Boost your baby’s brain power with these everyday activities in his first year – and no, they don’t involve flashcards.
Can you picture 100 billion brain cells?
Well, that’s the mind-boggling number that your baby is born with. The thing is, most of them are not yet connected, shares Dr Wendy Sinnathamby, a specialist in paediatrics and consultant from Raffles Children’s Centre.
That’s where you step in. Our experts share fun and simple activities you can do to develop him intellectually.
Hold, touch and caress
Loving touches help a baby develop and strengthen your bond, says Wong Boh Boi, assistant director (Clinical Services) at Thomson Medical Centre (TMC). And when he feels secure, it fuels the wiring in his brain. Place him on your chest immediately after birth; keep eye contact and talk to him for the first two to four hours. If that isn’t possible – say, after an emergency Caesarean delivery or when a complication crops up – get Hubby to stand in until you’re available, she adds.
Take off those mittens
Your little one will start to show an interest in his surroundings when he’s around six weeks old. This is the time to get rid of those mittens – if you haven’t already done so – which prevent him from learning more about the world, says Boh Boi. “Allowing your baby to touch things with his bare hands boosts sensory stimulation and helps him hone fine motor skills,” she explains. Start by letting Baby feel your face. When he nurses, keep his tiny fingers in contact with your breasts.
Get up close and personal
Put your face close to your bub’s, about half an arm’s length away, says Dr Sinnathamby from Raffles Children’s Centre. Hold his gaze by talking to him and encouraging him to smile back at you. He may even respond by gurgling. Such interactions help with his social and emotional development, boosting his empathy and self-confidence, Dr Sinnathamby explains. In turn, your little one learns to express himself and relate to others – skills he needs in order to learn better.
20 minutes of tummy time
When you place Baby on his stomach, it encourages him to lift his head and strengthen his neck muscles. Start with five-minute daily exercises when he’s six weeks old, but make sure you’re always there to supervise, says Dr Sinnathamby. You can gradually extend it to 20 minutes per day by four months old. During these sessions, hone his grasping skills by placing your fingers or a toy into his hands.
Move it, sweetie
Encourage your little one to move about when he’s ready to roll, crawl or walk. This helps develop good motor skills and balance, which in turn stimulates his brain, says Dr Sinnathamby. And don’t strap him into a stroller for long periods of time, she cautions. A study in the American Journal of Human Biology found that kids who spend three quarters of their time sitting have up to nine times poorer motor coordination skills than active kids.
Establish a daily routine
Without consistency in his life, your baby won’t know what to expect. He’ll be easily stressed, which will, in turn, affect his ability to learn well, says Boh Boi of TMC. Help him feel safe and secure.
6 months of exclusive breastfeeding
Your breast milk doesn’t just fill his tummy; it contains long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids such as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (AA), which are important for brain and eye growth. Plus, it has the amino acid, taurine, as well as cholesterol in the right amounts to promote brain growth.
In comparison, infant formula made from cow’s milk contains little cholesterol, while soya-based infant formulas contain no cholesterol at all, says Teoh Soh Suan, a dietitian with National Healthcare Group Polyclinics. The World Health Organisation recommends breastfeeding exclusively for six months, and continue breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond.
Offer age-appropriate toys
By the age of six or seven months, Baby is ready for toys that he can manipulate with his hands, says Dr Sinnathamby. Let him play with cause-and-effect toys, which come with push buttons, open-close mechanisms and interlocking rings. These encourage connections between brain cells and hone fine motor movements, explains Dr Sinnathamby. At around 10 to 12 months, give his brain a good workout with activities and playthings that encourage hand-eye coordination and problem-solving skills. Shape sorters and stacking blocks are two great options. Bring out the board books, too.
But, don’t jump the gun
Don’t we all love a little genius? However, offering a toy or learning method meant for older babies may backfire. Instead of boosting his brain power, you may stifle his development and creativity, warns Dr Sinnathamby. This is because children develop in “a sequence of stages”, she explains. “When given something too advanced, your baby will need to be shown how to use it or he might get frustrated with it. “On the other hand, an age-appropriate toy allows the child to explore it on his own, with some encouragement. This boosts his confidence and problem solving skills.”
3 meals + 3 milk feeds
Once your baby hits six months old, milk feeds alone no longer provide enough nutrients and energy for his brain to grow. At this age, he should have two to three meals, in addition to three to four milk feeds daily. From the age of nine months, he should have three meals with three milk feeds daily, says Soh Suan. Ensure that Baby gets enough from each food group (rice and alternatives, fruit, vegetables, meat and alternatives) as healthy brain development hinges on a wholesome, balanced diet, she adds.
Pump up his iron stores
Iron is important for your baby’s mental and motor development. Not getting enough of the mineral can affect his memory and ability to learn, Soh Suan warns. Once Baby starts taking solids, introduce iron-enriched baby cereal. As he expands his diet, add green leafy vegetables, beans, lean red meat and pulses to his meals. Pair these with a fruit rich in vitamin C, which helps iron absorption.
Load up on brain food
Your little one needs DHA for brain development. If you’re nursing, boost your diet with food that is rich in this fatty acid; it will naturally filter into your breast milk, says Soh Suan. Once he starts on solids, offer fish – such as salmon and tuna – as well as fortified foods like eggs, soya products and baby cereal.
Learn how music can also help your baby’s brain development.
By Eveline Gan, Young Parents, July 2015