3 things you can do to make your baby or toddler smarter

The question about the varying contributions of nature vs nurture on child intelligence has been raging for many years.  Are intelligent children intelligent because of their superior DNA, or because of their superior upbringings?  

The current scientific consensus is that genetic differences explain about 50% of the variations in intelligence between individuals.  That leaves another 50% which is attributable to the environment, (including factors such as a child’s home environment and quality of parenting, education and availability of learning resources, and nutrition, among others).   Environment begins at the beginning: the foetal period, as well as the early weeks, months, and years really do matter. A baby’s brain grows massively in the first four years of life, particularly in the first year. By the time your child goes to school, his or her brain will have reached an impressive 90% of its adult size. 

So how can parents help their children to reach their full potential, without becoming overly pushy in the process?

Childhood psychologists, paediatricians, and researchers have recommended the following: 

1. Give him love, love and more love. One recent study by Joan Luby, et al, at Washington University in America found that mothers who were “exceptionally nurturing” had children with more than twice the hippocampal growth (an area of the brain connected to learning, memories, and emotional regulation) when compared to mothers who were “slightly below average” on the nurturing scale.  Timing matters, too.  “The parent-child relationship during the preschool period is vital, even more important than when the child gets older,” Luby explained.  “We think that’s due to greater plasticity in the brain when kids are younger, meaning that the brain is affected more by experiences very early in life.  That suggests it’s vital that kids receive support and nurturing during those early years.” 

In practice, that means demonstrating affection and attention on a regular and repeated basis.  Listening and watching your baby, and copying her facial movements and babbles will help her feel connected to you.  Hold your baby frequently (don’t put her in a baby swing for hours on end).  A securely attached bond may also be connected to earlier speech development: one of the things that really motivates kids to learn to talk is wanting to create bonds with other people. With plenty of play and affection, you help them create these bonds, which strongly encourages their development. 

2. Breastfeed for as long as you are able.  Four out of six of the best studies into the effects of breast feeding showed that, in infants carried to term, IQ was 2-5 points higher among breastfed infants than in formula fed infants. This effect was higher in low birth weight infants, with a difference of 8 points on average.  Duration of breastfeeding seems to matter, as well.  In a recent study published in the Lancet by Bernardo Lessa Horta, et al, 3,500 Brazilian babies were followed from all walks of life.  While most of them were breastfed, the duration varied greatly: some were breastfed for less than a month, and others for more than a year.  The researchers found that those who were breastfed for longer scored higher on measures of intelligence as adults, and were also more likely to earn a higher wage and to have completed more schooling (this study was unusual becuase, unlike many studies, there was no particular connection in this culture between parental education and duration of breastfeeding, so the difference can’t be entirely explained by different demographics).  However, the effects are not universal and are not set in stone. If there’s a reason that you need to bottle feed your infant there is no guarantee that your baby won’t grow up to be just as clever as a breastfed child.  A loving, attuned parent is much more important than the type of milk offered.

3. Read to your baby and talk to her. Even though she won’t be able to understand at first, babies begin to grasp the basics of literacy from watching you read. They learn that you read from left to right, and that words correspond to sounds. The pictures will also allow your infant to see and imagine things like ships, forests and animals that they haven’t yet encountered in real life. It is especially good to re-read the same books because this stimulates memory, and it is rewarding for the child to be able to predict what is on the next page.  If you’re wondering when to start reading to a child, the answer is really from birth: several studies have demonstrated that children who were read to as newborns had a larger vocabulary, as well as more advanced mathematical skills, than other kids their age.  (The public library can be a fantastic resource, to avoid the need for purchasing books that babies will quickly outgrow).  There is also a direct link between how many words a baby hears each day and his or her language skills.  One study found that 3 year old children whose parents spoke to them a lot as babies scored higher on standardised exams than children whose parents didn’t talk to them as much.  

In short, love your baby, pay attention to her, read to her, talk to her, and breastfeed if you can. Unlike some of the determinants of success in later life, all of these interventions are completely free of cost at their most basic level, and your baby will reap the benefits for a lifetime.