Baby's First Year · Parenting

How to build better brains

Infant sitting in parent's arms while parent is reading a book to baby

This is the second part of the brain development series. The first part explained how brains develop, now the focus will be on how to build better brains.

I recently read a story about a boy who planted two identical seeds in two different types of soil – one rich in nutrients and the other poor in nutrients. As expected, even though their DNA was the same, the seed planted in the soil with rich nutrients turned out to be a stronger plant than the one planted in the poor soil.  The soil didn’t change the DNA of the plant but it impacted the health of the plant. 

I thought this was a great way to understand brain development.  The environment that a brain grows in will impact how strong and healthy it will be, not just its genetics.

So how do we build better brains?

Building better brains is possible by exposing children to positive, nurturing environments at a young age.

Children need relationships that are responsive and attentive with lots of back and forth interactions. We call this “serve and return“.

You can think of serve and return like a game of tennis between a baby or child and a caregiver:

Illustration of parent and child taking turns talking

      • A baby serves by cooing or babbling and the caregiver returns by speaking back.
      • A child serves by pointing at an object and the caregiver returns by naming the object.

These back and forth interactions are the bricks that build strong brains.  They create and strengthen connections between brain cells that support the development of communication and social skills.  This leads to improved learning and behaviour and better physical, mental and social well-being throughout life.

Tips to build better brains:

  1. Notice what your baby or child is focused on.
  2. Let them know that you are noticing the same thing.
  3. Name what your baby or child is seeing, doing or feeling.
  4. Take turns and wait – this gives them time to respond and keeps the back and forth going.
  5. Follow their lead – they will let you know when they are done and ready to move on to a new activity.

This video explains serve and return: 

5 Steps for Brain Building Serve and Return. Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University

To build better futures, we need to build better brains!

Watch for Part 3 where we will learn about how experiences early in life, both positive and negative, can have lasting impacts.

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