To understand how you can help your baby’s brain grow, you first have to understand HOW MUCH your baby’s brain grows! To give you just a bit of reference, a full term baby’s brain grows from 25% to 80% of adult size from birth to age three. Their brain is 90% of an adult size by age 5. It’s important to note here that a baby’s brain grows a full 1/3 in size from weeks 35 – 39 in the womb, a luxury that your baby may not have been able to take full advantage of. This is why we have a NICU! Your baby’s brain is still going to grow like crazy, but their little noodles have got a lot of work to do, and they need some help from our highly trained NICU team to take special care of their sensory needs, and provide the perfect environment to allow their brains to rest, grow, and catch up.
How Can I Help My Baby’s Brain Grow?
Brain development is dependent upon activity and stimulation. To simplify this, literally EVERYTHING you do for, and with, your baby helps their brain grow. Every touch, every kiss, every smile, and every sound, and every smell sends signals to your baby which stimulates their nervous system, and helps their brain develop. Every brain connection they make will help them later with language, problem solving, gross and fine motor skills, and social interaction!
Language / Hearing
It’s so important to talk to your baby! They are already familiar with the sound of your voice (they have been hearing it from inside your belly), so continuing the conversation is just another amazing way to help the two of you bond. If you’re still in the NICU and may not be able to interact with your baby in other ways, this is an excellent first step. Not sure what to say? Pick up a book! Research has shown that the more words babies are exposed to, the better they do on standardized testing in school!
If you’ve made it home, chances are your baby is beginning to spend a little more time awake, and may already be starting to babble a little bit! Take advantage of this time, and start having a conversation! They don’t know what they’re saying yet, and obviously neither do you, but beginning the back and forth exchange of sounds is an excellent first step to a real conversation! When they make a noise, say something back like “Oh really? Tell me more!” Or “and then what happened?” The more animated you are, the more they will be encouraged to respond, laying the foundation for productive social interaction later on.
Everything from bath time, to diaper changes, to rubbing your baby’s belly stimulates brain development. This can be a tricky one if you’re still in the NICU, so be sure to get some assistance from your care team, but Kangaroo Care, a developmental swaddle bath, or infant massage is an excellent place to start. Safely getting those neurons firing will strengthen their sensory connections, and help them adapt to life outside the womb in a healthy way. Of course it goes without saying that any time they can be touched by their mom or dad helps solidify their bond with you.
The olfactory (smell) center develops at 24 weeks gestation, so chances are, your baby may still be pretty sensitive to smells. The best thing you can do for them if you’re still in the NICU is stay away from fragrances of any kind, and just let them get used to the scent of you. Most babies are bloodhounds as far as the smell of mom is concerned, because they are adapted to recognize you as their food source. It’s a survival mechanism! Let them get used to you without any interference. You’ll be glad you did. The easier it is for them to smell you, the easier it will be for them to wake for feedings. We’ll get into nutrition more later, but for now, just remember that a well fed baby means a well fed brain!
If you’ve gone home already, you can begin introducing smells to your baby, but don’t get too carried away too soon. It’s best to introduce new smells a little at a time, and use your own preferences as a gauge. If it’s offensive to you, it will be offensive to your baby, so let’s hold off on great grandma’s perfume for the time being. Start with things like fruits, vegetables, or outdoor foliage. There has even been some research suggesting that there could be a correlation between children who are exposed to the outdoors early on, and a decrease in allergy symptoms later in life. Just always be careful not to make contact with the skin for anything that could be a potential irritant.
Just an FYI, there is SO MUCH to know about how your baby’s brain works, that we are going to break this down over the next couple of newsletters. We will talk about some milestones, age appropriate playtime, and critical periods of development. I can’t promise that we’ll have any child prodigies on our hands, but I can promise that you will be at least a tiny bit better equipped to help your baby to learn, play, and thrive!
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RMHC of Arkoma 1333 Arapaho Ave, Ste C Springdale, AR 72764 (479) 756-5600