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We hope that you enjoyed your time with us during your antenatal class and we are so pleased to be able to give you some more in depth information about the topics we touched on during the talk. Here is the information and the links to the songs, as promised!
For more information, contact us on (011) 472 6685 or send an email to email@example.com.
“Parents who know better, do better.”
10 Things Every Parent Should Know About Brain Development
1. Brain Wiring.
Babies start off as two cells and within 40 short weeks they enter the world with roughly 100 billion brain cells! Already at 20 weeks of pregnancy, the focus of their brain development shifts from generating more brain cells, to building communication networks between brain cells.
The architecture of every child’s brain is shaped during the first years of his or her life. This happens as the brain is used. Connections develop between brain cells as information from the outside world enters the brain via the senses and the brain tries to make sense of this information and do its very best to direct the child to respond appropriately. In this way, ever bigger and denser networks of connections form over time that enable information to travel between billions of brain cells.
On a greater scale these neural networks connect various regions of the brain to “talk to each other”. Like musicians in an orchestra, every musician needs to practise to be a good musician in his own right, but musicians (different brain regions) also need to practise together in order for them to learn to “feel each other” and eventually perform well together.
Brain cells that are used often are hard-wired into the brain, whilst other, unused brain cells wither away and are pruned away over time. This is nature’s way to adapt to the demands of every child’s world. The brain wires itself in response to the demands of the environment to try and help every child to survive and thrive in his own unique world, with its own challenges and opportunities. Consequently, environments that are rich in brain-building experiences build brains that are rich in brain cell connections. Uninteresting (empty) environments build empty brains.
Early brain development is a matter of “use it or lose it” and “practice makes permanent”. A child’s genetic programming provides a rough framework, but for the most part, what you stimulate is what you get.
2. The Emotional Foundation of Brain Development.
“Serve-and-return interactions” between loving adults and young children cause the secretion of growth hormones that build brain cell connections. When babies and loving caregivers make eye contact and interact with each other, the babies’ brain light up like Christmas trees. Good things happen.
When children spend hours per day in the care of adults with whom they have insecure attachments, they experience “toxic stress”. They feel unsafe and their bodies release stress hormones like adrenalin and cortisol. If this happens for hours on end every day, the cortisol starts to eat away at brain cells like rust eats away at iron.
Furthermore, instead of having the typical experience where various regions of the brain are stimulated, wired and activated through loving serve-and-return interactions with adults.
Children who are exposed to hours of toxic stress on a daily basis have an alternative experience. Most of the energy in their brains are focused on emotional survival. So, instead of developing stronger neural networks in the upper regions of the brain, their brains are wired over time to become overly sensitive on an emotional level. Instead of becoming emotionally more resilient as they grow older, they become more dependent and “clingy” and less able to deal with frustration and change as time goes by.
3. The Impact of Nutrition.
As pathways in the brain are used over and over again, waxy coverings, called myelin sheaths, develop around the connections to insulate them. Thicker myelin sheaths develop around brain cell connections that are used more often.
Where these myelin sheaths develop well, information travels quickly. And whilst healthy food like vegetables, meat and healthy grains support this development, unhealthy food and chemicals actually perforate and “eats away at” myelin sheaths.
To top it all, cafeteria style food is highly addictive. The combination of high fat and sugar triggers the secretion of a hormone called “dopamine” that has an effect on the brain that is similar to the effect of addictive drugs like heroine.
4. How to talk to your child.
When an adult interacts with a child in a loving, playful way, he or she adds descriptive language, appropriate emotion and predictable structure to the child’s experiences.
Under 3’s learn their best lessons from predictable, socialized and considerate adults who can use language to interpret the world to them. Bluntly stated, spending too much time with other toddlers is a waste of valuable time.
One toddler cannot add language, appropriate emotion and structure to another toddler’s experiences. Under three’s desperately need serve-and-return interactions with a loving adult to optimize their brain development.
Furthermore, the social and emotional skills that babies and toddlers learn from loving and responsive adults during the first 3 years lay the foundation for the social relationships that they’re going to have for the rest of their lives. For this reason “play dates” are sufficient social contact with peers during the first years of life.
Educators agree that the quality of a child’s speech and language skills at the age of 5 is one of the top 3 most reliable predictors of his or her future success in school and life in general. With this in mind, you will be interested to learn that researchers Risley and Hart from the University of Kansas conducted an extensive study during the 90’s in which they analysed about 1200 hours of recordings that were made in the homes of children who were between the ages of 7 months and 3 years old.
They concluded that the children in their study were largely programmed for later success by the interactions that they had with significant adults.
According to their findings, professional adults speak to their babies and toddlers more frequently and they are more encouraging when they speak. They use more descriptive language and a wider variety of different words (a richer vocabulary). By the time their children celebrate their 3rd birthdays, these privileged children have been exposed to roughly 30 million more words compared to children who were born into families at the other end of the social spectrum (families on welfare). Consequently, the children of professionals typically interact with their environment more confidently and intelligently from an early age. They generally use and understand more than twice as many words at the age of 3, compared to their less fortunate peers. (An average vocabulary of 1116 words compared to an average vocabulary of 525 words.)
In other words, when choosing a day care solution, consider the quality of the interactions that your child is going to have with his caregiver there. He needs to be in the care of a loving, consistent and predictable adult that saturates his world and his mind with interesting experiences and rich language.
5. How to boost “executive function”.
Young children typically act before they think, but as they grow older, and their brains mature, this should no longer be the case.
As a child gains more experience, he gradually learns to regulate himself and interact with his world in a step-by-step, focused manner. In other words, he develops “executive functioning” skills.
This “control tower” or your child’s brain is situated in the pre-frontal cortex.
This region of the brain is wired over time as children find themselves in interaction with adults in situations where they have to set a goal, plan how they’re going to get to that goal, then execute the plan and lastly, look back on the process and evaluate how they reasoned and what they did so that they can learn from the experience.
Interestingly, one of the most effective ways of developing executive function in children is by reading to them from an early age. A book is basically a step-by-step journey. It starts with a goal in mind. Pages follow on each other in an orderly fashion. At the same time your child ‘s brain learns to add meaning to what he sees and hears, so that he can soak up the experience with you and eventually look back over what has happened and look forward to what is coming. He develops the ability to create images in his mind’s eye and discovers the rhythm and comfort of order.
Another way to help wire your child’s pre-frontal lobes is to give attention to discipline and teaching good manners. We need to have age-appropriate expectations of our children’s ability to regulate their behaviour. This involves saying things like, “Say your please and thank-you’s, wait your turn, sit in your chair while eating, follow directions”, etc.
A practical way to support executive functioning skills is to involve young children in daily activities that start off with a goal, unfold in an orderly step-by-step fashion and require some skill and self-control. For this reason, it’s not a good idea to take children out of everyday environments and put them into “educational bubbles” or worse – park them in front of television sets to watch “educational programs”. If you have a nanny, encourage her to involve your child in the everyday things that she does around the house, like tidying the rooms and washing the dishes. Explain that it’s important to involve a child in practical ways. Encourage her to talk about the desired goal that they have in mind at the onset of a task, describe all the steps along the way over and over again, without tiring of it, and give feedback about how your child is contributing to the process.
ADHD is a medical condition. About 1 out of 20 children truly need medication in this regard. Sadly, educators consistently report that many more children have similar symptoms (about 60%). Nowadays, many parents find themselves with their backs against a wall by the time their children enter school. In reality, the majority of our unruly children struggle with “executive functioning skills”.
6. The Role of Instructive Play.
A wonderful way to support the development of executive function in children is to play educational games with them that involve a goal, a step-by-step process and an opportunity at the end to look back and evaluate what worked and what didn’t.
Educationalists refer to this kind of play as “guided play” or “instructive play”.
It’s important to engage children at an age-appropriate level. Parents can, for instance, encourage a 2 year old to “find all the flowers” in a pack of picture cards, since a 2-year old can typically focus on one rule at a time. At the age of three, that same child will be able to sort according to two categories, e.g. “Let’s pack all the flowers here and all the animals over there.” In contrast, 4 year olds are capable of quickly alternating between rules, e.g. “Please, sort these cards according to colour and these ones according to size”.
When we frequently engage children in fun activities that encourage them to use their brains to develop skills that are within their ability, but just beyond their current functioning, we are “scaffolding” them to new heights and making it possible for them to develop to their fullest potential.
The Practica Program specializes in guiding parents and caregivers in this regard. We provide parents with a wooden toy box filled with educational tools and a structured Parents’ Guide with lists of milestones and age-appropriate play activities that aim to stimulate brain development in a balanced way across all the domains of development – from birth up to a child’s 7th birthday.
Practica children are typically exceptionally school ready and emotionally ready to face challenges by the time they reach the end of their formative years.
The key to successful “scaffolding” is to do the right things at the right times.
7. The Role of Free Play.
In contrast, Free Play is “free”. It involves engaging in play without being instructed or corrected on the process or the content.
Children learn so much from this kind of play that parents are usually stunned when they start to investigate it. For the purpose of this post, it will suffice to say that Free Play is a child’s way of experimenting with the world that enables him to summarize and process previous experiences and newly acquired information. It impacts on brain development as it hard-wires a set of skills into the brain that is crucial for success in school, in the sports arena and in life in general.
If your child spends so much time on “educational activities” that he doesn’t get time to engage in free play on a daily basis, he is simply too busy.
8. The Impact of Television.
Young children start off with no language and no frame of reference, so when they watch television, they are looking at mindless scenes and listening to meaningless sounds. Consequently, when children watch too much television, at the cost of having quality real-life experiences, they are being wired for failure. Real-life experiences stimulate a child’s developing brain on many levels. It wires the brain to pay attention and interact with the world. It activates the brain to learn to add meaning, make decisions, predict, solve problems, reflect, delay gratification and take control of the environment. Television, on the other hand, wires the brain to “see without understanding” and “hear without listening”.
Short-term effects :
Dr Dimitri Christakis conducted a study during which a group of 4 year olds, who were randomly selected, were asked to draw pictures for 9 minutes. Another group watched a slow-paced educational video and a 3rd group watched 9 minutes of a fast-paced television show called “Sponge Bob Square Pants”. This show is well-known for its high energy and rapid scene changes – similar to many popular cartoons.
When the 3 groups of children were challenged directly afterwards to repeat a series of 3 numbers backwards, solve a problem and exert self-control, the group that watched the high-paced were so over-stimulated by the overbearing sights and sounds that they basically shut down. Most of them failed all the challenges as shown below.
According to these findings fast-paced television programs overstimulate the majority of everyday children to the point where they struggle to learn, solve problems and resist temptation for a period afterwards. Nobody knows for sure how long the impact lasts.
9. Milestones and School Readiness: Why, what and how?
The more parents know about milestones and school readiness skills, the easier it is for them to focus their time and energy and enjoy their children. As a result, their children develop better. The key, as mentioned, is to do the right things at the right times.
Dr Beatriz Manrique headed an extensive study in Venezuela in the 80’s that involves 684 families, who were all expecting their first baby. Parents in the experimental group were guided to stimulate their children’s development with interactive games and activities from even before birth to age 6. Children were assessed on day 2, day 25, 18 months, 3 years and 6 years of age and the results were compared.
After 36 months, the children in the experimental group were far better developed that children from the control group – as shown on this graph. Domains of development that were assessed include “language, eye-hand coordination, memory, social intelligence and reasoning ability” as indicated on the graph on the slide.
10. Parents who know better, do better.
“Most learning takes place at the fringes of what we know – so the more we know, the more we can learn.”
When our circle of knowledge grows, so does our capacity to understand related information better – so we learn even more – with less effort!
In other words, knowing more as parents doesn’t only enable us to learn more about our children, it also makes it possible for us to give more to our children.
Summary of Activities
Research in the field of prenatal stimulation has taught us that the unborn child is already a receptive, aware and responsive human being.
Unborn babies respond to their mother’s emotions from very early on and there is evidence to prove that they already react to sounds and other sensations at the onset of the second trimester. As a result, newborn babies typically recognise sounds that were often heard from within the womb, such as the sound of their mothers’ voices and the voices of other familiar people, as well as recordings of music.
They also recognise specific ways in which their mothers massaged and touched their tummies during pregnancy. They even remember how their own bodies moved through space when their mothers moved up and down and to and fro during the pregnancy.
Newborn babies have also been found to respond differently when they encounter a stranger that speaks in their mother tongue. This indicates that they recognise the rhythm and typical sounds of the language(s) that they’ve heard often before they were born.
Furthermore, when parents follow a relatively predictable pattern of interaction with their unborn child over a period of weeks and months, their unborn baby can learn to predict, expect and look forward to certain clusters of experiences at certain times of the day.
In other words, parents can help to build and start organising the basic structure of their baby’s brain long before their child is born.
No Special Equipment Needed:
Recordings made from inside the uterus proved that the sound of the mother’s voice is audible from inside the womb as loudly as she speaks, since the sounds travel directly through Mom’s body and the fluid in the baby’s ears. Also, the sound of every voice, instrument and musical note (short, long, high or low sounds) is distinctly audible from inside the womb and only slightly muffled when presented at an average volume within a couple of meters away from the expecting mother. No loudspeakers or headphones are needed to amplify the sound.
The most comprehensive and influential study that has ever been conducted in this field involved 684 low income families, who lived in Caracas, which is the capital of Venezuela. It was called “Project Family”. Dr Beatriz Manrique, who directed the research, was awarded the Thomas R. Verne Award for Outstanding Contributions to Pre- and Perinatal Psychology in 1995. She and her colleagues analyzed the impact of early stimulation techniques that were implemented from 20 weeks pregnancy and throughout the formative years, on the development of children. Interestingly, they recorded noticeable differences between the functioning of babies who were stimulated before birth (the experimental group) and other babies (the control group) when the babies were only 25 days old.
The mothers from the experimental group continued to do one-on-one activities at home to encourage their children’s development and every individual child’s development was assessed and recorded at regular intervals up to 6 years of age. At 3 years of age, the stimulated children did not only score an average of 14 points higher on standard IQ tests, they were also found to be more socially adept and better able to deal with stress. In today’s terms, we would say that they were found to be “emotionally more intelligent”.
These result are even more exceptional in light of the fact that these children grew up in households that faced the typical challenges, stressors, and disadvantages that can be associated with a low-income family living in a third world country.
The main objectives of these exercises are to help your baby to (1) become aware of your positive feelings towards him, (2) learn to enjoy sensory experiences, (3) learn to recognise/remember certain sensory experiences and (4) learn to detect similarities and patterns. In order to achieve these outcomes, parents are advised to (1) use conversation and song to communicate with their unborn babies, (2) use touch to communicate with their unborn babies, (3) make the most of what happens in their environment and (4) present clusters of experiences to their babies on a daily basis.
1 – Early Communication
The earliest communications between parent and child should be in the form of conversation and song. Dr Manrique taught her mommies to talk to their unborn children about their hopes and dreams for them, about how much they are wanted and loved … a conversation rich in positive messages. Mothers were also encouraged to sing to their children frequently; repeating the same songs over and over so that they become familiar to the child.
2 – Use Touch To Communicate With Your Unborn Baby
When you feel your baby kick, gently stroke and pat the place on your belly where you felt the movement. While stroking, “Hello Baby, this is Mommy… pat … pat … pat.”
Fathers can react in the same way saying, “Hello Baby, this is Daddy … pat … pat …pat.” If your baby responds with another movement, repeat the conversation. Up to the onset of the third trimester, your baby will initiate most of the communication through his body movements. Beyond 6 months pregnancy you can initiate a dialogue with your child by touching your baby in specific ways whilst saying related words that describe what you are doing. By doing this you teach your baby to associate words and actions.
- Wait until 11⁄2 to 3 hours after you have eaten as your baby
can be expected to be most alert at those times.
- Prepare for this activity by locating your baby’s feet. This is
relatively easy to do if you wait to feel where he “kicks”.
Using this point as a reference, you can the find your baby’s
legs, elbows, shoulders, and head.
- Don’t do this exercise more than twice a day, once in the
morning and once in the evening; and not for longer than 5
to 10 minutes at a time.
- Lay down on your left side. According to Dr Manrique and Dr
Rene van de Carr, who came up with this particular
technique, this position ensures the greatest blood flow to
the uterus and the most oxygen to your baby.
It isn’t necessary to respond to all of your child’s movements. Dr Manrique advised her mommies to choose those moments when they could focus all of their attention on the baby. These moments of communication with the baby will only take a few minutes at a time.
Things to keep in mind:
- One person should communicate with the baby at a time to avoid confusion.
- Fathers can use a cardboard tube to amplify their voice.
- It may be helpful to communicate with your baby while bathing. The walls of the
bathroom and the water in the tub will amplify your voice.
Do the following whilst lying in this position:
- Always begin with “Hello Baby. This is your mommy/daddy.” If you wish, you can always end the session by singing a specific song, or by playing a specific recording of music.
- Use your right hand to gently pat your belly on the spot where you believe your baby’s head to be located, whilst saying, “Pat…pat…pat.” (Afrikaans: “Tik, tik, tik.”
- Gently and rhythmically stroke the areas where your child’s shoulder and back is likely to be located. Say, “Stroke … stroke … stroke”. (“Streel, streel, streel”.)
- Beginning at your own hips, and working upwards towards your navel, gently press on your belly whilst saying, “Press … press …press.” (“Druk, druk, druk.”) By doing this you are helping your baby to become accustomed to the pressure he will feel during birth as the uterus contracts around him.
- Now use the palm of your hand to “shake” your belly whilst saying, “Shake…shake…shake.” (“Skud, skud, skud.”)
3 – Make The Most Of What Happens In Your Environment
Teach your unborn baby to associate words and experiences, for example:
- When you go up or down a flight of stairs, slowly say, “Up…up…up” or “Down … down …down.”
- When your baby hiccups, say “hiccup …hiccup …hiccup” and try to do the same when you yourself sneeze, laugh, cough and so forth.
- When you switch on the car, say, “Car…car.. car…”
- Place a bright light such as a flashlight on the lower part of your belly if your baby’s head is located there. Say, “light … light … light” (“lig, lig, lig”). Wait at least five seconds before switching the light off. Say, “dark … dark … dark” (“donker, donker, donker”).
- Tap a fun rhythmic pattern on your belly when you first meet Daddy after a day at work, and announce, “Daddy’s here!” Remember to repeat this rhythm in the same circumstances after your baby is born.
- Choose a variety of recordings of music to listen to during the course of the day. Select a variety of recordings that are harmonious and not disturbing or harsh. Try to include different styles of music and make sure that your selection unlocks a variety of emotions in you, from soothing and relaxing to upbeat and happy.
- Sway or dance to the rhythm of the music when possible, to help your baby to become more aware of the musical experience and to emphasize the rhythm of the particular piece. Dance in different ways to the rhythm of different styles of music to emphasize the differences between the genres.
- It will be unrealistic for expecting mothers to try to avoid the emotional ups-and-downs that are the natural result of hormonal changes during pregnancy. However, a recent study revealed that it will be a good investment for mothers to deliberately seek out happy experiences whenever possible.
Researchers from the Nagasaki University in Japan recorded the movements of unborn babies whose mothers watched an upbeat movie for a period of 5 minutes while wearing headphones. They found that these babies moved their limbs more frequently, compared to the babies of a group of mothers who watched a 5 minute clip of a sad movie. Unborn babies seem to tune in to their mothers’ emotions within a few minutes, which is far more readily than one would expect!
4 – Present Clusters Of Experiences To Your Child
Include three special 5-minute sessions into your schedule every day: in the morning when you wake up, during early evening and at bedtime.
Just after you have woken up in the morning, sit up with your back supported against a couple of pillows, relax and listen to a “wake up song” with your baby.
- Exaggerate your movements as you slowly breathe in and out during the first part of the song, to announce to your baby that you are about to do something special and
connect with him. Focus on your child.
- Place your open hands flat on your belly. Massage your baby all over by moving your hands in large continuous circles all over your belly.
A good suggestion for a “wake-up song” would be Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s performance of “Somewhere over the Rainbow.”
Listen to it here.
This recording is a good example of music that can be labeled as ‘homophonic’, which means that there is a single melody that is uncomplicated and clearly audible while the harmony and rhythm accompany the melody in an unintrusive way.
The combination of the time of day, the happy song and the circular movements form a cluster of experiences. Over time, your baby will learn to associate the components of this particular cluster with each other. One day, after he is born, you can continue to play this song and move your hands in a similar way over your baby’s body after you’ve woken up in the morning. By then he will have learnt that this cluster of experiences serves to announce that his Mommy is now awake and ready to interact with him. A new, sunny and happy day has arrived with Mommy at its centre.
During the early evening, create a “family fun session” in 3 steps. Try to spend about 3 minutes on every step, so that the entire session takes about 10 minutes from beginning to end. We recommend that you consider dancing to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”.
Listen to it here.
Click here to go to the Practica Website and download the words of popular rhymes and children’s songs.
- Have fun as you dance with exaggerated movements to the rhythm of an upbeat song. Tap on your belly to emphasize the rhythm of the music as you dance.
- Listen to Daddy as he reads the words of a selection of children’s songs and rhymes out loud.
- Introduce your child to a musical instrument.
Once again, the combination of the time of day, the upbeat song, the rhythmic dance movements and the tapping, Daddy’s involvement and the sounds of the instrument form a cluster of experiences. Your baby will soon learn to associate the different components of this cluster with each other as you repeat this 10 minute ritual over and over again.
It will be very rewarding to continue this little ritual after your baby is born. You can dance around to the beat of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” with your baby in your arms, followed by a few minutes of chatting to Daddy and then doing the little “music class”. Priceless.
How to introduce your child to a musical instrument:
Use an instrument that is perfectly tuned. To expose your child to a western scale, slowly play the series of 8 notes up and down. In other words, play the 8 notes on the xylophone from left to right and back, that is from C to C. First up and then down. Repeat.
Then introduce your child to intervals, in other words, play the first and second note, the first and third note, and so forth. Say out loud what you intend to play before you play the interval, and then play it directly afterwards. For example, “Listen to ONE-SIX.” Then play the first and the sixth note and say, “That was ONE-SIX”. Try to include all the interval variations from ONE-TWO to ONE-EIGHT. It won’t take more than 3-4 minutes.
Note: If you don’t own an instrument that is perfectly tuned, send an email to
firstname.lastname@example.org to order a calibrated xylophone at a cost of R250.00 including VAT
plus R50 postage.
At baby’s bedtime, support yourself against a couple of pillows, relax and spend a few minutes to focus on your child while the two of you listen to a “winding-down song”. Do this every evening at the time that you would like to establish as your baby’s future bedtime, for instance at 19h30.
We recommend that you listen to “Canon Sanctus”.
Listen to it here.
- Lay both your hands on your belly and slowly breathe in and out about 5-10 times. Focus your thoughts and emotions on your baby while listening to the first part of the song.
- Place your hands side-by-side at the bottom of your belly. Keep them open as you move both hands upwards in a straight line, towards your chest. Let them part as they reach the top of your belly and travel back down in two large half-circles to meet each other again at their starting point. Repeat drawing two large half circles over your belly in this way over and over again.
- Whenever you feel like relaxing, rest your hands on your belly and slowly breathe in and out whilst focusing on your child.
- Deliberately try to calm down and create a “sleepy” atmosphere. Keep in mind that your unborn child is aware of your emotional state and that he will learn to associate your tranquil state with the song. You can also stroke downwards over your tummy over and over again, as these movements support lymphatic drainage in your own body.
One last reason to go the extra mile and stimulate your baby before and after birth:
Research shows that children born prematurely have smaller brains than full-term children and roughly 50% of them need special help at school at 8 years of age. Watch the video.
In another study done amongst 128 000 children in New York City, babies born as little as two to three weeks before their due date have been found to score lower on reading and math achievement tests in Grade 3, relative to children that were born later. Watch the video.
When a mother is blessed to give birth to a full-term baby, the extra stimulation that the baby has received in utero could, at the very least, have helped to lay a stronger foundation for future brain development in the child and give the child a head start. If a baby is born early, we have good reason to trust that the extra stimulation will have helped to create a buffer that can absorb some of the adverse effects that an early birth may have on brain development. Continuing to create an enriched environment after birth and throughout the formative years naturally adds to the equation as a child’s brain development is naturally strengthened by a cognitively stimulating and emotionally supportive childhood.