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Ten Tips for Giving Your Baby a Head Start in the Early Years

by Jenn Berman M.F.T., Psy.D.
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The first three years of life are uniquely influential when it comes to your child's development. Researchers now know that there are "critical windows" for different mental abilities, many of which occur during that early developmental period. Once a given brain region has passed that window, the opportunity to "rewire" it is significantly limited.

Experts believe that children are born with an IQ range that can vary as much as 30 points, depending upon outside factors. While it is believed that genetics are responsible for 50 percent of intellectual development, the other 50 percent is a result of environment and exposure. Because of children's developing brains, fast metabolisms, and immature immune systems, they are particularly vulnerable to harmful reactions to chemicals, hormones, and additives. In addition, those first three years of life are particularly important when it comes to developing habits.

There are so many things you can do to give your child a head start -- ranging from quick and simple to more time consuming and complex. Here are ten things parents can do.

1) Massage your baby. Studies indicate that premature infants who received massage by nurses in the neonatal unit gained weight faster, performed better on neonatal behavioral tests, and were able to leave the hospital sooner than their counterparts who did not receive massage.

Massage isn't just beneficial for preemies. In another study of four-month-old babies who were tested for "novelty preference" (early memory and sensory discrimination skills) babies who were massaged scored significantly higher than control groups. Novelty preference is a strong predictor of later IQ.

2) Talk to your baby frequently. The more you speak to your child, the better developed your child's language skills and intelligence will be. According to a study by Dr. Betty Hart of the University of Kansas and Dr. Todd Ridley of the University of Alaska, babies who heard an average of 2,100 words per hour scored higher on standard tests when they reached the age of three than did children whose parents hadn't been as verbal.

3) Use sign language. Sign language helps babies to communicate more clearly and much earlier in their development - even for hearing children. Because babies are able to coordinate their hand movement before they are able to articulate sounds, baby sign language allows them to communicate more effectively and at any earlier stage, therefore reducing tantrums.

Baby sign language leads to better communication, speeds up the process of learning to speak, stimulates intellectual development, enhances self-esteem, and strengthens the bond between parent and infant. A University of California at Davis study found that babies who learned 20 signs spoke earlier and had higher IQs than those who did not.

4) Have lots of play time. Starting in babyhood, play is inexorably linked to learning, socialization, development, and even intellect. Research repeatedly shows that when adults engage in play with children, it raises the level of play. This is referred to as scaffolding, because it provides a framework for children to build upon, helping their play become more complex more quickly.

Several studies have revealed that when one- to three-year-old children play with their mothers, they engage in twice as much imaginative play. They also engage in much more complex sequences, the themes are more varied, and the activity lasts longer.

5) Read every day. Don't even wait until your child is using words. Research shows that simply reading three picture books per week increases children's vocabularies by up to 40 percent. Aim for three books each day. Make books, not television, the primary source of entertainment in your home. $$$6) Turn off the television. Television viewing has been linked to a host of problems including attention deficit disorder, asthma, high blood pressure, poor sleep, depression, drops in creative thinking abilities, increases in aggressive behavior, and anxiety.

Television viewing actually slows down metabolic rates. A landmark study printed in Pediatrics shows that while viewing TV, normal-weight children experience a 12 percent decline in metabolic rates and obese children experience a 16 percent decline.

7) Breastfeed your baby. We have all heard "breast is best," so it comes as no surprise that The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommends breastfeeding. Study after study shows that drinking breast milk can actually make kids smarter. Researchers from New Zealand found that babies who were breastfed for eight months or more had higher IQs, better reading comprehension and math skills, and overall increases in scholastic ability than babies who were not breastfed. The effects are long-lived, the study says, extending through childhood and adolescence.

8) Teach your child to love healthy foods. Food preferences are learned through a combination of exposure and repetition. Most children need to be exposed to a new food 15 times before they will accept it; however, most parents give up after only a few tries. Having parents who are healthy eaters themselves greatly influences food preference with children, as well.

9) Take steps to reduce toxic chemical exposure. Small changes make a big difference. By switching to organic food you can reduce your child's pesticide exposure by 90 percent. By having a door mat at your front door and taking your shoes off before entering the house, you can reduce lead dust exposure by 98.5 percent.

As you run out of cleaning products, start replacing them with "greener" options or make your own. Before you buy another body product (like diaper cream or shampoo) for your child, check the Environmental Working Group's site www.CosmeticDatabase.com to see how your usual product rates in terms of toxicity.

10) Make good sleep habits a priority. Once babies are four months old and weigh 14 pounds, they have the neurological and developmental ability to learn how to sleep through the night. Helping children learn those skills early helps baby's growth and development, not to mention helping a mom and dad's sanity! The early years are key for developing healthy sleep habits that last a lifetime.  
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Meet Our Expert
Jenn Berman M.F.T., Psy.D.
Marriage, Family and Child Therapist
Dr. Jenn Berman is a Marriage, Family and Child Therapist in private practice in Los Angeles. She is the author of the best selling books SuperBaby: 12 Ways to Give Your Child a Head Start in the First 3 Year, The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy Confident Kids, and the children's book Rockin' Babies. Her award winning "Dr. Jenn" parenting column is printed in Los Angeles Family Magazine and five other magazines and has been running since 2002. Dr. Jenn is also on the Board of Advisors for Parents Magazine.

Dr. Jenn has appeared as a psychological expert on hundreds of television shows including The Oprah Winfrey Show and is a regular on The Today Show, The Early Show, and CNN. She hosts a live daily call-in advice show called "The Love and Sex Show with Dr. Jenn" on Sirius/XM's Cosmo Radio 5-8 pm PST.

In addition, Dr. Jenn has an eco-friendly clothing line for adults and children called Retail Therapy . All the tees have positive "feel good" messages and are made of organic and recycled materials. Dr. Jenn lives in Los Angeles with her husband and twin daughters. For more information on go to www.DoctorJenn.com or follow her on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/drjenn.com and www.Facebook.com/DrJennBerman.
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