Newborns come into the world with sophisticated brains that are phenomenally wired for intellectual growth. During the first year of life, they are more impressionable and able to develop than at any other time in life. This cognitive development affects them for the rest of their lives. Thus parents have a tremendous responsibility and a sacred obligation to nurture their children in love and train them in the Lord's paths.
Research shows that a baby's brain is designed to be extremely receptive to experience. With each experience, babies gain a broader understanding of their world. They use the same parts of their brains as adults do, though their brains are less mature. By one year of age, so much development has already occurred that a baby's brain will more closely resemble an adult brain than the brain of a newborn.
Infancy scholar Zeanah says, "From the very first days of life infants demonstrate awareness of their environment and evidence of learning, confirming that different family experiences likely affect infant development far earlier than once thought possible."
Parents should be aware of three important ideas about infant brain development that have emerged from the current research:
- The ability of individuals to learn in a variety of settings depends in part on their genes (nature) and in part on the care, stimulation, and teaching they receive (nurture).
- The brain is built to respond most sensitively to experiences that occur during the first years of life.
- Even though the first years of life are very important, learning continues throughout each person's life.
The home where an infant grows and develops has a powerful influence on her brain development. Parents who create a loving, stimulating, encouraging and safe environment lay down a foundation for their children that will benefit them all their lives. Here are ideas to help you nurture your infant's optimal brain development:
- Interact with your baby using language as much as you can. Sing with him, talk with him while riding in the car, read books to him, repeat his coos and babbles while changing his diaper. Follow his lead and mimic his sounds. As you do this your baby will begin to understand the two-way nature of a conversation. Talking with him helps him realize that language is a part of his world and that he can participate. When he doesn't reciprocate your efforts to communicate, he's probably feeling overstimulated and it's time to quiet down.
- Say your baby's name often. Keep your face close to hers while you're talking so she can see your mouth. Point out things in her field of vision and then say the names of them. Start simply so she can catch on. She will pay more attention to what researchers call "parentese", the high-pitched, sing-song voice that adults naturally use to speak with their infants. Though some people belittle baby talk, researchers have found it is exactly what infants need to hear as they learn a language.
- Be responsive to your infant's gestures. Don't discourage them. Movement helps him learn language faster than focusing him only on adult language.
- Give your infant room to move. Place her on a blanket on the floor so she has space to maneuver.
- As your baby moves around and explores, monitor her closely to make sure she's safe. Modify your home for child safety. For example, place pillows on sharp corners where she might bump her head, shut doors to stairs or put up child gates, and lock cupboards containing harmful items.
- Play games that encourage movement. Touch your baby's finger to your nose and then to his nose. Hold him under his arms and bounce him so his feet touch the ground. Hold his hands in yours and clap them together, helping him play pat-a-cake. While he's on his back, hold his feet and move them around while you sing to him.
- Keep in mind that most parents naturally play with infants in ways that promote brain development. Avoid orchestrating too much activity.
- Keep activities age-appropriate--tasks your infant can do physically and understand mentally. If he smiles and participates, it's likely that whatever you're doing is appropriate for his age.
Written by Kathryn Vaughn, Research Assistant, and edited by Chris Porter and Stephen F. Duncan, professors in the School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
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