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    The First Thousand Days of Life

    Excerpted from
    Raise a Smarter Child by Kindergarten: Raise IQ points by up to 30 points and turn on your child's smart genes Points
    By David Perlmutter, M.D., Carol Colman

    A Window of Opportunity for Your Child's Brain Development

    Natalie's parents brought their 3 1/2-year-old daughter to see me because they noticed that her mental development lagged behind that of her 5-year-old sister and 8-year-old brother. "By the time our other children were Natalie's age, they seemed to be more talkative and had better language skills," observed her mother. What particularly worried her was the fact that Natalie seemed less interested in reading and doing simple activities such as coloring or playing board games than her siblings.

    Natalie's parents were terrified that I would detect a brain disorder or developmental delay in their daughter. And yet, upon examination, Natalie seemed quite normal. Her vision, hearing, physical coordination, and other functions of her brain were fine. So what, if anything, was holding Natalie back? When I asked Natalie a question, her answer-or lack of one-was quite revealing.

    I asked Natalie, "What's your favorite book?" I was surprised when I got no response, only a blank stare. Upon further conversation with her parents, I learned that they regarded Natalie as a much "easier" child than their other two because she didn't need to be entertained. Natalie was content to spend much of her day watching TV or playing her siblings' video games.

    No sooner had this information come to light than Natalie's mother added, "You know, when our other children were small, we used to read to them often, one on one. We've been so busy, we haven't done that for Natalie." I also learned that unlike her two siblings, who had been breast-fed for almost six months, Natalie was only breast-fed for 5 weeks, which meant she could be missing some important brain-building nutrients. I prescribed a nutritional supplement for Natalie to help enhance her brain development and compensate for her short time breast feeding. But nutrition alone could not solve Natalie's problem-Natalie's brain was craving positive stimulation from her parents. I told her parents about the importance of reading to children and engaging them in brain-building activities, particularly during the first five years of life. I recommended several books that were appropriate for Natalie and gave them a list of games to play with their daughter and other activities. Most importantly, I urged Natalie's parents to strictly limit her time watching TV and playing video games, which would force her to develop new interests.

    Six months later, when I saw Natalie for a follow-up visit, the positive changes in this now 4-vear-old were obvious. Her parents were overjoyed that her language skills had advanced considerably. What was even more exciting was her new interest in reading and in exploring books, and in activities such as coloring and finger painting. As her mother remarked, "Natalie's got an incredible imagination, but we never knew it."

    Natalie's story underscores the importance of both nourishing and nurturing your child's brain during the first few years of life when the brain experiences its explosive growth spurt. How your child's brain develops during these early years will set the stage for all that transpires for the rest of his or her life.

    The newborn brain must create the vast communication networks that enable the 100 billion neurons (brain cells) to talk to each other. Neurons communicate by forming connections called synapses. They send messages to each other by releasing chemicals called neurotransmitters that flow from one neuron to the next across their synaptic connection. Every activity that engages your brain involves the participation of millions of neurons chatting away with millions of other neurons via their synaptic connections.

    Each neuron forms small branches called dendrites that allow for more surface area for synapse formation. The vast majority of dendrites - about 80 percent-are produced after birth. During the first three years the brain goes into overdrive, actually growing significantly more synapses than it will ever need. By the time your child is 3, his brain could have more than 100 trillion synapses. This is good because these connections are vital for future learning. Without enough synapses, neurons can't communicate quickly or effectively and mental activities that you take for granted, such as retrieving memories and processing new information, could not take place.

    There is a downside to the excess production of synapses-it slows the brain down. Every bit of information that passes through a toddler's brain has to navigate through trillions of extra connections. Toddlers are notoriously slow to respond to verbal commands, such as "Pick up your toy," or "Get your jacket, we're going to the park." It's not that they're being contrary (at least not all the time!)-the reality is, their brains are bogged down by all those excess synapses. If you watch a 2-year-old's face, you can actually see him "thinking," trying to process information before he reacts.

    Pruning the Overgrowth

    If all those synapses were allowed to remain intact, the brain couldn't do its work well or efficiently. How do you create a highly functioning, streamlined, efficient brain out of this mass of synapses? How do you preserve the synapses that are important-the pathways to success-and dispose of the synapses that are just slowing the brain down?

    When your garden is overgrown, you prune it, trimming back the excess foliage and weeds so that the other plants can thrive. At the same time, you have to fertilize and water the surviving plants or they will wither and die. Your child's brain is undergoing a similar process. As the brain is creating new synapses, it is simultaneously ridding itself of synapses it doesn't use in a process known as synaptic pruning. Synaptic pruning begins in the womb but rapidly accelerates after birth until age 2, slows down somewhat until age 6, and then picks up again until age 12. It continues, albeit at a slower pace, through the teen years. Synapses that are regularly used are nurtured and thrive, while the synapses that are underutilized wither away.

    Synaptic pruning is critically important for brain development. It is not as much about losing synapses as it is about strengthening and building upon the ones that you already have. If a specific pathway is used a great deal, for example, it a child is stimulated by being exposed to new and interesting pictures, shapes, or words, or is engaged in conversation or listens to music, she will develop more synaptic connections to accommodate this information so she can retrieve it later.

    Smarter Child Tip: Repeated exposure to a particular experience is required to create a permanent connection. If early experiences are not reinforced, the pathways will weaken and the synapses will disappear. I know that many parents, myself included, have grown weary of reading the same book to their child over and over again and wonder why their child asks to hear it again and again. The answer is simple. Young children actually crave repetition because that's how they learn and that's how they strengthen their synaptic pathways.

    Parents Can Make a Better Brain

    Parents can have a profound influence on the actual physical structure of their child's brain and, in turn, its functionality. Which synapses live and which synapses die is determined solely by experience and activity, and that can be in large part controlled by parents and caregivers. As a parent, you have tremendous control over the activities and experiences to which your child is exposed, and therefore, you have considerable control over the process of synaptic pruning. Although synaptic pruning will occur whether or not you participate in the process, without your help, the end result will be a less functional brain.

    Children who are well nurtured and nourished and are given the appropriate mental and physical stimulation will develop strong neural connections that form the building blocks for higher learning. As you will learn, when you do the right things for your child's brain, you are actually turning on the genes that strengthen these precious neurons and the synaptic connections. You are literally turning on your child's smart genes. A wide array of sensory experiences will influence the development of these brain connections, including smell, sound, taste, sight, and touch. When you hug your child, talk to your child, read to your child, serve your child a tasty meal, sing to your child, play a memory game with your child, teach your child how to recognize different shapes and colors, or take your child to the playground, you are building pathways for success. The use of the synapse strengthens the synapse and allows it to survive.

    If a child is stressed out, unhappy, understimulated, poorly nourished, or exposed to brain toxins in the environment, important neural connections will die, his brain will be less efficient, and simply stated, he will not be as smart.

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