As a parent, you, of course, want the best for your children. And often this means that you find yourself worrying day-in and out as to whether you are helping them to get that.
Is your child well-fed? Are they happy at school? Are they developing the way they should?
But perhaps none of these concerns is as big as our concern for our child’s mental health. We all want our children to be capable and intelligent.
We all hope and pray that they are developing at the right pace and we all dream that they’ll be the top of their class.
And we all know that we play a very big part in that: in helping our children’s brains to grow and develop as they get older.
Unfortunately, most of us don’t have degrees in psychology and that makes it hard to know where to start.
In fact, it places tremendous pressure on us as we find ourselves asking whether each interaction is helping or hindering their development.
Our worst fear is to learn that something we did in some way stunted our child’s psychological development.
An Introduction to Your Child’s Brain
While most of us don’t need to worry as much as we do; we’re right nonetheless to be cautious during our interactions with our children.
The reason for this is that they are highly suggestible at this age and incredibly malleable.
That’s because a child’s brain is incredibly ‘plastic’. Neuroplasticity is a relatively new concept in psychology that describes the brain’s ability to change its shape in response to the demands we place on it.
Just as lifting weights can cause your muscles to get larger, so too can crunching numbers increase the size of certain brain areas.
This isn’t only true of infant brains but also of fully grown adults. Studies show that if you learn an instrument using your fingers as an adult, then the areas of your motor cortex corresponding to your fingers will grow.
Likewise, if you stop using certain mental faculties, the relevant brain areas will atrophy and shrink. You are constantly growing new neurons and new connections between those neurons and that is how you are able to learn and develop.
The difference though is that the child’s brain is doing this at a much higher rate. Neurons are being born wholesale and new connections are formed and cemented in no time at all.
That’s why a child is able to learn to walk and to pick up new languages at such astonishing speed. And it’s also why they can pick up bad habits, phobias and other less desirable traits at this age too.
How Your Child Learns
So why is it that the child’s brain is so much more plastic than an adult? What is chemically different?
The answer may surprise you: it is nothing.
For both adults and children, neuroplasticity is dictated by a number of neurotransmitters (chemicals that affect the state of our brain and also our mood).
When something is interesting and novel, our brains tend to respond by producing dopamine – a neurochemical that is associated with reward.
This increases our attention and focus, thereby helping us better retain new information.
That increase in dopamine is then accompanied by an increase in ‘BDNF’ or ‘Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor’, as well as more ‘nerve growth factor’.
Together, these encourage the growth of new dendrites and axons, which form the connections throughout the brain.
But it is the novel stimulus and the learning opportunity that triggers all this. When something seems important and new, the brain wakes up and pays attention. The more this happens, the more plastic the brain becomes.
And in children, this is happening all the time.
If you make an effort to learn more, to travel and see new places, to pick up new languages, to try dancing; then your brain will become much more plastic and your brain power will grow.
For a newborn baby, everything is novel, exciting and new. They’ve never walked before, never talked before and never seen the sky before.
Their brain is therefore flooded with infinite new stimuli all the time and is awash with chemicals encouraging growth.
And all this learning then makes it easier for you to help your baby learn other new things too.
How to Help Your Baby’s Brain Grow
The first thing to take away from all this, is that your baby is going through a magical period where it’s personality and mental skill is being formed. Don’t miss this incredible window of opportunity.
The other thing to recognize is that the brain loves to learn. In fact, we like games because games create learning situations.
Even computer games usually involve learning new rules and then honing our reflexes and attention.
When you play catch with your child, you are helping them to learn better coordination and motor skills. And they will love this because their brain will be telling them that what is happening is exciting, novel and noteworthy.
Likewise, when you let your child balance along your legs, their brain is learning to better use their body. When you get them to place blocks in coloured slots, you help them to associate colours and shapes.
Turn play into a learning experience and try to find the value in every movement and interaction. That way, learning becomes fun.
Learning isn’t just math and spelling; it is an opportunity for them to explore the space they’re in and to solve problems.
And as they age, make sure you keep their brain growing for as long as possible: help them to enjoy new experiences, take them travelling, get them to meet other children, take them to classes.
The longer they keep experiencing new, novel challenges, the more they will keep learning, the healthier they will be and the happier they will be.
And while you’re at it, how about taking your own advice and injecting some learning opportunities into your life too? It’s never too late to learn!
Dr.Vidhi Jain has over 7 years of experience as a Physiotherapist. She has a Masters in Physiotherapy in Orthopedics and is currently practicing at Vinayak Physiotherapy in Noida as HOD of the Physiotherapy Department. She has been nominated as ‘Best Physiotherapy Consultant’ in Noida and firmly believes in health care that is based on a personal commitment to meet patient needs with compassion and care. She also writes for Medlife International Private Limited, an online pharmacy store operating in India offering home delivery of authentic prescription medicines at discounted prices.