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Brain development in children describes how they develop intellect. This basically means they get to do stuff like thinking, reasoning, understanding, and learning.
Efficient optimization of the brain allows them to solve mental challenges and productivity tasks with ease. Even better, they get to maximize their executive functioning skills.
The reverse is true when the brain is not fully optimized.
Two factors are critical when it comes to the optimization of the brain: genetics and life experiences.
The genes children inherit from their parents together with the experiences they acquire in life, all shape how their brains perform, even as they grow up.
However, as much as genetics is central to brain development, external factors such as the environment, life experiences, and nutrition, are intrinsically crucial in shaping their genetic responses and functions. This is according to emerging scientific studies known as epigenetics, or loosely, ‘the science of change’.
The studies show how some of the modern-day diseases, behavior, and other health conditions can be traced to epigenetics.
To cite an example,
A pregnant woman’s environment and behavior during pregnancy, such as whether she eats healthy food, can change the baby’s epigenetics.CDC
The same can be said of identical twins who exhibit deferring skills, behavior, and purposes following exposure to different experiences.
Best ways you can speed up brain development in children
For children to achieve the ultimate brain development, their early life experiences have to be optimized fully. These range from healthy pregnancy, supportive relationships, healthy living, and creative learning experiences.
Simply put, all experiences in early childhood matter.
Below are important experiences you can do right to make sure children achieve this goal.
1. Optimize pregnancy and the first 2 years of life
The truth is, brain development continues to change throughout life, but the period when this development is most rapid and critical stretches from pregnancy (especially mid-pregnancy) through to the 2nd birthday.
During this time,
Nerves grow and connect and get covered with myelin, creating the systems that decide how a child — and the adult she becomes — thinks and feels. Those connections and changes affect sensory systems, learning, memory, attention, processing speed, the ability to control impulses and mood, and even the ability to multitask or plan.Harvard Health Publishing
A lot is also explained in the manner the brain changes in quantity and size from childhood through to adulthood.
The human brain at 5 months post-conception is a smooth, bi-lobed structure that looks somewhat like a coffee bean. By 9 months, i.e. term birth, it has gyri and sulci indicative of significant complexity, looking far more like the walnut-like adult brain. At birth, rapidly developing brain areas include the hippocampus and the visual and auditory cortices.
For example, following childbirth the brain of the newborn contains up to 100 billion neurons, which are twice as many neurons in the adult brain, and yet, the brain of a child is only half the size of a fully developed brain.
The neurons only reduce in number after the second year, as inactive ones are pruned to leave room for active ones to work efficiently.
During these two years, the brain in children is enlarging and absorbing pretty many things. It is the time they are experiencing a whole new life, a totally new environment, and health factors such as nutrition and toxins.
These influences/experiences ultimately determine how their brains function as they get older. As such, the following must be availed during this period:
- parental protection, care, and love
- responsive and clean environment
- healthy nutrition both for the mother and child
2. Provide adequate & quality sleep at NIGHT
Adequate and quality sleep directly affects how the brain functions and grows. It is crucial in child development just like parental affection, protection, and nutrition.
Adequate sleep basically means longer hours of uninterrupted sleep, while quality sleep refers to a sleeping environment devoid of noise, light, and other disruptions.
Also true, children’s heads should not be covered at night to allow sufficient flow of oxygen.
Adequate and quality sleep will do the following to children:
- allow the brain to recharge and detoxify
- allow the brain to internalize and store the information it acquired when the baby was awake
- permit physical growth of the brain through the formation of brain synapses and connections
The following should suffice as adequate sleeping hours for children. Of course, more is fine for the very young ones even during the day.
|0 – 1||14 -16|
|1 – 3||12 – 14|
|3 – 6||10 – 12|
|6 – 12||9 – 11|
|12 – 18||8 – 9|
In the event of inadequate sleep, a lot of things can happen as far as cognitive development is concerned:
In a community sample of 8-year-old children, those who slept less or had poorer sleep quality had lower test scores in cognitive tasksNational Library of Medicine
Children who lack sufficient and quality sleep have problems paying attention and find it hard to regulate their emotions. They will also experience delays in achieving developmental milestones.
3. Emphasize healthy nutrition
Just like the pregnant mother should be eating healthy food, so should the newborn during the early years of life. Typically, brain development in children is most sensitive to nutrition starting in mid-pregnancy and infancy.
Besides the boost to the brain, proper nutrition at this time will facilitate better motor development and socio-emotional abilities during childhood and adulthood.
Poor nutrition will affect their physical and mental growth in many ways, including lifelong brain function, general cognition, productivity, and behavior.
Certain types of nutritional deficiency clearly impair brain development, including severe acute malnutrition, chronic undernutrition, iron deficiency, and iodine deficiency.Nutrition and brain development in early life
Basic food types that are beneficial for brain development and overall health for children include:
- Breast milk provides the best mix of nutrients and fats necessary for brain growth
- Milk, yogurt, and cheese for proteins, fats, Vitamin D, and a mix of nutrients
- Eggs for proteins and other nutrients
- Oily fish such as Salmon for Vitamin D, iron and Omega-3s
- Whole grains for Vitamin B and glucose
- Nut and seed varieties for protein, minerals, vitamins, and essential fatty acids
- Beans and other legumes for proteins, fiber, and complex carbs
- Leafy greens and colored veggies for vitamins, iron, folate, antioxidants, etc. They also reduce the chance of children developing dementia later in life
- Chickpeas, livers, roasted chicken, and bananas for Vitamin B6
- Iron-fortified cereals, bread, and pasta
Other servings with quality nutrients include oatmeal, berries, and lean beef.
Last but not least, remember to serve children with drinking water as per the recommended guidelines. This is especially true because children generally dislike water, and must therefore be made to understand the importance of water to the brain.
6. Bond and communicate
The early experiences children have with parents, caregivers, and the community contribute a lot in shaping their cognitive abilities. Be it at home or at school, the responses they receive shape the way the brain perceives relationships and the big picture of social-emotional wellbeing.
The brain development of infants (as well as their social, emotional, and cognitive development) depends on a loving bond or attachment relationship with a primary caregiver, usually a parent.NCBI
Through relationships with people around them, the brain learns to appreciate and interpret relationships positively or negatively.
In the event that a baby cries and seeks attention, parental responses that provide comfort will help the brain construct a positive social-emotional perception of life and the world around them.
Those perceptions influence how babies understand their environment, relate to others and engage in learning.naeyc
While laying down the foundation of social-emotional wellbeing, parents are challenged to communicate effectively by listening, talking, and reading with children.
- listening to them, children learn that what they say is important and this is important for boosting confidence and self-belief.
- talking to them and answering their questions, children open up, learn and develop self-esteem
- reading with them, children learn new things, they become curious, imaginative, and creative, thereby tasking their brains to learn and create new things
Overall, communication with children optimizes brain activity as they listen, talk,and read. Communication also helps their brains master better relationship skills and boosts self-esteem.
When bonding with children is lacking, the little ones are likely to become less happy, confident, and independent. Ultimately they will have trouble learning and will fail to use their brains optimally.
5. Provide & encourage creative playtime and exploration
Child playtime is an integral part of development milestones and is essential for physical, social, health, and cognitive development.
In a clinical report by the American Academy of Pediatrics,
Play is not frivolous: it enhances brain structure and function and promotes executive function (ie, the process of learning, rather than the content), which allow us to pursue goals and ignore distractions.
- motor skills
- planning and organization
- language processing
- determining intelligence and personality
- processing sensory data
When children participate in physical activity they also get to explore and develop life skills such as executive functioning skills (EFS) which are important for self-awareness, emotional regulation, planning, motivation, working memory, etc.
The executive functions of the brain are associated with the frontal lobes of the brain located just behind the forehead, and above the eyes. Then there are the cortical lobes and subcortical frameworks which connect to the frontal lobes.
As children grow, they should spend most of the day running and playing games such as hide-and-seek, peek-a-boo, Lego, tag, freeze-tag, pat-a-cake, soccer, netball, rope-jumping, etc. This goes with a reminder that games should be age-relevant and appropriate.
Besides playtime, children are also encouraged to play computer games that stimulate the brain. Select computer games can help them learn new concepts and generate creativity. This will definitely help steer them away from addictive movies and social media apps.
Lastly, children should be availed sufficient outdoor spaces for active play, provided the necessary play-tools, and left to figure out puzzles in games on their own, not until they totally fail.
6. Provide quality health care
Provision of quality healthcare services is a sure way to supercharge brain development in children in preparation for a healthy and productive adulthood. This is because early health experiences are crucial helps to control the negativities that may hamper overall childhood development.
According to UNICEF,
The time between pregnancy and age 3, when the brain is most susceptible to environmental influences, is critical for a child’s growth and development.
The first course of action towards better health involves watching for childhood experiences and environmental influences. This involves:
- Making sure where children live and play is safe and secure. A reminder though not to take everything out of the way. This will deny them the feared and yet crucial ‘risky play‘ which is important for brain development
- Watching out and eliminating toxins in the house where children sleep, and outdoors where they play.
- Watching out and managing electromagnetic fields emitted by electronic devices from devices such as electrical installations, WiFi, Baby monitors, smartphones, computers, meters, etc
- Creating a healthy environment for bonding and positive social-emotional awareness at home
- Availing nutritious meals and planned mealtimes
When children fall sick,
- seek immediate medical attention especially when the emergency at hand is life-threatening
- allow them to rest and sleep when they are not feeling well. Of course, ensure the medical condition is not life-threatening
- serve them nutritious foods to alleviate the pain and ensure better health
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