brain

How to keep an infant's brain stimulated

Written by Cindy Hovington, Ph.D. Founder of www.curiousneuron.com

Montreal, Canada

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The newborn brain is developing at an incredibly fast rate. The environment plays a crucial role in a child’s brain development. A new parent might feel that it is too early to play and stimulate a newborn, but there are lots of activities that will help with brain development. I will highlight 10 activities you can do with your baby between the ages of 0-6 months. I intentionally did not divide the activities by age since every baby is different and will develop at their own pace. As a new parent, keep referring to the Developmental Milestones during the first 5 years of your child’s life. If you child appears to have a delay on any aspect of development, speak to your pediatrician immediately.

developmental milestones for 0-6 months:


10 activities that will stimulate your baby’s brain:

Serve and return:

Serve and return is one of the most important things a parent can do to help with their child’s brain development. It is based on responding appropriately to your baby’s cry, babble or gesture by responding to them with a hug, eye contact, smile, or speaking to them. Being aware of serve and return helps parents become sensitive and responsive to their child’s needs, which provides an infant with a warm and stimulating environment.

Reading books:

Even if your baby is only a few days old, reading to them is another way to stimulate them. First, they are hearing you speak, which helps with language development. Even if it does seem as if they are listening, their brain is still learning. Second, if you point to objects in the book as you speak of them, you are helping them develop their visual skills. When they begin to grasp objects with their hands, you can even take their hand and say “turn the page” and guide them to turn the page. Before you know it, they will do it on their own! Research has shown that reading 5 books a day to your child between birth and Kindergarten leads to a child having heard 1.4 million more words when they enter Kindergarten compared to children who were not read to! This in turn helps prepare them for reading and writing. For a list of books we recommend, click here.

Mirrors:

Playing in front of a mirror is a great way to help your baby learn to focus a little longer (seeing themselves is really exciting for them!) and to encourage them to “babble with another baby”! I would sit my children on the bathroom counter and chat with them through the mirror or add a little water to the sink and let them splash around. You can also place a small mirror against the wall right in front of your baby when they are doing tummy time. From my experience, this helps them spend a little more time on their tummy since they are curious about the new friend they found in the mirror.

Hand exercises (grasping):

Babies are born with a grasping reflex, but they don’t know how to do it consciously since they need to learn this. When babies as young as 2-3 weeks of age are awake, you can play with their tiny hands. When they open their hand, place a small object inside such as one of these toy rings (plastic or wooden). As they begin to open and close their hand on their own, give them small challenges by offering them something such as an Oball. As they improve, you can place a silk scarf inside a different type of ball for an added brain challenge (the goal is to get the scarf out of the ball).

Puppets:

At around 2 months, a baby will begin to follow moving objects with their eyes. To help with this milestone, you can use puppets when playing and speaking with your newborn. IKEA has some fantastic and inexpensive hand and finger puppets. You can tell your own story when using puppets, read a book and follow the actions of the main character, or simply talk to your baby while using a different voice and moving the puppet around.

Baby sign language:

When your baby wants milk, you can start introducing baby sign language to help them communicate their needs. You can begin as young as 5 months of age. In addition, when they begin to eat solid foods and drink water, you can introduce signs for “more”, “hungry” and “water”. The key to introducing sign language is to sign it every time you say the word. It will take weeks or even months for your child to learn, but once they sign for the first time, it will be wonderful! If you want to introduce the sign for “hungry”, when they point to food or cry because they are hungry, show them the food and ask “are you hungry” as you sign simultaneously. I taught both my kids sign language for a few words that really helped us communicate. Since they were able to ask for “more” or for “milk” even if they were 7 months old, they would cry less. They continued to sign with me past 24 months, and they ability for us to communicate was truly special.

Skin-to-skin:

Skin-to-skin contact (when a naked baby is placed on a parents bare chest) is really important to help a baby build a bond with their parents and also helps with a baby’s development. There are many other benefits of skin-to-skin (click on the button below) including increased milk production for the mother and reducing crying for the baby and skin-to-skin is especially important for premature babies (see Kangaroo Care). If you are about to have a baby and would like to breastfeed, ask the doctors to leave your newborn on your bare chest until they begin to nurse on their own. Do as much skin-to-skin at the hospital and when you come home as well. You can dedicate some time every day to do skin-to-skin for the next few weeks for even months. Cover your baby with a blanket to keep them warm or use a special skin-to-skin shirt such as the VIJA Design Kangaroo Shirt. To view other model’s of baby wearing shirts, click here.

Infant mAssage:

Another way to increase skin to skin contact with your baby is by giving them massages. I would massage my children right after their bath in the evening and I found that it helped them relax. On some days I would massage them 2-3 times as well since it added an activity for us to do together. I used some baby oil and I followed the instructions from a book called Infant Massage by Vimala McClure. There might be some infant massage classes in your area.

Tummy time:

You can begin tummy time with your baby as soon as you come home from the hospital. Tummy time helps reduce the risk of flat head syndrome and increases your baby’s strength. Some babies may not enjoy tummy time but keep doing it every day even if it is only a few minutes at a time (do it multiple times per day). Chat with them while they do some tummy time, place a mirror in front of them, read a book to them or play with some puppets to keep them entertained.

Executive function activities:

The term “executive functions” are cognitive or brain skills that are dependent on the child’s environment. According to research, the stronger these skills are before the age of 5, the better prepared children are when they begin school. Executive functions skills, according to the Harvard University Center for the Developing Child, are defined as, the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus our attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. You can begin helping your child build these important skills as early as 6 months of age by doing activities such as playing peek-a-boo, hiding objects under blankets, playing imitation games, singing songs that also include some hand actions such as Itsy Bitsy Spider, or having conversations with them. For more info, click on the button below.



What to avoid when you have a baby:

Screen time or background Television:

Researchers and pediatricians are warning parents about the potential negative consequences of too much screen time in young children, especially in babies under age 2. Research studies have shown that this may contribute to attentional problems later on. In fact, the American Association of Pediatrics recommends zero screen time before the age of 2. Also try to keep the TV off when a baby is awake since this has been shown to overstimulate their brain as well. For more info click here or here to read our articles on screen time.

Arguing in front of babies

Even if an infant doesn’t understand what we are saying to them, research has shown that arguing in front of a baby elevates their heart rate and breathing rate since their body responds to the stress of people arguing. Being a new parent can be challenging, especially given the lack of sleep. This can lead to some difficult times in a marriage or a relationship. As parents, we need to be aware of the harm this can have on a baby’s brain and refrain from arguing in front of them as much as possible. If we argue too often with them around, it can have an impact of their brain’s stress system and they can become anxious and have difficulty calming themselves in stressful situations later on. For more info, click here to read an article.

Leaving them alone when they are awake

I often hear parents say that a baby needs to learn to be independent. Although this may be true to some extent, society has created too many objects that are used to leave babies alone and this can result in babies being alone for long periods of time when they are awake. Playpens, swings or exersaucer’s filled with all the bells and whistles to keep babies “entertained” are contributing to baby’s spending more time alone and getting less interaction with their parents and caregivers. If you need to prepare dinner, it is fine leaving your baby alone to play, but if the baby is being placed in a playpen a large percentage of the time they are awake, they are losing time to bond with you and to learn and allow their brain to develop. Speak with them when you are preparing dinner and don’t forget to interact them since your interaction is truly the only “toy” they truly need!

Avoid toys that require batteries

A toy with a battery means it will probably make noises and flash some lights. When it comes to babies, they really don’t need this. Most of the time, these toys speak too quickly. They are better for a child who is older and can understand better. Also, these types of toys are “entertaining” your child rather that a toy that your baby uses to “entertain themselves”. You want them to learn to think for themselves and figure things out when they are “bored”. Wooden toys are great to have a around them and if you want some noise, you can include rattles/rainmakers or small musical instruments that they need to move around to get noise out of.

 

More Helpful Resources for Parents with babies:



Sleep problems: Recent research and tips for a better night's sleep

Written by Elizabeth Quon, Ph.D., Registered Psychologist. Halifax, Canada.

By PinkStock Photos, D. Sharon Pruitt [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By PinkStock Photos, D. Sharon Pruitt [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

My colleagues and I recently published a study on sleep and mental health in children and adolescents in the Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.  You can read the original article here. As a clinical psychologist, sleep researcher, and sleep-deprived parent, I hope I can share a few take home messages from this study and a few tips to improve your child’s sleep.

When I speak with other parents of babies and young children, we often discuss the struggles of getting our children to sleep through the night, have good naps, and wake up at a humane time in the morning. I don’t need to tell other parents that sleep affects your child’s mood and appetite, not to mention your own sleep (and mood, patience, and caffeine intake!).  However, parents may not know that sleep is also important for immune function, brain development, learning, and mental health.

What we learned from our research.

In our study, we surveyed children and teens with mental health concerns who were being seen at mental health clinics. We found that 88% of children and 97% of adolescents in our sample had a sleep disturbance in at least one area (e.g., falling asleep, waking up at night, daytime sleepiness). More adolescents had sleep difficulties compared to children, and adolescents tended to have more severe sleep problems than children. However, many adolescents with sleep problems did not feel that sleep was in fact a problem for them, suggesting that sleep problems may be perceived as typical in young people.

We know from previous research that there is a strong link between sleep and mental health, and some recent studies suggest that sleep problems may contribute to the development of anxiety and depression.  In our study, we wanted to see if sleep problems improved by treating mental health issues. We found that certain group-based mental health interventions were associated with improvements in sleep. The results suggested that perhaps some of the skills taught in these groups, like relaxation strategies and emotion regulation skills, may help to improve sleep.

4 Important Tips for a Restful Night.

One of the big struggles for parents, children, and teens is getting enough sleep. How much sleep should you and your children get each night? Current recommendations can be found here.

Here are a few tips to help you and your children get enough restful sleep each night. Applying these strategies depends on your child’s individual needs and age.

  1. Set a relaxing bedtime routine. The hour before bedtime should be calming; this is the time to wind down from the stress and busyness of the day. Aim for some quiet activities, such as reading, doing puzzles, drawing, or listening to music. A consistent bedtime routine signals to your child’s brain that sleep is coming soon, and is an important part of healthy sleep habits.

  2. Consistent sleep and wake times each day. Consistency helps to regulate your child’s sleep patterns, so their brain knows when it’s time to sleep and wake each day. Getting your child to sleep at the same time each day may mean limiting evening activities (e.g., swimming lessons, soccer). Many children stay up later on weekends, but going to bed more than an hour later on Saturday may make Sunday night bedtime(and Monday morning wake up) extra difficult! If your child does stay up late one night, limit the amount they sleep in the next morning. In some situations, waking up earlier consistently may be the key to improving sleep.

  3. Beds are for sleeping only. Try to limit playtime or other activities in bed. It is important for your child to have strong associations between bed and sleep. This also means limiting the amount of time your child spends awake in bed. Some children need time to wind down in bed before they can fall asleep, but other children may find wakeful time in bed to be frustrating. If your child doesn’t seem sleepy when they go to bed and they take a long time to fall asleep, you may want to consider moving their bedtimes a bit later, limiting how late they sleep in the morning, or reducing naps during the day.

  4. Reduce screen time, especially in the evening. The bright lights and stimulation from tablets and videogames can make your child’s brain more awake and may shift their sleep time later. Limit screen time throughout the day and in the evening. Passive screen time (e.g., watching TV) is less stimulating than interactive screen time (e.g., videogames, texting), so if you cannot avoid screen time in the evening, choose a quiet programme for your child to watch.

Talk to your doctor or mental health care provider if you have serious concerns about your child’s sleep.

Reducing a baby's stress when they start daycare

Written by Cindy Hovington, Ph.D. Founder of www.curiousneuron.com

Montreal, Canada

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Starting daycare can be a stressful time, for both babies and parents alike. Some babies will adapt quickly, while others will cry every morning for many weeks. Does starting daycare have any impact on a child's brain? It can. This is especially true in children younger than 36 months (3 years of age). This is why research recommends that the best time for a child to begin daycare or preschool is 3 years of age. Elevated cortisol levels in children that occur frequently can alter the brain's architecture. However, the reality is that most parents must place their children in daycare much earlier than at 3 years of age. For this reason, I have included 3 important tips to help make your child's daycare integration a smooth one.  

First, a little science on stress and the brain.

Researchers measure stress in children by collecting samples of saliva since the stress hormone named cortisol (a glucocorticoid hormone) is found in saliva. When it comes to stress in children, we can't rely on behaviour alone since some children will internalize stress.

THE IMPORTANCE OF BONDING: Building a strong attachment with your child BEFORE they start daycare can help reduce their stress when they begin. You can bond by doing skin-to-skin, holding them or giving baby massages.

Levels of cortisol naturally fluctuate throughout a 24-hour day. Cortisol levels are highest in the morning when we wake up and are the lowest in the evening (the spike helps you wake up and the decrease allows you to fall asleep). This is the rhythm our body develops as of childhood. If a child is introduced to high levels of stress throughout the day, it will influence the fluctuation of their natural cortisol levels. This is what can be damaging in the long run. Internal or external stresses will cause a child's brain to activate the HPA axis (Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenocortical), which is involved in regulating stress and emotions. When there is a stressful event, the HPA increases levels of cortisol. The HPA axis is closely linked to the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain involved in learning and memory. Chronic and severe (due to emotional neglect, abuse, witnessing violence) levels of stress can actually alter the hippocampus, thus causing memory issues. 

In daycare settings, studies have repeatedly shown that cortisol levels are higher in children who spend the day in daycare compared to being at home. Not only because they are separated from their parents for such long periods of time (if possible try to reduce the number of hours a child under 3 spends at daycare), but because being in peer groups at such a young age is actually very demanding on them due to frequent emotional arousal in their environment (other kids yelling, lots of movement and noise etc). The key to reducing stress in daycare is the bond your child will create with their caregiver. The stronger this attachment or bond is with their caregiver, the more it will help your child reduce their levels of stress.

 

3 tips that will help your child during their transition into daycare and lower their stress levels. 

1. Implement a very slow integration.

Researchers split the "start" of daycare into "adaptation phase" and "separation phase". The adaptation phase is when an infant starts daycare with the presence of their parent. Bringing on a new environment and a new caregiver causes elevated levels of stress for the infant. They learned that 1) the stronger the bond between mother and child (i.e. the more secure they are with their mother) before the start of daycare, the lower the levels of cortisol when they begin daycare and 2) the longer the mother stayed in the adaptation phase for integration into daycare, the better the attachment become with their mother (Ahnert et al. 2004).  

2. Choose a high-quality daycare. 

  • Low child/caregiver ratio. According to research, the best child to caregiver ratio is 4:1 (For every adult there are 4 children). Also, the number of children in a group should be no more than 8. The more children there are the higher the noise level and this can be overstimulating for children. Also, a higher the chord to caregiver ratio means that the child will have a greater difficulty building an attachment to them. If possible, try to select a daycare that minimizes the number of children in a group (Geoffrey et al. 2006).

  • Low staff turnover. Your child should develop a strong bond (secure attachment) with their caregiver. When a child is younger than 3, it is important for them not to have multiple caregivers as this means they might have difficulty creating an attachment with them. If your daycare has a high staff turnover or multiple caregivers for your child, this may increase their stress. High quality home daycares can be great since your child will one caregiver for many years.

  • A sensitive and caring caregiver. Research has shown that if a child establishes a secure attachment to their caregiver (other than their parent), then this caregiver can help the child effectively diminish stress levels in a time of stress. In order for this to happen, caregivers must provide sensitive, responsive caregiving.

3. Increase bonding time with your child.    

If your child begins to exhibit different behaviour either at home (more crying during the time their are with you, wanting to be in your arms more often, changed eating habits, changed sleeping habits etc) or at daycare, then they might be feeling more stressed. Spend more time with them when you are at home. Increase cuddling time with them. Try doing some baby massages if they are young and increase skin to skin time through this activity (which in turn helps build a stronger attachment). Contrary to popular belief, holding your baby and spending time with your child is not "babying" your child. The stronger the attachment your child has with you the more comfortable they will feel when you are not around. (Stay tuned for an article on attachment, make sure you subscribe to our newsletter not to miss it!).  

Will your child start daycare soon? Take a breath. Everything will be ok. Adaptation to daycare takes time. Some research suggests as long as 6 months. Provide lots of emotional support for your child and your guidance will help them through this change. 


Being mindful about babies and media viewing

Written by Cindy Hovington, Ph.D. Founder of www.curiousneuron.com

Montreal, Canada.

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I would first like to wish everyone a Happy New Year! Let's start off the new year with habits that will help our children develop at their best and habits that will help us adults keep our brains at their best as well! Here is my first blog post of the year on media viewing in children and I am also working on a newsletter that focuses on the aging brain so stay tuned!

I am part of a few "mommy groups" on Facebook and right before the holidays, a mom posted a question about media viewing and babies. Her pediatrician had recommended that she not introduce television to her baby until the age of 2. This started a major discussion on this mommy forum. Many mothers felt this was unrealistic, given today's media-rich society. Although this may be true, I think the final conclusion of this discussion should have been that we, as parents, should simply be more mindful of 1) how we are using media and 2) how much media time our children are being subjected to. Unfortunately, the conclusion of this forum revolved more around 1) the doctor being crazy and not understanding today's world and 2) mom's needing breaks so who cares what the doctor recommends. This is why I wanted to blog about this topic. I want to provide some information to parents. In the end, it is indeed your decision, however, being more aware and mindful of media viewing can't hurt! Let's keep in mind that the American Association of Pediatrics does not recommend any media viewing before the age of 18 months (they recently changed this from 2 years to 18 months). This does not include video-chatting (example FaceTime and Skype), meaning that it is OK to FaceTime with family members.

Here are a few points that I would like to raise regarding media viewing and babies.

1) My baby learns from watching "educational videos".

http://blogs.babiesonline.com/products/baby-einstein-babys-first-sounds-dvd-review/

http://blogs.babiesonline.com/products/baby-einstein-babys-first-sounds-dvd-review/

The #1 reason most parents have their child watch TV or use media is for "educational purposes" (Zimmerman et al. 2007. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med.). This is followed by entertainment and babysitting purposes. At about the age of 2, children naturally experience a "word spurt" where they blossom in language development. It is possible for parents to believe the video helped them learn when in reality it is the brain's natural process. Babies younger than 24 months learn language best by having a book read to them or by having an adult speak to them. However, after age 2, they might be able to learn from high-quality programming such as Sesame Street. In 2010, a study by DeLoache et al. (Psychological Science) investigated whether educational DVDs for babies really do help them learn. They stated that "The most important result was that children who viewed the DVD did not learn any more words from their month-long exposure to it than did a control group (who did nothing). The highest level of learning occurred in a no-video condition in which parents tried to teach their children the same target words during everyday activities. Another important result was that parents who liked the DVD tended to overestimate how much their children had learned from it. We conclude that infants learn relatively little from infant media and that their parents sometimes overestimate what they do learn."

2) What about media viewing and older children?

In an interesting study by Inoue et al. (2016, Maternal and Child Health Journal), over 32 000 children were followed for a period of 8 years to study the impact of media viewing. The results showed that children ages 4-5 who watched 4-5 hours of media a day (TV, video games, iPad) were twice as likely to have self-regulation problems later on (the ability to monitor and control your emotions and thoughts) than children who only watched 1-2 hours. It comes down to my point of "how much" media a child views. If parents are able to make dinner while the child watches 30 min of TV, it's fine. However, I always recommend that parents start "family time" after dinner. By this I don't mean watching TV together, rather playing board games, card games or reading books together (Need ideas? Send me an email at info@curiousneuron.com). This gives children quality time with parents and reduces the over stimulation from media before their bed time. As a side note, from my work experience, 90% of my children ages 4-10 have told me during our private activity sessions that they would like to spend more time playing with their parents. Just some food for thought!

3) What if my baby is playing while the TV is on in the background?

TV in the background is extra stimulation for the young developing brain. Moreover, studies have shown that parents tend to speak less to their baby if they are watching TV and this can potentially impact language development. If a parent is watching TV, they tend to speak 200-300 fewer words per hour to their child. Obviously, if this happens once or twice it's OK but, if this is a daily occurrence, it can cause a delay in the brain's language development. In addition, having the TV in the background disrupts their attention span during their play time. A study published in Child Development (Schmidt et al, 2008) showed that children become easily distracted by TV when they are playing on their own. Also, if a parent is playing with their baby while watching TV the quality of play is also disrupted (Kirkorian et al. 2009. Child Development).

The bottom line.

Bottom line is that we need to be mindful not to saturate our children's environment with media. I have seen parents use an iPad for games, TV for entertainment and babysitting and an iPhone/iPad in the car or at the restaurant. All of this in one day is too much stimulation. Try substituting a form of media with a book, coloring book, puzzles, challenges (lacing activity, maze books etc). Always re-assess how much media your child is viewing. Don't always use their media time as alone time either. Learn about animals together or nature, dinosaurs or even our solar system. Use what you learned as the basis of an activity. Yes, we do live in a media-rich world, but let's use media wisely. Let's be more mindful of the time our children spend on media. Why not try to reduce media time and increase play time!

Resources:

https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/pages/american-academy-of-pediatrics-announces-new-recommendations-for-childrens-media-use.aspx

https://www.aap.org/en-us/advocacy-and-policy/aap-health-initiatives/pages/media-and-children.aspx

https://www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/Media/Pages/Why-to-Avoid-TV-Before-Age-2.aspx

http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/fullarticle/570266

http://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/executive-function/