Smarty Pants

What parents need to know about building a brainy baby.


What’s the best way to boost your baby’s brain power? Here’s what the latest research says:

Max Out Cuddle Time Terrie E. Inder, M.D., a neonatal neurologist at Washington University in St. Louis, studied premature babies and the amount of negative stress they incurred (mostly due to medical procedures like shots, changing of feeding tubes, etc.). Babies with the highest number of stressors showed the most negative changes in frontal and temporal lobes, the portions of the brain associated with emotional stability, planning and language. Holding and soothing a baby, though, mitigated some of the effects of stress. “The less stress and the more soothing, positive experiences—the more a parent can hold and comfort a baby—the better for the baby’s brain development,” says Inder.

Breastfeed A Danish study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2002 found that IQ measured some 15-plus years after breastfeeding ceased was strongly correlated with the duration of breastfeeding: The biggest gains in IQ were seen when babies were breastfed for up to 9 months. “We know it’s best for brain development to breastfeed a baby exclusively for the first four to six months. After that, it’s age-appropriate foods plus breast milk until age 1,” says Michael Georgieff, M.D., professor of pediatrics and a neonatal nutrition researcher at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. The second best thing to breast milk, though, may be formula with DHA and choline. Both of these nutrients are important for brain development, says Georgieff. More studies are needed, however, to understand if this addition to formula provides any long-term benefits.

Focus on the relationship A crucial foundation of intelligence is the relationship an infant has with the people around him, says Amy Hunter, L.I.C.S.W., assistant professor at Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development in Washington, D.C. If your baby babbles or blinks at you, do it back. You’re encouraging trust, confidence and communication. Also, narrate: “Mommy is peeling a banana. The banana is yellow. I’m cutting it into pieces with a knife so you can eat it for lunch.” “It may feel ridiculous at first, but you’re talking about an experience, what’s happening next and predicting and explaining. This helps your baby develop language skills and make other valuable brain connections,” says Hunter.

Brain 101 At birth, a baby’s brain contains 100 billion neurons— nearly all the neurons the brain will ever have. These specialized cells transmit information throughout the body, but almost from the beginning, the brain starts a pruning process; it builds connections with use and eliminates connections when they aren’t used.