variety, but not in the same way adults do. One day a baby may want to experience crawling over the grass at a park. The next day, that same baby may be content to play with toys on the floor. It’s not about trying to enroll your child in endless classes, either, (although the occasional class is a great way to expose a child to other children). It’s about sharing in joyful experiences together. Breastfeeding is a wonderful platform – nutritionally and emotionally – to bond with your child. You can use touching if you’re using a bottle. You can look at your child and stroke her back. You can make the feeding experience as emotionally positive as possible. Learning experiences can happen anywhere, they don’t need to be limited to circle time at the drop-in. Whether in a restaurant, strolling the aisles at the grocery store or walking outside, it’s not what we do, but the amount of time we spend together that’s important. Babies learn a lot, for instance, when we incorporate them into our activities. “Focus on the joy of interaction with your child,” says Dr. Williams. Sure, there are things like proper nutrition, reading and showing your child new things that are necessary for children to reach their developmental potential, but the most important thing a child can get is love and support. When parents love and support a child, anything is possible. So, while we all will have a few missteps along the way (like my mom skipping breastfeeding), if we try our best and offer love, fun and support, our children will have the courage and the tools they need to succeed in life.
Target key areas of development
There are three primary areas of stimulation to focus on when playing with baby:
involves the five senses: sight, sound,
touch, taste and smell. Babies come into the world with highly
sophisticated tools for perceiving their surroundings. The best thing
you can do is show your child the world. Of course, you don’t have to go
very far to find your child’s favourite subject – your face. From
birth, babies track its contours and later focus on the central features
like eyes and mouth. Make funny faces and engage in face-to-face time
whenever possible. Children respond to auditory stimulation before
visual, so it’s a great idea to pair sights and sounds. Talk to your
baby while making funny faces. Point to pictures of animals and tell
what sound they make.
early in life – even prenatally. There’s a reason why moms and dads
‘talk to the belly’ and pregnant women stroke their tummies. In the
first weeks of life, engage in faceto-face play. Talk, make faces, smile
and touch. (Touch is highly critical in development. Infants are born
with the ability to perceive by touch, without the benefit of sight.)
Let babies explore different surfaces while giving them plenty of human
contact. These bouts of connectivity not only set the stage for
relationship building and emotional attunement, but also for some
pragmatic elements, such as turn-taking, that are key to language
many components: Oral-motor develops feeding and language skills;
prehension helps a baby reach and grasp objects; and locomotion skills
lead to crawling, standing and eventually walking. A baby’s natural
proclivity to explore new information is the biggest asset to motor
development. Draw a baby’s attention to opportunities for action and
then provide support for the action. Oral skills are enhanced by
engaging a child in conversation from birth. It may be a year or more
before there is a reply, but talking to a child is one of the best ways
to help with motor development. Reading is also key. Reaching and
movement skills can be developed by bringing a toy within reach and then
offering postural support for sitting and standing. Motor skills are
key to development and it’s often the motor system that determines
aspects of the cognitive system, not always vice-versa as is commonly
Published in ParentsCanada magazine, August 2010.