Oct. 10, 2001 -- Want to boost your baby's brainpower? When preschool interviews loomed for my toddler twins, I got to thinking about that "Mozart for Babies" CD. We'd played it twice and abandoned it when it got on everyone's nerves. The "Learn Your Colors" flash cards met a similar fate: The kids simply scattered them on the floor.
But with academic competition right around the corner, I wondered now if we'd revved up our babies' brainpower enough. Had we missed learning opportunities during the much-talked-about birth-to-3 age period?
New research has given parents a flood of information on how the brains of infants, babies, and toddlers develop, and the marketplace has responded with a slew of products that promise to give your child a leading edge. But this information seems only to have added to the confusion about how to best stimulate young children intellectually.
A Window for Learning
Thanks to science, we know that the auditory cortex -- the part of the brain that processes sound -- develops early, which is why it's easier to learn music and foreign languages before age 12. But what's the best way to teach young children music and language? Should I be waving Spanish flash cards at my toddlers?
Not at all, says noted child psychiatrist Stanley Greenspan, MD, co-author, with T. Berry Brazelton, MD, of The Irreducible Needs of Children. Instead of worrying about filling your baby's brain with information, concentrate on building a nurturing relationship, he says. Crucial early childhood learning -- everything from social skills and emotions to how to count to 10 -- occurs in the context of the parent-child relationship.
"What we've learned from new brain research is that kids need a lot more interaction than we thought before," Greenspan tells WebMD. "Flash cards are not very good. Anything that is memory-based is not very good. Things that are learned by doing and interacting are better."
So, being a sensitive, involved parent is more important for a child's development than scheduling vocabulary lessons. This was reassuring news, as far as I was concerned. The idea that learning takes place in the context of relationships made sense, too. When I played Spanish language tapes in the car, hoping the kids would pick up some phrases, they just sat in their car seats staring into space. But when their adored baby-sitter spoke to them in Spanish as she playfully changed their clothes, the kids laughed and smiled and seemed to be soaking up every word.
"It's the caring relationship that children have in the early years that builds the brain," says Diane Trister Dodge, MA, co-author of Building Your Baby's Brain. "You don't need videotapes and flash cards to build your baby's brain." Talking, singing, and reading stories to your children involve a tremendous amount of learning, she says, noting that emotional growth and intellectual learning happen together, not separately.
The key is to tailor each interaction to what your child likes, says Greenspan. For instance, if you warble a high-pitched "oooo" and your baby smiles, build on that by lowering your pitch to "mmm, mmmm," followed by a deep "boom, boom." The idea is to engage your baby's senses while deepening your intimate relationship with each other.
The Right Time to Read
The best way for an infant to learn cause and effect, he says, is not for her to press a button on a toy but for her to smile at her mother and have her mother smile back. At age 2, when a child's fantasy life is developing, she needs a lot of "floor time" sharing fantasy play with her parents.
This sounds great, but I had one nagging question. I'd learned to read before kindergarten and have always loved reading: Should I be teaching my kids how to read when they're 4?
Probably not, says Ellen Winner, PhD, author of Gifted Children: Myths and Realities. If kids teach themselves to read, that's great, says Winner, a professor of psychology at Boston College.
"If you push your kid and train your kid to read early, there's no evidence it's going to change your kid's intelligence level," she says. "It's the American idea of getting there faster. Kids get there on their own steam. There's no need to get there early." Although there haven't been rigorous studies of the effect of pushing a child to read early, Winner says anecdotal evidence suggests it is damaging. "There are case studies of kids who are really turned off by this and become bitter and resentful," she says. "You can make children feel they've got to live up to something they can't live up to and that you love their performance rather than their selves."
In fact, Greenspan's ideas have a lot to do with not rushing children's development -- but not holding them back, either. "If I have one message, it's for parents to give more and expect more," he says. "It's when we expect without giving or give without expecting that children become either angry and resistant or spoiled and passive."
Together Time Is Teaching Time
The No.1 way to give to children is to spend time with them, he says. "We can't have both parents working until 8 at night." He suggests the four-thirds approach: both parents work two-thirds time, or one parent works full time and the other works one-third time. Interestingly, he doesn't advocate having one parent stay at home. "Sharing the care is optimal," he says.
For single parents, he suggests they look long and hard to find an excellent caregiver or child care situation. "We have to improve child care in this country." Excellent caregivers can provide many of the benefits parents provide by spending time with their children.
Preschool and school-age children need an adult present when they come home from school, he says. And families with children in high school need regular time together from 6 p.m. through the evening.
As for playing Mozart concertos to a baby, Greenspan says it won't hurt but won't help much either. The so-called Mozart effect was launched by a study published in Nature in 1993 by Gordon Shaw, a neurobiologist at the University of California at Irvine, and Frances Rauscher, now a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, who conducted their research on college students. He reported that the increase in performance on spatial imagery lasted for only a few minutes, and attempts to reproduce the results failed in a study published in the July 1999 issue of the journal Psychological Science.
But dancing with your baby to Mozart, singing, tapping out rhythmic beats, smiling at each other: That's real learning, says Greenspan.