Healthy Baby Healthy Brain Campaign
Frequently-Asked Questions on Brain Development for Service Providers
Q - What are key components of brain development?
A – There are a number of genetic and environmental factors that influence brain development. Key environmental factors include: prenatal health, attachment, playing using all senses, nutrition, physical activity, sleep and safety. Parental involvement and quality childcare are critical in helping young children understand the world around them, develop self-regulation, learn to build relationships and thrive.
Q – What activities are recommended for brain development?
A – Babies will develop best in an environment where they feel confident that their needs are met. It is important to respond to babies’ needs and to help them develop a secure attachment. This parent-child relationship is the cornerstone of brain development.
Young children need to play, using all senses (tasting, touching, hearing, seeing and smelling). Play can be integrated in everyday routines: when getting dressed, having a bath, sharing a meal, etc. Parents can add to the experience by using everyday activities to connect with their baby and help their baby learn.
Activities that use the senses can include reading, finger-painting, dancing, singing, music, smelling, tasting new foods, and touching interesting things. Skin-to-skin contact through massages or other forms of skin-to-skin touch promote the baby’s emotional development and improve awareness through the use of the senses. Parents are also encouraged to play outside every day with their young children.
Expensive toys are not needed. Young children love to play with simple household items. Parents can also take advantage of public play locations such as playgrounds or Ontario Early Years Centres.
Q – Which foods are recommended for brain development?
A - Healthy eating plays a major role in a healthy baby’s brain. A nutritious diet can start before pregnancy. Good family eating habits can be put in place well before the baby is born. When it comes to eating, parents are important role models for their children. It is recommended to eat foods from all the food groups, following Canada’s Food Guide. (www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/food-guide-aliment/order-commander/index-eng.php)
During pregnancy, important nutrients are folate, iron, vitamin C, calcium and omega-3 fats.
Once the baby is born, breast milk contains all the nutrients the baby needs, as well as antibodies to fight infection. Mothers are encouraged to breastfeed without giving any other fluids or foods for the first six months. After six months, iron fortified cereals and pureed or mashed foods from the four food groups in Canada’s Food Guide can be introduced. It is recommended to continue breastfeeding up to two years and more.
Q – What are the “sensitive periods” of development of baby’s brains?
A - There are times when the baby’s brain is ready to develop certain skills. For example, vision and hearing develop very early. Babies can hear and recognize their parents’ voices in the womb. The optimal time for starting to learn to talk is between one and two years of age. Babies also develop habitual ways of responding around this age. Skills such as working with numbers and developing peer social skills mature later. It is important to identify delays and get help early, since skills build on one another.
(For additional information, visit: https://www.ecmap.ca/Early-Childhood-Development/Pages/How-the-Brain-Develops.aspx).
Q – Why is it important to comfort a baby who is crying?
A - In order to explore the world, babies need to feel secure. Babies who are crying are letting caregivers know that they need to be comforted. It is important to always comfort a baby who is upset. This helps build attachment. A secure attachment with a parent is important for healthy development because the baby will be more confident to explore, knowing there is help if needed. The way parents relate to their baby influences how the baby will relate to other people in the future.
(For additional information, download My Child and I: Attachment for Life, available at: beststart.org/resources/hlthy_chld_dev.)
Q – What is self-regulation and why does it help brain development?
A - Self-regulation is an important skill for children to have. Self-regulation is having control of one’s behavior, emotions and attention. Parents can help children learn to adjust their emotions and behaviours. This ability helps children cope with changing situations in a positive way.
Infants cannot self-regulate and need the parents to soothe them and ensure their basic needs are met. This helps the babies reach a calm and alert state. A calm and alert state will help with learning.
Parents can help their toddler observe the surroundings, listen, understand consequences, use words and actions to explain their needs, and problem solve. These skills will help the toddler deal with problems in life. They will also keep the toddler in a calm and alert state.
(For additional information, visit: www.cea-ace.ca/education-canada/article/self-regulation-calm-alert-and-learning.)
Q – Why is physical activity important for brain development?
A - Being active is an important part of building a healthy body and brain. It provides a way to explore the world and develop spatial awareness, coordination and fundamental movement skills such as jumping, throwing, running, skipping, etc.
Babies need to be able to move and exercise the muscles in their arms, legs, shoulders and neck. Some tummy time every day is important for babies. They should not sit in a car seat or stroller for more than an hour at a time.
Toddlers should get at least three hours of physical activity at any intensity each day. Some of it should be energetic play such as hopping, jumping, dancing and running.
(Download the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines for the Early Years at www.csep.ca/CMFiles/Guidelines/CSEP-InfoSheets-early-years-ENG.pdf.)
Q – Why is sleep important for brain development?
A - Sleep allows the brain to rest and be ready to learn new information. Sleep time recommendations from the Canadian Paediatric Society are:
- Infants 0 to 6 months – 16 hours per day
- Babies 6 months to 1 year – 14 hours per day
- Toddlers 1 to 3 years – 10 to 13 hours per day
(For additional information and tips to help your baby get sufficient sleep, visit: www.caringforkids.cps.ca/handouts/healthy_sleep_for_your_baby_and_child.)
Q – Why are routines important for brain development?
A - Young children function best when they know what to expect and when to expect it. Everyday routines like waking up in the morning, getting dressed, having breakfast, going to daycare and returning home, family dinner time, bath time, reading time and bed time provide stability. These daily routines help children feel secure. When children are calm and relaxed, they are able to focus on learning.
(Multilingual fact sheets on family routines are available at: www.welcomehere.ca/index.cfm?fuseaction=page.viewpage&pageid=673.)
Q – Why is watching television not recommended for young children?
A - According to the Canadian Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines for the Early Years, zero screen time is best for children under the age of 2. Studies have shown that children under the age of 2 are too young to understand what they are seeing on the screen. Television does not provide the “back-and-forth” interaction that babies need. Instead of watching television, babies could be interacting with others and with their environment to help develop their brains.
It is also important to minimize the amount of screen time for toddlers. This includes watching TV and playing with computer or video games. Too much time in front of screens can hinder brain and language development. For 2-4 year olds, a maximum of one hour a day of screen time is advised.
(Download the Canadian Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines for the Early Years at www.csep.ca/CMFiles/Guidelines/CSEP-InfoSheets-ENG-Early-Years-FINAL.pdf.)
Q – Why is play such an important component of brain development?
A – Children have always learned from their environment, even in prehistoric times, when formal learning settings did not exist. Play should be age-appropriate and in safe environments. Children can learn the following through play:
- Scientific concepts, such as what sinks and floats and how to balance blocks to build a tower.
- Mathematical concepts, such as how to divide toys or treats evenly, or what is bigger, smaller, more or less.
- Literacy skills, such as trying out new words, telling stories, or pretend play.
- Social skills, such as how to get along with others, make friends, and be respectful.
- Thinking skills, such as how to recognize and solve problems.
- Movement skills, such as walking, running, hopping, balancing, throwing and catching.
(Additional information on the importance of play is available at: www.child-encyclopedia.com/en-ca/child-play/how-important-is-it.html.)
Q – How can parents prepare children for school?
A - There are many ways parents can help prepare their child for school. Here are a few key elements:
- Building a secure attachment.
- Helping the child develop self-regulation.
- Developing independence with dressing, feeding, using the bathroom, etc.
- Helping the child learn to talk and listen.
- Reading to the young child.
- Playing games involving stacking, counting and sorting.
- Offering opportunities for socializing with other children.
- Providing lots of opportunities for play using all the senses.
- Ensuring the child has all the required immunizations.
- Ensuring the child is accustomed to routines.
The parent booklet “Learning to Play and Playing to Learn: Getting Ready for School” provides a number of suggestions. (Available at: beststart.org/resources/hlthy_chld_dev.)
Q – How can stress affect the brain development of a baby?
A - For healthy brain development, a child needs to feel secure and protected. Severe, chronic stress can have long-term effects on the developing brain. It can also create health issues for the heart and the immune system. Some types of “positive stress” in a child’s life, however, such as dealing and overcoming a difficult task, can be beneficial.
(Additional information is available at: developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/multimedia/videos/three_core_concepts/toxic_stress/.)
Q- Where I can find more information on brain development?
A – There are many website for professionals on brain development. Among them, key ones are:
- Center on the Developing Child – Harvard University (developingchild.harvard.edu)
- Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development – Brain – According to Experts (www.child-encyclopedia.com/en-ca/child-brain/according-to-experts.html)
- Nipissing District Developmental Screen (www.ndds.ca/ontario)
- Zero to Three Brain Map (www.zerotothree.org/baby-brain-map.html)
For additional information on the campaign, please contact Louise Choquette, 1-800-397-9567, ext. 2276.