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Busy Parent's Guide to Smart Babies - Part 1

May 19, 2008
Are you juggling career and family? Do you find your free time stretched between your baby and older children? If you think you're too busy to learn about early education, you've come to the right place. Read on to pick up the basics in less than 10 minutes.

Why is early learning important?

The first years of life lay the neurological foundation for intellectual growth into adolescence and adulthood. This time represents a unique window of opportunity for learning.

Each of the brain's neurons is connected to roughly 5,000 others. In general, the more dendrites (branches between neurons) and synapses (connections between neurons) the brain has, the greater its processing power. More pathways mean information can travel in a number of ways, opening the door to faster and more complex thinking.

This is true in the adult, but not in the infant. Your baby's brain actually has more neurons and synapses than yours - but only because it hasn't passed an important developmental stage, known as pruning, in which the brain deletes unneeded neural connections in the interests of organization and efficiency.

"Use it or lose it"

The process of pruning is illustrative of the high plasticity (adaptability) of young brains, which are literally sculpted by the environments in which they are raised. Scientific testing of how exactly experience shapes the brain has led to the theory of "critical periods" - specific time periods in which stimulation must occur, or the chance to develop normal functioning will be lost.

The same principle holds true in humans. Scientists have discovered, for instance, that certain areas of the brain are larger and more developed in children who play musical instruments than in those who do not. These include the cerebellum, which processes rhythm and timing, and the corpus callosum, which acts as the conduit for communication between the brain's left and right hemispheres - vital for musicians coordinating their right and left hands.

Sowing the seeds of intelligence

Early learning programs such as Head Start in the US are producing measurable cognitive and emotional benefits in children - benefits that can last into middle and even high school. In general, the younger intervention is staged, the more significant and long-lived the effects. Full-day educational programs for infants have been shown to produce IQ gains lasting into adolescence.

The question is: why only provide such positive stimulation to children from disadvantaged backgrounds?

Many leading childhood development experts believe that we all have far greater potential in our early years than society gives us credit for. Waiting until school to begin providing consistent intellectual stimulation to a child is no disaster. But in doing so, we miss a unique window of opportunity for learning.
About the Author
Madeleine is the Managing Editor @ Brillbaby.com
Got a question or concern? Email the Editor, who is currently teaching her own baby and blogging about it.
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