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Baby Brain Development

How to Build Your Baby's Intelligence

by Sandy Jones & Marcie Jones
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Baby intelligence is a little bit genetics and a little bit environment. Here's what science has to say about building a baby's brain before birth and after.

It was once believed that a baby in utero was like an astronaut in a spaceship, completely insulated from the outside world. More recent research has found that not to be true: A fetus is influenced by environment -- even very early on. The three big factors for building baby intelligence in the womb are nutrition, protecting the fetus from harmful toxins, and exercise. The eight-to-twelve weeks of fetal development are a critical time when basic brain structures are forming. Throughout pregnancy, but especially during this time, it's vitally important to get enough calories (at least 2,000 - 2,200 a day) and enough essential vitamins and minerals. B vitamins, especially folate, are well known for promoting brain growth, and now recent research has found that iron in early pregnancy also plays an important role, too; so ask your health care provider if you should also take an additional iron supplement. If your pregnancy nausea is so severe that you are unable to eat, keep food down, or digest your prenatal vitamin for more than a day, contact your health care provider right away-don't try to tough it out.

Protecting the fetus from toxins is also important, especially in the first trimester. Don't drink alcohol or smoke, of course, and be sure to ask your health care provider about the safety of any medications you plan to take. Excess heat and exposure to heavy metals like lead or mercury can also harm brain growth, so avoid hot tubs, stripping old paint, and eating species of fish that may have high levels of mercury, like tuna and swordfish.

During the second trimester the baby's ear structure and hearing develop, and research has found that most fetuses are able to hear by week 27. After birth, babies recognize sounds that they heard in the womb, so talking a lot-to your belly or to other people, or even to yourself-will give your baby information about the language of the world he'll be born into. Choose music that you like, and it may help your baby appreciate it later. Studies have even found that three-day-old babies cry in different languages, with French and German babies crying with different "accents."

After your baby is born, the most important thing you can do to build her brain is to keep her physically close to you. While it was once thought that breastfeeding boosted a baby's IQ, later research found that it may actually be the bonding time and interaction that provides the benefit. So as you feed, no matter what you feed her, look into her eyes, talk to her, and use feeding time to bond. Hearing you and other family members talk will also lay down the foundations of language.

Research has found that babies kept in direct contact with a caregiver-held in a lap or carried in arms or in a hands-free carrier (like a Bjorn)-- have been shown to cry more than an hour less every day than babies who spend more time in playpens, cribs, or car seats. Holding her all the time won't mean that she'll never cry, of course; but the less she cries, the more time she will have for interacting and learning. Responding to cries also gives her the first lessons in cause and effect: She cries, you appear. Never try to enforce a sleep training or feeding schedule on a baby younger than six months of age (if ever), because stress hormones from extended crying can inhibit brain development.

Keeping baby in motion also builds the brain. Babies develop physical skills more rapidly when they are exposed to movement and rocking stimulation, as opposed to being in a playpen or car seat carrier. Instead of pushing baby around the neighborhood in a stroller, use a soft carrier for walks (or if your baby is old enough to support her neck, a backpack) that lets baby move with the rhythm of your body. Tummy time is another way to help her develop the part of her brain that coordinates motion. If your baby hates being put on her tummy, try laying her on your (or dad's) chest.

Should you invest hundreds of dollars in educational toys, or systems that promise to teach your baby to read? Probably not. Your baby will learn more from interacting with actual people than she ever could with any object, and "screen time" with DVDs or television has been linked to the development of attention deficit disorder later in life. Instead of using toys or DVDs, have a slightly older baby or toddler over to play-to babies, toddlers are rock stars. And when it comes to toys, simpler is usually better-a spoon, a box, a mirror, or a jingle bell is plenty.

And when it comes to toys, parents are surprised to discover that their babies are more interested in the packaging that toys come in, or the ribbon and paper, than in the toy itself. That's not to say that babies won't be briefly intrigued with a toy that they can gnaw on, bang, or make sounds with. But the most important thing to remember is that YOU are your baby's best plaything. By talking with her, hugging her, carrying her around, and helping her with the skills she's currently working on, you can truly help to build a smarter baby.  
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Meet Our Expert
Sandy Jones & Marcie Jones
Mother-daughter Writing Team of the Great Expectations Book Series
The proud co-authors of popular books on pregnancy, parenting, and baby gear, Sandy and Marcie Jones have also made multiple appearances on television and radio talk shows.

Mom Sandy has a Master's in Psychology. As a renowned parenting expert, she has been a featured guest on the "Today Show, "Good Morning America," CNN, and "CBS This Morning." An author in her own right, Sandy's own books include Good Things for Babies; The Complete Baby Book; The Consumer Reports Guide to Baby Products; Parent Support: A Step-by-Step Corporate Guide, and many others. Over 200 of her articles on important issues to expectant and new parents have been published in Family Circle, Redbook, American Baby, and Working Mother. A recent highlight of her many guest appearances includes the honor of being the keynote speaker for the 2009 conference of the International Childbirth Education Association in Oklahoma City.

Daughter Marcie has a Master of Arts in Publications Design, and has served as a Media Relations Specialist at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Marcie has also worked as a reporter and editor for the Maryland Daily Record, where she wrote and managed a variety of specialty publications, and as the Managing Editor of Hunt-Scanlon Publishing, supervising research teams. Her awards include Best Page One Design from the Maryland/DC Press Association. She has also been honored as one of "Maryland's Most Influential People in Communications."
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