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As soon as your child is born and you've counted his fingers and toes, you can’t help but wonder what the future will hold for him. From here on out, every sleep-deprived moment will be focused on ensuring that your little one is on track developmentally, not just physically but also cognitively. While nutrition is obviously the primary influence on a child’s physical development and also impacts his cognitive growth, there are a number of additional factors that can contributre to your child’s abilities to process information, solve problems, use language and reason.
Have you ever been criticized for coddling your babe too much? Worried that you're going to turn him into a mama's boy because you dote on him so often? Shrug off the guilt. According to Kimberly Blair, Ph.D. an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh and the director of the Matilda Theiss Child Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, a strong bond between a young child and his primary caregiver is the most critical component of a child’s cognitive development. “Plenty of research shows that positive caregiving early on provides a foundation for children to self-regulate and really does lay the foundation for the child as he grows,” says Dr. Blair. “Being consistent with nurturing your child when he’s an infant, such as responding to him when he cries, will allow him to grow into a child who is more self-confident and willing to explore and engage with his peers.” Dr. Blair, who is also the mom of 5-year-old triplets, says these bonds also impact a child’s social and emotional development. “In terms of cognitive development, you don’t see only one of those areas being impacted by itself. A stressor on one of those areas of concern -- cognitive, emotional or social – will certainly impact the other two,” she says.
Who knew that all of those repeated readings of "Brown Bear, Brown Bear" and multiple verses of "Wheels on the Bus" were helping to increase your child's brain power? It's true. In addition to the initial bonds that a baby forms with his primary caregivers, a child’s learning environment is also a critical factor in terms of his cognitive growth, says Dr. Blair. “A safe and predictable environment – one that is language rich, engaging, responsive and nurturing – will have a positive influence on a child’s cognitive development,” she explains. “These children will get the most out of their environment, and when they get to school, they’ll be better equipped to learn.” Moreover, because most learning disabilities will surface by the time a child is 7 or 8 years old, a learning-rich environment becomes even more essential. “If a child does need learning assistance in a specific area, we know that the sooner they receive the intervention, the better they’ll do” she says. Dr. Blair emphasizes that while early childhood is the most intensive period of cognitive growth, there is no stopping point in a child’s ability to make gains. “You can always make progress,” she says, citing examples of adults, who, after suffering brain injuries, were able to relearn skills.
Play and Social Interaction
Good news, Mom. All of those play dates, games of hide-and-seek and bedroom dance-offs are all contributing to your child’s cognitive development. “Children learn the most from play and engagement,” says Dr. Blair. “The more social interaction they have as young children, the better equipped they’ll be when they get to school.” Likewise, children whose parents encourage them to play and explore tend to be more self-confident and develop better relationships with their peers. And, despite the fact that in our modern society, play is often equated with video games, smart phones and tablets, parents shouldn’t worry so much about the so-called isolating effects that technology is having on our children, provided we are monitoring it and setting limits. “Technology itself, per se, doesn’t have to have a negative impact. It can actually be helpful to a child’s development and performance in school. After all, they’re going to need to be comfortable with it because they’ll be using it when they reach adulthood,” Dr. Blair says. The key is to make sure you’re involved with what your child is doing online. “Set the expectations now, so when your child’s 14 years old, it won’t be a surprise to him that Mom and Dad want to know what he’s doing on the computer.”
There is no doubt that genetics and nutrition will play a big role in your child’s ability to think and reason. For instance, feeding him a nutrient-rich diet full of protein, fruits and vegetables will help. Handfuls of cheese doodles and bite-size sandwich cookies will not. And, of course, genetic abnormalities, like those associated with Down Syndrome, will affect a child’s ability to learn. “A child’s cognitive development starts way before he is born,” says Dr. Blair, stressing the importance of quality prenatal care. Additionally, many studies, such as one conducted by the University of Minnesota’s Matt McGue and Thomas J. Bouchard, Jr., have shown a connection between genetics and behavior. “Those early years really do stick with you,” says Dr. Blair.