Like any worthy endeavor, child rearing is full of joys and challenges. There are few guarantees that your child will arrive to adulthood a genius, but there are numerous ways to enhance your child’s health and potential.
Intelligence is a general cognitive ability that, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience. It is not merely book learning, a narrow academic skill or specific talent.
While much has been learned about the inherited genetics of intelligence (what is), these same scientific studies emphasize the importance of environment (what can be). The last century has seen quite a bit of swinging on the pendulum of nature and nurture, with various scientists and behaviorists attempting to prove that one outweighs the other. However, the latest science tells us that all children benefit from a healthy environment rich in language and learning experiences.
What you do in the first years of your child’s life really does matter.
The following are 10 ways (backed by science) that parents can use to raise an intelligent child.
1. Breast Feed
Breastfeeding for a longer time improves a child’s understanding of language measured at age 3, and their scores on intelligence tests at age 7, according to a new study published (2013) in the journal JAMA Pediatrics. There also appears to be a positive correlation between cognitive benefits and the mother’s frequency of eating fish at least twice a week.
Other benefits associated with breastfeeding:
- Longer duration of breast-feeding is associated with fewer parent-rated behavioral problemsin children aged 5 years.
- Breast-feeding is associated with reduced risk of many diseases in infants, including: acute otitis media, non-specific gastroenteritis, atopic dermatitis, respiratory tract infections, obesity, type 1 and 2 diabetes, childhood leukemia, SIDS, and necrotizing enterocolitis.
- Breast-feed exclusively for the first 6 months of your baby’s life.
- Continue breast-feeding at least until your child reaches age 1.
- Eat a nutritionally balanced diet to include 2 or more servings of fish each week.
2. Use Smart Carrying
Nature intended for babies to be carried. Upright positioning with proper leg support is the preferable position for your infant. Proper and smart carrying of your infant supports natural spine position, improves respiration, reduces ear infections, stimulates vestibular development, stimulates the senses, provides easier system regulation and the close proximity of parent touch. Holding baby close to the heart is the most beneficial and physically supportive method of bringing baby along, and provides the optimal environment for psychological and emotional growth.
Important considerations for smart carrying of your infant:
- Laying your infant flat on his back stretches the natural c-curved spine into a straight line.
- When infants are held upright they are allowed to practice compensatory movements, enhancing muscular strength and allowing for more control over fine motor skills.
- The force of gravity allows infants to learn from early on to hold their heads up and keep their bodies clinging to parent and balanced in equilibrium.
- The proper baby carrier should position baby facing in to parent’s body, support a flexed abducted position with legs spread around parent, and support the head and spine appropriate to development.
- Keep baby close to your body for the first year of life.
- Carry baby to car seat, not in car seat.
- Strollers should be the exception, not the rule.
3. Support Healthy Sleep
Sleep is no less important than food, drink or safety in the lives of children. Proper sleep insures that your baby will have a sound foundation for proper mind and body development.
Sleep is the power source that keeps your mind alert and calm. Every night and at every nap, sleep recharges the brain’s battery. – Marc Weissbluth, MD
The essentials of healthy sleep include: sufficient amounts of sleep in a 24 hour period, good quality sleep, the proper number of age-appropriate naps and a sleep schedule that is in sync with your child’s natural biological rhythms (internal clock or circadian rhythm).
Important things to know about baby sleep habits:
- Babies have two sleep states – active and quiet – and their sleep cycles are only 50-60 minutes for the first nine months.
- Active sleep is the baby-equivalent of REM and in this state, babies awaken more easily.
- While in quiet sleep, babies are less likely to be awakened by noise and other disturbances – including a sudden reduction in the oxygen supply.
- Babies who are aroused more easily are at a lower risk for SIDS.
- “Sleeping through the night” is a myth.
- The “cry it out” approach should not be attempted on infants less than 6 months of age.
- There is no research to support the idea that falling asleep alone makes children more independent.
- Cross-cultural research suggests that children who co-sleep with their parents develop higher self-esteem.
- Learn to recognize when your baby is overtired or under-slept.
- Don’t impose sleep training methods before 6 months.
- Establish soothing bedtime routines to include, dim lights, calming stories, lullabies, non-stimulating baths, infant massage and a full tummy.
- Combine gentle infant sleep training with promotion of self-soothing strategies after 6 months.
4. Use Infant-Directed Speech
Infant-directed speech (IDS) is a more melodic and emotionally-charged kind of speech that adults have evolved to enhance communication between human babies and their caregivers. It should not be confused with using nonsense words or attempting to sound like a baby. IDS is characterized by a slower rate, a higher fundamental frequency, greater pitch variation, longer pauses, repetitive intonation structures, and simplified sentence structure. People often use infant-directed speech in shorter and simpler utterances but it can also include adult vocabulary.
Scientists, particularly linguists and psychologists, continue to study the phenomena of IDS and the mechanisms that benefit infants acquiring language.
Indicated benefits of infant-directed speech:
- IDS captures the attention of infants.
- IDS may facilitate infant understanding of emotional intentions.
- IDS may assist babies to learn the sounds of their native language.
- IDS helps infants discriminate between different speech sounds.
- IDS helps infants to detect the boundaries between words in a stream of speech.
- IDS helps infants to recognize distinct clauses in a stream of speech.
- Use the animated, repetitive, slower paced habits of infant-directed speech when teaching your infant new sounds and words.
- Stretch out your vowels.
- Forget any inhibitions and let loose with the baby talk.
Video: Born to Communicate – How Do Babies Learn Language
5. Talk With Your Child
In a landmark study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley, an important fact about talking with your child was uncovered.
The amount of parent talk that infants and toddlers receive – particularly the amount of ‘extra’ talk above and beyond that needed to govern their behavior – is powerfully related to their later vocabulary size and to other measures of their later verbal sophistication. – Todd Risley
This study has been cited for the “30 Million Words Initiative,” an endeavor to bridge the gap between the average American child’s vocabulary and that of children exposed to ‘talkative,’ higher socio-economic parents.
Key understandings from the study:
- Children’s talkativeness stops growing when it matches the level of their parents.
- Expressive language experience is linked to receptive language experience.
- “Taciturn” parents say little else than the initiations, imperatives and prohibitions to govern their children.
- The extra talk of “talkative” parents contains more varied vocabulary, complex ideas, subtle guidance, and positive reinforcement thought to be important to intellectual development.
- Talk about everything! Keep a running dialogue with your child all through the day, even if you’re tired or out in public. This includes talking to your infant in complicated complete sentences, using strong vocabulary.
- “Serve and return.” The term, “serve and return,” refers to the conversations and interactions between parent and child. The child does or says something. The adult says or does something in return, or vice versa.
- Elaborate. If your child asks a question or expresses an interest: Answer it completely, explain and demonstrate. Get a library book on the topic, or go to the internet to explore and discover knowledge together.
6. Create And Maintain A Loving Environment
Babies cannot survive on their own. All their basic needs must be met through a relationship with a caregiver. This is the basis of Attachment Theory, but new research tells us that these needs go far beyond the simple necessities, and are intimately tied to the emotional world.
The capacity to create joy, elation, interest, and excitement together with your baby, is a key to early healthy development and lifelong physical and mental health. The focus is not just on the negative impact of stress and the importance of stress avoidance, but also recognizes the central importance of happiness and joy. The child attaches to the regulating caregiver who helps maximize opportunity for positive emotions and minimize opportunity for negative emotions, thus creating optimal health.
Benefits of attachment parenting:
- Secure attachments promote independence.
- Emotionally supportive parenting promotes better moods and better emotional coping.
- Attachment parenting contributes to a child’s moral development.
- Attachment parenting practices are associated with higher IQ and academic performance.
- Attachment parenting practices buffer children from the effects of toxic stress.
- Maintain high-quality communication.
- Show responsiveness and sensitivity to your child’s interests and needs.
- Cultivate insight into your child’s mental and emotional states.
- Be emotionally available and flexible.
- Take care of yourself. Stress is contagious.
7. Select Toys Appropriately
Toys need to be safe and developmentally appropriate for your growing child and their interests. Many safe and appropriate play materials are free items typically found at home. These can include cardboard boxes, kitchen equipment like plastic bowls and lids, natural items like pine cones, play dough and plastic cookie cutters, or colorful scarves.
Good educational toys should provide opportunities for your child to use imaginative play, imitative play and promote cognitive development.
Toys for imagination, imitation, and cognitive development:
- Toys appropriate for imaginative play require that they have open-ended possibilities. For example, a plastic bowl can be a hat, a pool for a doll, a drum, a boat, a car steering wheel, etc.
- Toys that promote imitative play allow children to interact with and learn about their world. These can include household and professional items, dress-up materials and items from nature.
- Cognitive development toys encompass so much more than the “learning toys” promoted by toy stores. A child’s cognitive development involves thinking skills. So anything that provides opportunities to practice different thinking skills, such as imitation, cause and effect, problem solving, and symbolic thinking will promote cognitive development.
- Collect a wide variety of “toys” for your child to explore.
- Be sure to include items that are open to the imagination (i.e. not entirely detailed – dolls that have simple features, blocks that can be manipulated to create the world of your child’s imagination-not the toy maker’s).
- Allow your child to “play” or experiment with household items and materials they find in their environments.
- Choose toys that support your child’s developmental stages and interests.
8. Play With Your Child
Play is essential to the social, emotional, cognitive, and physical well-being of children beginning in early childhood. It is the “work” of childhood and helps children learn to cooperate, overcome challenges and negotiate with others. Play is also a highly creative act.
Playing with your child provides time to be fully engaged, to bond, and to see the world from your child’s perspective. Play is a great opportunity for developing language and vocabulary, facilitating cognitive exploration and growth, and promoting the positive effects of joy!
But shouldn’t your child be playing with peers? Yes! Play groups, preschools, familiar and sustained friendships in early childhood, are all very important to your child’s growing competence and outcomes later in life.
However, learning to play and make friends are not easy tasks. Studies have shown that those children who appear the most successful have parents who believe they play an instrumental role in fostering their children’s social relationships, deliberately create opportunities for peer interactions, encourage keen observational skills, and coach their young children in constructive attitudes and skills. Parents facilitate competent play behavior.
How to play with your child:
- Follow your child’s lead
- Play with your child
- Don’t take over the game
- Let the game change
- Listen to your child’s ideas
- Talk about what your child is doing
- Contribute ideas without evaluating
- Allow plenty of time
- Allow for experimenting and mistakes
- Be careful with competition
- Have fun
- Make time for playing with your child every day. Putting play time into the morning routine is a great way to start the day – even for school children.
- Create special “play dates” with your child. Show up for a build fort day, a tea party, making mud pies or sand castles, water play in the kiddie pool, etc., wearing appropriate costumes.
- Plan novel activities that will foster your child’s interests.
- Co-create your own games and family rules.
- Make indoor and outdoor obstacle courses.
Video: Cute Obstacle Course For Baby
9. Monitor And Limit TV And Technology
The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) presents an informative and balanced view on the role and uses of technology in early childhood education.
They agree that screen media and screen time should be discouraged for children under 2 years of age, as recommended by The American Academy of Pediatrics and the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity.
Numerous studies have identified possible negative outcomes of screen time to include: irregular sleep patterns, behavioral issues, focus and attention problems, decreased academic performance and negative impact on socialization and language development. These results increase with increased screen time.
However, The NAEYC concludes that existing scholarly literature supports the content of educationally valuable television shows, websites and other digital media. They recognize that technology and interactive media are tools that can promote effective learning and development when used with intention and developmentally appropriate practice.
A healthy media diet:
- Prohibits passive use of screen media before age 2. Interactions between adults and children are essential to early brain development.
- Limits interactive technology before age 2, and only as a parent and child shared activity. Examples: Read from an e-book, view digital photos together, or participate in Skype interactions 1x a week.
- Limits tech time to 30 minutes a day for ages 3-5. Discourage the passive use of television, videos, DVDs, and other non-interactive activities. Monitor and talk with your child about any technology they are using.
- Zero tech at least one hour before bedtime. The light emanating from screens negatively affects sleep cycles.
- Use hands-on, engaging, empowering tools (and toys) that support learning.
- Effective technology tools connect on-screen and off screen activities. Use these with an emphasis on co-viewing and co-participation between adults and children.
- Interactions with technology and media should be playful, support creativity, discovery and exploration.
10. Read To Your Child Early And Often
A very interesting 2010 study looked at educational outcomes for children in households in 27 countries, collecting data on the number of books in the household collection.
Here is some of what they discovered:
Children who grew up without books completed an average of 7 years of education. Children growing up with 500 books or more completed 14 years of education. These averages occurred independent of country, socioeconomic status, or parental level of education.
The authors argue that a book-oriented home environment endows children with tools that are directly useful in learning at school.
There are six principle environmental factors that spur language learning, all of which can be activated as children hear books read aloud. Children need to hear many words often. They learn words when they are interested. They learn best when adults are responsive to them. Words are learned when meanings are made clear. Vocabulary and grammar are learned together. Positive, engaging conversation increases use of language. Reading storybooks stimulates language learning and at times, may exceed the power of oral conversations.
Important dimensions of book reading associated with enhanced development:
- There is evidence that suggests reading to children as young as 8 months promotes stronger early language growth.
- Frequency of reading to children is more important than social economic class in predicting children’s literacy growth.
- Dialogic reading (holding dialogues about the book as you read) improves learning, especially with infants, toddlers and younger preschool children.
- Make sharing books part of every day.
- Show children the words.
- Make the story come alive.
- Let your child turn the pages, touch the book and point to pictures.
- Ask questions about the story.
- Listen to and answer your child’s questions.
- Let your child tell the story.