The Two Most Important Words in Baby Brain Development

by John Hoffman

Wanna build your baby’s brain? I’ve got two words for you:  touch and interaction.

We’ve been hearing about the importance of baby brain development for over 20 years. And it is true. Baby brains do a lot of important growing in the first few years of life. But there has been way to much hype about “smart” babies. Companies pitch us toys, videos and other products that supposedly make babies smarter. A few years ago the company that makes “Baby Einstein” videos was ordered to stop claiming that their videos made babies smarter. One of the weirdest things I ever heard happened back in the 90s. The governors of Tennessee and Georgia were giving classical CDs to new parents. They had been told that listening to classical music made babies smarter.  Um…no.

Obviously, all sorts of things affect the way baby brains grow, but touch and interaction are way more important than things like toys or “Giggles” software.

Touch

I don’t think we really need research to tell us that babies need lots of touch. All you have to do is hang out with babies and you’ll quickly see that they crave touch and respond to it. Babies were meant to be held, carried and touched. Most parents figure this out on their own, but if you need a scientific explanation, there is one. Over the first months and years of your child’s life all sorts of brain and nerve pathways are being built. The brain uses these pathways to talk (and listen) to the rest of the body.

At birth, the pathways that are most developed are the ones that have to do with the senses. In fact, these sensory pathways form a sort of foundation for the brain development that comes later. So it’s a no brainer (pun intended) that touch is particularly important for infants. Skin-to-skin contact is particularly good. Did you know, for example, that skin-to skin contact helps newborn babies learn how to breastfeed more easily? They used to put newborn babies to the breast right away after birth. But now they know it’s better to just let the baby lie on Mom’s tummy for a little while. Skin-to-skin contact seems to help them know how to nurse. You can find videos about this on the internet. Very interesting to watch.

Skin-to skin with Dad is good too. But, really, any kind of physical contact is good for your baby. And you know what? Being involved in your baby’s care is the single best way to ensure you and your baby get the touch you both need. All that touching is good for you too, by the way. When you cuddle your baby your body releases hormones that help you bond.

Interaction

People often say that baby brains need lots of stimulation. It’s true. Well, the best kind of stimulation for a baby brain is interaction with people who love them. First of all, babies need that interaction to feel safe and secure. Secondly, when a baby is interacting with Dad or Mom (or grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings, or other nice people) she’s using all her senses. Her eyes, ears, nose and her sense of smell and taste, are sending her brain all kinds of information. Making sense of that information is a great workout for her brain. In fact, the ability to think starts with the brain’s ability to receive and make sense of information from the senses.

Interact with a baby and you’ll quickly see how incredibly interesting and exciting it is for him. Granted, communicating with babies can have difficult moments, and newborns interact on a very simple level. But babies quickly develop the ability to be active participants in communication. And they respond in ways that are incredibly rewarding for parents. That draws you in and makes you want to keep interacting.

You don’t have to be an expert on babies to figure this out. All you have to do is try things and – this is really important – pay attention to how your baby responds. Base the things you do and say according to those responses. The interaction should go back and forth, kind of like a game of tennis.

Bottom line. Kids will spend lots of time playing with toys, looking at books, and eventually, using tablets, smart phones and whatever else they invent in the next ten years. But when they are little babies (and even after that), what they and their brains need most is touch and interaction from people who love them.

Dad Central’s booklet, Daddy I Need You, has lots of great information about how baby brain development and how fathers can help.

The Best Start Resource Centre also has some great information on the development of babies’ brains.

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