When babies are born, their minds are still a work in progress, and their brains will rapidly grow and develop based on their experience. That means the first few years are critical for healthy brain development.
“Parents play a daily role in promoting lifelong health by focusing on positive ways to nurture brain development, starting in infancy and extending through the toddler years,” says Dr. James M. Perrin, 2014 president of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
According to Perrin, this means creating a safe, consistent environment to ensure children know they’re physically and emotionally protected. He offers these tips for fostering a happy, healthy home:
• Talk to your baby in a responsive way, starting at birth. Watch how he responds to your face, focuses, and moves in time to your voice. As he grows, talk to him about everyday things, waiting for his coos and ahhs, and then respond with an encouraging word.
One study showed that the more words parents used when speaking to an eight-month-old infant, the more words that child used at age three.
• Respond to distress with comfort. Even in infancy, it’s an important way to build a child’s confidence that the caregiver is there.
• Make eye contact with your child from day one. That could be during play, tummy time or even during necessary activities like diaper changes.
• When your baby starts to smile, smile back! If young children learn healthy, positive ways to get your attention, they’ll be less likely to resort to fussing, crying or whining.
• Follow your infant’s gaze to get a sense of what is capturing his or her attention. When it’s appropriate, let your child explore that object.
• Be aware of what your face is “saying.” Temper negative feelings because your baby is “feeling” them as well.
• Infants let us know when they’ve had enough and it’s time for a nap by avoiding eye contact, becoming sleepy or fussy, coughing or rubbing his or her eyes.
• Reading to your child from infancy stimulates language and cognitive skills, builds motivation, curiosity and memory and stimulates language development.
• Babies learn best from people, not screens, and unstructured play time is more valuable for the developing brain than electronic media. Through unstructured, unplugged play, children learn to think creatively, problem solve, and develop reasoning and motor skills.
Instead of screens, try to encourage supervised but independent play like exploring a set of nesting cups or pounding on a pot with a spoon while you are preparing dinner.
• Healthy brain, healthy body. Keep a regular schedule of visits to the pediatrician to ensure your child`s physical, mental, and developmental and behavioral health is on track. Your child`s pediatrician can be a great resource.
For more tips and free parenting resources, visit www.HealthyChildren.org.
Raising healthy children means daily care, attention, comfort and love. Fostering such an environment early can help put your child on a permanent path of emotional well-being.