Are babies born clever or is their future really in our hands?
It’s true that parental input in early childhood can have an immensely positive effect on a child’s intellectual development.
When my first baby was about 7 weeks old, I read an article saying that the first 6 weeks are the most important ones of your baby’s life. My hormone-addled, sleep-deprived brain gained the impression that these early weeks provide a unique window of opportunity, laying the basis for the child’s intellectual and emotional development.
My baby and I had spent the first 6 weeks breastfeeding and sleeping and crying (yes, both of us!), so naturally I was devastated to discover that I’d already failed my daughter so miserably. Thanks to my hopeless ignorance, I thought she would never reach her full intellectual potential. Of course, it is utter nonsense.
The first years of your baby's life
In the first years of life, the human brain grows in size, connections and content. Tremendous intellectual development takes place between the ages of 0 and 2 years. Your baby comes into the world primed to learn, ready to process information and gain understanding and language.
She is constantly learning, even when she seems to be just fiddling with her rattle or gazing at your face. Her knowledge of the world is built on sensory experiences, what she sees, hears and feels. The connections in her brain are strengthened.
So-called intelligence boosters
Researching this topic, I found a slew of claims about what boosts intelligence and what can hamper your child’s chances. Apparently it starts before birth! “Liquorice in pregnancy may harm IQ”; “Exercise in pregnancy boosts IQ”...
The pressure picks up after birth: online, you can find an IQ test for 6-12 month olds, with questions like: “Does your child look for his teddy if she drops it?” Many interventions – from classical music, to fish oils, to baby sign language – promise to boost your baby’s intelligence. Do any of them really work? Just as importantly, what should you avoid?
What you can do to help
Start with love
A loving environment gives your child the security to explore physically and intellectually. One of the things that motivates learning is a desire to connect with others and with the world. Think how your toddler loves to point things out to you, calling you to look at what she’s just discovered or learnt, bringing you a shell she’s found on the beach.
Accentuate the physical
In babies, physical and intellectual development is connected. Children learn from the concrete to the abstract, so it’s important that she has this input and experience. Give your baby plenty of opportunities to explore what her body can do and the world around her. Create an environment that is safe for her to crawl, toddle or climb around, exercising her muscles and senses. Encourage her to be an active participant rather than a passive observer. Let her touch the flower, not just look at it.
Talk to your baby
Early spoken language underlies reading and writing. According to the National Literacy Trust in the UK that runs the Talk to Your Baby Campaign, “Talking and listening to young children helps them develop good language and communication skills, which enables them to express themselves, listen, learn, read, write and socialise better. It also helps children feel valued, builds their confidence and helps parents and children to bond.”
Keep subjects simple and concrete when she tries to communicate, indicate that you’ve heard and understood. For instance, if she hands you her bottle with an encouraging babble, you might say, “Oh, you want more milk.” Maintain eye contact.
Read to your baby
Reading to your child is a step towards her becoming literate. Reading reinforces the structure of the language and introduces baby to new words, concepts and objects that she wouldn’t otherwise see.
Some studies suggest children who were breastfed as babies outperform their formula fed peers on mental development tests. The difference is very small – just a few points – so don’t worry if bottle feeding is your choice. Omega 3 fatty acids are beneficial for cognitive development and are particularly important for brain development in the first 2 years.
“As long as you are eating your fish (two portions of 120g per week) your baby will be getting her Omegas through your breastmilk,” says Tammy Wolhuter, a registered dietician from Anne Till & Associates. Some formulas are fortified with Omega 3 fatty acids. Iron-deficiency in infancy has been shown to affect cognitive development later on. Ask your doctor whether she recommends supplementing with iron, Omega 3 or both.
Choose age-appropriate games. Learning should be fun and conducted in a warm and nurturing environment.
What doesn’t work
A baby doesn’t need a toy waved constantly in her face, or flash cards introduced over breakfast. Stimulating your baby – all her senses – helps form neural pathways and connections within the brain, but don’t be tempted to offer constant stimulation, chatter and toys.
Overstimulation can have the opposite of the desired effect – your baby will turn away, shut down, or cry. Listen to your baby’s response and respect her right to quiet time when she feels like it.
Endless structured activities
There are some wonderful mom and baby groups that are stimulating and friendly environments for you and your little one. By all means join up, but be wary of introducing too many formal activities, swimming, music and so on too early in the toddler and preschool years.
Babies and toddlers need down time, and time to set their own agenda. Give your baby time to play with her toes, watch the sunlight play across the floor or investigate the blades of grass beneath her. Let your toddler mess around in the sandpit with a friend for company. Her imagination, social skills and attention span will all benefit.
No television before the age of 2 is the recmmendation of the American Association of Pediatrics. It takes away from more beneficial activities that promote physical and intellectual activity, and active learning.
Learning should be fun and natural. Remember too, that just as your baby’s physical development follows a certain pattern, so does cognitive development. Pushing your baby to read before she’s ready won’t be successful and you’ll both end up frustrated.
Nature and nurture
Today it is recognised that there are different ways to learn and be clever. Harvard professor Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences changed the way we think about intelligence. As a result, parents are asking not just, “Is my child clever?” but, “What sort of clever is my child?”
It’s not just about school smarts – your child may display linguistic, mathematical, kinesthetic, or other kinds of intelligence. Encourage your child to explore her unique gifts and talents.
Intelligence is a complex mix of genetic and environmental factors, or nature and nurture. Your baby is born with genes inherited from both parents, which to some extent set potential.
Not every child has the potential to be an Olympic gymnast or a concert cellist or a Nobel scientist, no matter how many extra lessons you drive her to! Similarly, a child with great mathematical potential who grows up in a slum, with no schooling, will not have the environmental opportunities to develop that talent.
The environment in which your baby grows up – what she experiences, her toys and books, her diet, her siblings, an illness or accident, her school and many more contributing factors – will influence how she grows up intellectually, physically and emotionally. Genetic and environmental factors influence each other in subtle and complex ways.
The music myth
Claims that music makes babies smarter (the so-called Mozart effect) are controversial. Research shows a temporary increase in spatial reasoning when students had listened to Mozart before being tested. It may be a stretch to claim that listening to Mozart will increase your child’s IQ, but it is fair to say that music is powerfully connected to other abilities, including maths and language.
Studies found that learning piano does develop children’s spatial-temporal intelligence. Our advice? Listen to music together, sing to your baby and encourage your child to make music too.