Author John Medina's new book BRAIN RULES FOR BABY outlines a workable formula for growing your baby's brain to its healthiest potential. It starts in utero, as you probably guessed. And it does not include playing classical music up against your bulging waistline or sitting in poetry readings at the public library. It DOES include eating healthy foods, getting plenty of rest, trying not to stress out, exercising and otherwise leaving your fetus alone.
Researchers say the good news is that the brain takes a long time to fully develop, so you have months and years to contribute to the healthy growth of your child's brain. Your baby's brain has to tie together 1.8-million new connections per second to make up a complete brain. Only 17-percent of that work is done before birth. 83-percent continues AFTER birth, up until the child is in his/her early 20s. Obviously, in humans, the brain is the last organ to finish developing. So take a deep breath... your child's healthy brain development has a long growth-curve that you can continually contribute to.
The first senses to develop are for survival...the senses of touch, sight, and hearing come by 4 weeks in the womb. The senses of smell, balance and taste come in weeks 5 to 8 during pregnancy.
To help your newborn during this developmental stage, take what Medina calls the "GOLDILOCKS" approach, where conditions are not too hot, not too cold, but just right. So try to eat the right amount of foods that are obviously healthy, so that you'll gain a healthy amount of weight during pregnancy (that differs for each woman, but approximately 25 pounds for a single fetus.) Your baby's IQ rises with their birth weight, so a full-weight baby is a smarter baby (up to 8 pounds, then a chubby baby's IQ starts to drop). And try to get plenty of Omega-3 fatty acids which are found in prenatal vitamins regularly prescribed during pregnancy.
Avoid stress during your pregnancy. Stress can make your infant more irritable, can lower your child's IQ and literally be the difference between a bright baby and a child with an average IQ. Stress can also limit your baby's motor skills and ability to concentrate as well as his/her stress-response system from birth to age 6. In effect, stress during your pregnancy can shrink your baby's brain. David Laplante, lead author of a key study on baby brain development says "we suspect that exposure to high levels of stress may have altered fetal neurodevelopment, influencing the neurobehavioral abilities in early childhood." Getting a little stressed out one day in a traffic jam is one thing. But frequent, severe recurring stress will hurt your little one. Take a stretch or yoga class, take a warm shower, get a pedicure, take a walk around the block...do whatever lessens your stress level and your baby's brain will thank you!
Also try to get a moderate amount of exercise to both relieve stress and to help grow your baby's brain. It will reduce the toxic effects of day-to-day stress during pregnancy and will make delivering your child quicker and less painful, which is less stressful for both you and your baby. Because when your heart rate goes up, so does your baby's. Which is good in moderation for the baby's heart and oxygen supply. But overly strenuous exercise near the end of the pregnancy is also bad. It can overheat the baby and actually cause his/her oxygen supply to restrict from lack of blood flow. Again, think GOLDILOCKS - not too much of anything.
Interestingly, evolutionary biologists say morning sickness has a positive role to play, because it tends to make a mom stick to a bland diet, rest more and stay away from harmful activities - all of which protect her unborn baby. And here's one that will save you some money: Medina emphasizes that despite the boastful claims, no commercial product has EVER improved brain performance in a developing fetus! So don't buy expensive books, videos and DVD's expecting to increase IQ.
Next week, I'll summarize chapter 2 of BRAIN RULES FOR BABY: concerning your relationship with your spouse or parenting partner and how that affects your baby's brain growth!