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Home Family Parenting Advice Ways to feed a baby’s brain — Good Parenting

Ways to feed a baby’s brain — Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

We recently spent the weekend with my sister, her husband and their 13-month-old son. My children are 3 and 5 years old. My observation was that my nephew “Nate” was not doing the things my children were doing at his age. Nor were his parents doing the kinds of things that I would think help a baby to learn — such as talking to him. He spoke not one word, nor did he climb stairs. They pretty much just carried him into whatever room they were going to be spending time in and strapped him into a seat, swing or carrier, as if he were merely an object, not a person. Can you please remind parents and others how easy and important it is to give babies what they need for good learning in their first couple of years?

Thank you so much.


Don’t miss last week’s column Baby puts everything in her mouth — Good Parenting

Dear Auntie,

Yes, of course! Talking to a baby is the best — and easiest — strategy for helping the billions of brain cells he was born with to make connections among themselves. That’s what learning is. The brain makes a path from neuron to neuron as a thought or motor action occurs. Conversation, songs, blowing raspberries on baby’s tummy and other repetitive experiences will go far toward helping those brain cells to make good, strong, networks.

Babies who are exposed to lots of conversation between parents and other people around them have an early advantage for language learning. They also benefit tremendously from an adult or older child talking directly to them. I told my sister about giving my firstborn a tour of the house the first couple of days of his life, especially in the middle of the night when conversation — on my end — was hard to come by. “Here’s the kitchen clock. It ticks. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.” He also heard “Down. Down. Down. Down. Down.” as we descended the stairs, and “Up. Up. Up. Up. Up.” as we ascended.

Two years later, when she had her own newborn, my sister told me she remembered to give her daughter tours of the house when she was thirsty for knowledge in the middle of the night. Similarly, when you are in the grocery store, parents can use a conversational tone to ponder whether to purchase chicken or fish for dinner. The little one in your Snugli or perched in the grocery cart will be all ears.

In addition to talking to a baby, your facial expressions, body motions and hand gestures can be part of repetitive games to play. Brain cells for language are stimulated as well as are those responsible for social-emotional skills. The “Eensy Weensy Spider” can help to build a loving parent-child bond. For example, when the parent sings, “The eensy weensy spider went up the water spout” a particular motor-language-social-emotional pathway is laid. That specific pathway becomes thicker each time those same words, and the accompanying lifting of baby’s hands over his head, are repeated. At some point, maybe around the 25th repetition, baby knows from the beginning of the song to anticipate what follows. If you use exactly the same inflection and tempo as you sing the words, and pair the rhythm of the words with predictable movement, he’ll soon know to slowly raise his own hands up without having to have you do it for him.

Other classic nursery games, rhymes, action songs and finger plays work the same way, building important networks among his brain cells.

Motor learning is critical in the early months and years, too. There is motor planning, during which the baby has to figure out exactly how to move parts of his body to achieve some goal of his own choosing, and there is motor memory, by which he uses prior successes to automatically move arms, legs, torso, hands and or head, to gain his objective. There is so much to be learned about the physical world and how his body can interact with it from the cabinets, stairs, couch cushions, coffee cans and other “learning materials” that abound in any home. The rooms in which he will be playing must of course be baby proofed so that he can be free to explore the landscape. Exploring with baby, obviously, is the best way to go. This is popularly known as “floor time” because the parent’s place is on the floor beside, behind or beneath the baby.

Your sister would benefit from joining a weekly playgroup or attending Mommy and Me programs at her local library, hospital, children’s museum or recreation center. There she can learn from a teacher or just observe how other parents do these things. If she’s reluctant to be so social herself, try to direct her to a good website or book for engaging in playful learning with her son. Or find a father and baby class if Daddy is a better candidate for this very important role in parenting. And if it’s convenient, see if you and your children can play a more active role in this little boy’s life. Unfortunately, playing and talking with a baby does not come naturally to every parent.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com

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