Research shows how playful parents can play a key part in a child's mental development.
Build a brainy baby
Pregnant women who eat lots of liquorice can have a detrimental effect on their child's intelligence and behaviour, according to a recent combined study by scientists at Edinburgh and Helsinki universities. The researchers studied eight-year-olds born in Finland, where consumption of liquorice among young women is common, and found that the children of liquorice-eating pregnant women fared less well than other youngsters in tests. Why? Because the liquorice component glycyrrhizin may impair the placenta, allowing stress hormones to cross from mother to baby and affecting foetal brain development.
Although liquorice addiction is not a common problem for most mums-to-be, the study highlights an important issue: that right from a baby's earliest stage of development, its well-being, both mental and physical, is in our hands. Smoke while pregnant or consume too much fatty food (or, it seems, liquorice) and it is likely that your child will pay the price. The good news is that, while the idea of harming an unborn baby through lifestyle and environment choices is unsettling, a growing body of evidence suggests that you can also enhance your child's neurological development, making a profound difference to his or her cognitive ability and, in later life, educational and career prospects.
If you want to boost your baby's brainpower, you need to start young - the key developmental period is from the third trimester until around two. At birth, a baby's brain contains 100 billion neurons (equivalent to the number of stars in the Milky Way). And these crucial first years will see the development of trillions of brain-cell connections, called "neural synapses". Synapses that are not "wired together" by stimulation are pruned and lost during the school years.
"When a baby is born, all those neurons in their brain are not connected up in the way they need to be for learning or understanding," says Alice Sterling Honig, professor of child development at Syracuse University, New York. "What wires up a baby's brain is you, the adult who interacts with them. You are the teacher of your baby's brain." Honig is a passionate advocate of stimulating your baby, and hence his or her brain, from the earliest possible opportunity. This can start while they are still in the womb - research shows that unborn babies can hear clearly at 20 weeks of pregnancy, and will remember the music you played until they are a year old. But Honig's work has focused on that crucial post-birth period up to kindergarten age. "One of the most important things you can do is talk to your baby in 'parentese'," she says.
"Some parents - especially dads - feel uncomfortable with 'baby talk', but infants just love it. When you talk to them in a high tone, about one octave up and nice and slow, with the syllables drawn out, and a pleasurable, loving tonality, cascades of chemicals and electrical impulses course down their entire body. This wires up their brain to listen to these beautiful sounds." Honig's mantra is "use it or lose it", because only the synapses wired together through this kind of parent-child interaction are retained. To understand why, it is worth knowing a little about "attachment theory", a notion devised by the eminent British psychologist John Bowlby in the 1960s. Bowlby believed that the earliest bonds formed by children with adults have a tremendous impact that continues throughout life.
He described attachment as a "lasting psychological connectedness between human beings", arguing that mothers who are available and responsive to their infant's needs establish a sense of security. The infant knows that the parent is dependable, which creates a secure base for exploring the world - fundamentally important for their ability to learn. Recent advances in MRI brain-scanning lend scientific weight to Bowlby's theory. For example, babies found in Romanian orphanages after the fall of the communist regime had notoriously been left in their cots all day without affection or human interaction. Scans of their brains revealed "black holes", where key areas had failed to grow.
Honig, who also practises as a psychotherapist, emphasises the importance of a secure attachment for the healthy growth of babies' brains. "We learn better when we feel loveable, competent and special," she says. "If you wire in those feelings early on, do you have to make many changes with a therapist 30 years later? Not so many." Research also shows that, when you have a secure attachment between parent and child, you get up to four times as much co-operation from a toddler, even during the terrible twos. But how do you achieve this magical bond?
"One of the strongest ways to do that is to show a young baby you are tuned in when they feel distressed," explains Honig. "Not when you think they are ready for a feed or nappy change, but when they give you distress signals. Try playing Sherlock Holmes with your baby to figure out what's wrong and how you can fix it." As any parent knows, children of all ages learn best through play. When they are young, one of the best brain-stimulating games you can play is peekaboo. "Try putting a very light cloth over your baby's face, and when he pulls it off say 'Peekaboo!'". What's he learning? Well, you're fundamentally important to your baby. So when you disappear, then reappear with a big smile, it teaches him 'object permanence', that beloved ones will always reappear," says Honig.
Patacake is another surprisingly educational game. Because humans are bilateral - with two eyes, ears, arms, hands and legs - we have a "midline", dividing these two roughly symmetrical halves. Patacake teaches babies of seven months and older to reach across this midline, to clap in rhythm and enjoy singing, thus combining sensory motor activity with co-ordination. Steiner schools have long understood the fundamental importance of play for children's growing brains. Janni Nicol, an expert in Steiner education and co-author of Creative Play for Your Toddler, explains: "Play is integral to a child's mental, emotional, social, intellectual and physical development. Studies show that children who score highest in socio-dramatic play like role-plays demonstrate the greatest gains in cognitive areas such as higher intellectual competence, longer attention span and more innovative and creative thinking."
The Steiner approach is based on the notion that everything, visible and invisible, which surrounds children has an impact on them. Steiner teachers such as Nicol create an environment that is calm, peaceful, predictable and unhurried. She says this not only boosts their intellectual development but teaches them life skills. "We encourage children to join in with adult 'work', to teach them social and domestic skills and develop motor and practical abilities. They 'think' with their entire physical being and learn through doing. Helping with household tasks and daily activity around the home is the best foundation for later life," she says.
The idea that physical and mental development are interwoven is gaining currency throughout all modes of education, but is particularly prized in the Steiner tradition. "We take as given the interconnectedness of physical, emotional, social, spiritual and cognitive development," says Nicol. "The learning experience of children under seven is, therefore, integrated and not subject-based. Mathematics and use of mathematical language might take place at the cooking table, where concepts like addition, subtraction, weight, quantity and shape are grasped in a practical manner as part of daily life."
The toys we buy our children, from babies' rattles and mobiles to the video games so beloved of older children and teenagers, also play vital roles in their brain development. The market is currently awash with "brain-boosting" software such as Nintendo's Brain Training game, but these have proved controversial. Nintendo says that playing its game helps improve blood flow to the part of the brain called the frontal cortex, thereby improving "practical intelligence". But neuroscientists including Dr Chris Bird, of University College London, this year challenged Nintendo's claims, saying there was no evidence that an increased flow had "any functional impact on your life whatsoever".
Dr Carol Cooper, a GP and child development expert, says there is no need to spend a fortune on toys. "All infants are eager to learn," she says. "Give your child simple activities and toys that involve building, such as stickle bricks or building blocks, to develop creativity in the brain. Toys like this will also help your child grasp the basic concepts of maths and physics." Honig explains the importance of age-specific toys. "Choose developmentally appropriate toys that allow babies to explore and interact," she says. "Toys such as a windup jack-in-the-box or stackable blocks help your baby learn cause-and-effect relationships and 'if-then' reasoning. If a baby stacks a big block on a smaller one, the top block falls off. If he successfully stacks a small block on a bigger one, he 'wires in' the information."
Cooper also advocates plenty of touch with babies and older children. "Touch is a vital sense, especially for the young," she says. "Infants have a huge number of sensory receptors, and touch is the first tool they use to learn about the world. It also provides the security that all infants need to develop and learn." If you want to raise a little linguist, try talking to your tot in different languages. A study last year by psychologists at Bristol University found that the developing brain undergoes a period of "programming" in infancy which sets up its ability to recognise key sounds in its native language. This process helps the brain make sense of speech by filtering out sounds not used in that language. But babies exposed to multiple languages during their first few months retain the ability to recognise sounds from these languages in later life.
It is clear that there is a great deal we can do to help mould our children's growing brains. And new parents do not need to spend a fortune on the latest high-tech toys or brain-training software. In fact, the greatest gift we can give is time - to touch, sing to, bond and play with our children. Nature will take care of the rest.