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Drs. Oz & Roizen: Growing a Better Brain

Our basic premise is: Your body is amazing. You get a do-over; it doesn’t take that long and isn’t that hard if you know what to do.

In these columns, we give you a short course in what to do so it becomes easy for you. Then you can teach others. We want you to know how much control you have over your quality and length of life.

Today we want to talk to you about one of the most important relationships in your life: your relationship with your child. Specifically, we want to talk to you about helping your child develop a healthy brain.

As a parent, you play the primary role in helping your child develop, even in areas you may think are innate, like how his brain functions and grows. But brain development isn’t preprogrammed. To understand what to do, let’s take a look at an edited excerpt on how your child’s brain develops from our new book, YOU: Raising Your Child, the Owner’s Manual from First Breath to First Grade.

The pace at which a baby’s neural network is built is truly mind boggling. In utero, brains build 250,000 neurons a minute to result in about 100 billion by the time the baby is born. To work efficiently, the brain needs to be able to adapt, to learn new things, to forget old things. Fortunately, it can be molded and shaped, and because of this plasticity, the brain can adapt to its environment, learning things it needs to and not spending resources on things that are irrelevant. You help your baby decide which those are.

During early development, the job of the brain is to grow like a forest. The goal is for it to become a thick, lush, rich and powerful network of neurological redwoods. At term (40 weeks, on average), most of the neurons that will ever exist are in their correct locations, even though the baby’s brain is only about one-fourth the size of the adult brain. Most of the synaptic connections (connections between brain cells that convey information) form during the first year of life, a period during which the brain rapidly expands to near-adult size, and the total number of synapses approaches twice that seen in adults.

Interestingly, synaptic connections are formed in a particular order. First come the primary sensory synapses so Baby can sense the world around him, followed by those synapses that control gross motor skills so that he can escape from any threats he senses, then fine motor skills so he can write about what he just did. Last come the synapses that control higher brain functions, such as motivation, judgment and reasoning, so that he learns what he may have done right and wrong in any given situation. These final pathways aren’t fully functional until the late teens or even early 20s. Explains a lot, doesn’t it?

Starting at about 1 year of age, as Baby is exposed to his new environment, the emphasis shifts from growth to pruning. Think of it as forest management. To encourage growth of the strongest, healthiest trees, the underbrush needs to be cleared away. The brain does this by eliminating redundant and underused synaptic connections. If a baby hears both Chinese and English in the home, the language connections are strengthened. But, if a baby is left to watch videos all day, the synaptic connections look kind of sparse. (Think Charlie Brown’s scrawny Christmas tree.) By age 3, the number of synaptic connections is cut in half. This is why it’s so crucial for a child to have appropriate stimulation from birth to age 3 so that he prunes neurons wisely.

Neurons are encased in a tough myelin sheath. This protective coating prevents the branches from tangling—thus, mixing up messages and disrupting connections—and ensures that messages travel fast. Because myelin is made up of 80 percent fat and 20 percent protein, healthy fats are important for growing and maintaining a healthy brain. That’s why we recommend that moms-to-be take a DHA supplement during pregnancy. DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid, comprises as much as 97 percent of the omega-3 healthy fats in brains. You should also try to incorporate healthy fats such as avocadoes, olive oil and DHA-fortified milk into your child’s diet from an early age. By the way, healthy fats are also important in maintaining your healthy brain function.

Now we want to give you some tips you can use to help your child’s brain-building.

Make conversation. The best way to talk to your child is by pretending that she can converse. Do you need a nap? These yams are pretty nasty looking, aren’t they? Talk to her as if she were filling in the gaps. That will help him recognize language and word patterns. Speak slowly and use short phrases, gestures and facial expressions to reinforce the meaning of your words.

Show and tell. Whenever you’re out, be one of those pointer-outer parents. Point to things you see, hear and smell; teach your child about the world. This applies wherever you are, whether in nature or at the mall. It’s also really helpful to show your child how things change: Leaves change color, flowers bloom, batter turns into cookies and so on.

As a parent, you play the primary role in helping your child develop, even in areas you may think are innate.

Read it loud and proud. We can’t say it often enough: Read aloud. Read aloud. Read aloud. Besides serving as wonderful one-on-one time, reading to your child will do amazing things for his vocabulary. In fact, the vocabulary a child has at 2 years old is proportional to the number of words he’s heard spoken. Even if he can’t respond verbally to you, he’s processing what he’s hearing. Remember those neurons: With every sentence, you build stronger language connections.

Sign up for music lessons. The advantages of music lessons go way beyond learning to play a little Mozart (or Metallica). Kids who study a musical instrument for three years do better than nonmusical kids with skills not associated with music, such as verbal ability and manual dexterity. Other research shows that music also improves overall memory.

Skip disembodied videos. Many baby videos on the market purport to help turn your child into a genius. The problem is, some research shows that children who watch videos using disembodied voices rather than visible speakers may actually end up with a smaller vocabulary than those who don’t watch them. Why? Babies learn language not only through sounds but also by watching faces (kids on the autism spectrum tend to watch lips) and tracking how words begin and end. With just audio, the words sound more like gibberish than real language.

At every age, you can help your child or grandchild develop and maintain healthy brain function by helping her make proper food choices (including those good-for-you fats), reading and talking to her, and by encouraging her to continually learn and try new things.

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