Brain Rules for Babies — book review

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Brain Rules for Babies by Dr. John Med­i­na

Seat­tle WA; Pear Press. 2010

I strong­ly rec­om­mend this book and its accom­pa­ny­ing web­site by the author of the NY Times best­seller, Brain Rules. http://www.brainrules.net/.

The new text brings togeth­er much of the dis­parate research on fetal-infant-child brain devel­op­ment of the last few decades into a read­able whole. At the same time, it asso­ciates these find­ings with effec­tive, con­crete prac­tices and pro­vides tips for new and expect­ing par­ents. What are some of the big, take-home mes­sages of this text? Sur­vival, or safe­ty, is the pri­ma­ry goal of the brain. Hap­pi­ness is most close­ly linked to hav­ing friends. Aca­d­e­m­ic suc­cess is asso­ci­at­ed with self-con­trol. And, reward­ing effort pro­duces the great­est pos­i­tive feed­back. There’s a lot more here and on the web­site. Plus the web­site has pages of ref­er­ences and a ter­rif­ic quiz for par­ents. Links: Brain Rules for Baby: http://brainrules.net/brain-rules-for-baby. Brain Rules for Baby Quiz: http://brainrules.net/brain-rules-for-baby-parenting-quiz.

Dr. Med­i­na starts with that noto­ri­ous parental con­cern:  How do par­ents raise a smart, suc­cess­ful, calm and hap­py child? He con­sid­ers the job of par­ent­ing to be sup­port­ing healthy brain devel­op­ment – some­thing achieved large­ly by liv­ing a healthy and emo­tion­al­ly acces­si­ble life! He has the facts to back this up. Start­ing with preg­nan­cy, he pro­vides infor­ma­tion to demon­strate that the com­mon ear­ly preg­nan­cy issues of tired­ness and nau­sea serve the fetus’ need to be left alone to fol­low the genet­ic code for pro­duc­ing the body’s organs and sys­tems.

The sec­ond half of preg­nan­cy, he notes, is large­ly con­sti­tut­ed by the devel­op­ment of the sens­es, which bring infor­ma­tion to the brain, and – in the last months – the expan­sive growth of brain cells and the ear­li­est phas­es of neu­ronal con­nec­tion. He dis­pels the myths about com­mer­cial prod­ucts aimed at improv­ing IQ in utero, reviews find­ings on the adverse effects of stress, poor nutri­tion and a seden­tary lifestyle dur­ing preg­nan­cy, and reminds us that we are faced with cer­tain pecu­liar­i­ties of human birth. Ever since we became erect, we have had to get that brain out of the pelvis before it is real­ly ready.

Dr. Med­i­na moves on to the rela­tion­ship dynam­ics of the par­ents and/or extend­ed fam­i­ly and its impact on the off­spring brain. Most fam­i­lies expe­ri­ence dis­tress when an infant arrives. Rela­tion­ships are out of bal­ance, demands increase, com­fort is less­ened and there are a lot of unknowns about the nature of this new being. Learn­ing, he reminds us, takes place best when the num­ber one brain demand is met: Safe­ty. Sit­u­a­tions fraught with stress and con­flict are keen­ly sensed by infants and mit­i­gate against a sense of safe­ty.

Much of this dis­cus­sion rein­forces recent find­ings about the impor­tance of vagi­nal birth, skin-to-skin con­tact and breast­feed­ing – chem­i­cal, mechan­i­cal and emo­tion­al needs that appear in the moments sur­round­ing birth that, when met, set the stage for a bond of trust (safe­ty) that enables devel­op­ment of high­er func­tions. He reminds us that the best pre­dic­tor of aca­d­e­m­ic suc­cess is impulse con­trol, a behav­ior that results part­ly from genet­ic pre­dis­po­si­tion, but is equal­ly gleaned by observ­ing adult behav­ior from the first moments of life. This sets the stage for much of the rest the book’s dis­cus­sion using a Seed/Soil metaphor, akin to the tra­di­tion­al nature/nurture dis­cus­sion – that some of what a child becomes is inborn, and some is envi­ron­ment.

Med­i­na focus­es on preg­nan­cy through age 5. He notes that will­ing emo­tion­al respon­sive­ness com­bined with appro­pri­ate demands or expec­ta­tions appears to pro­duce the most effec­tive learn­ing con­di­tions in young chil­dren. Once they are in a safe state of mind/brain, infants learn quick­ly by watch­ing [he cites Ban­dura]. Empa­thy and clear delin­eation of bound­aries fall into line behind safe­ty as fea­tures par­ents need to pro­vide for healthy psy­chic devel­op­ment. Med­i­na gives a num­ber of exam­ples, includ­ing one about empathiz­ing with a child who needs a drink of water when there is none avail­able by say­ing: Yes, how thirsty you must be and if I could, I would get you a big drink. I’m glad you let me know how thirsty you are so we can work on fix­ing that first chance we get. [NB: I have para­phrased here for the pur­pose of my own learn­ing]. This sort of response feeds back the child’s expe­ri­ence, lets him/her know he/she is heard, sup­ports the child’s state, but lets him/her know that the solu­tion is still a bit off and that the par­ent expects the child to coop­er­ate.

There are many top­ics cov­ered with just this sort of technique…empathy and expec­ta­tions. Among them is the descrip­tion of pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive rein­force­ment. I find it is fre­quent­ly dif­fi­cult for par­ents to grasp the notion that if a child has a tantrum and the par­ent yells and screams and makes a big deal about it, that is pos­i­tive rein­force­ment, which encour­ages the child to behave that way again. Where­as walk­ing into anoth­er room and doing some­thing else till the child is qui­et – that is neg­a­tive rein­force­ment.

I like Medina’s way of explain­ing it with sci­ence bet­ter than my own, which requires too much explain­ing about how nerve cells trans­mit infor­ma­tion and how neur­al path­ways become hard­wired. His relies on more macro expla­na­tions (he is a devel­op­men­tal mol­e­c­u­lar biol­o­gist, so I real­ly bow to him on this one). Basi­cal­ly, he tells us to praise behav­ior that is good and also to praise the absence of “bad” behav­ior, because praise for effort feels good. He also tells us to let the flow of events do the pun­ish­ing. Either let a child con­tin­ue to walk around in the snow with no shoes because s/he will fig­ure out it hurts and is a ter­ri­ble idea, or remove a child from the table when s/he refuse to eat because it is bor­ing alone and s/he will fig­ure out one can get hun­gry that way. The for­mer is pun­ish­ment by appli­ca­tion; the lat­ter is pun­ish­ment by removal.

In case you are won­der­ing what these rules might be, here they are:

EXERCISE | Rule #1: Exer­cise boosts brain pow­er.
SURVIVAL | Rule #2: The human brain evolved, too.
WIRING | Rule #3: Every brain is wired dif­fer­ent­ly.
ATTENTION | Rule #4: We don’t pay atten­tion to bor­ing things.
SHORT-TERM MEMORY | Rule #5: Repeat to remem­ber.
LONG-TERM MEMORY | Rule #6: Remem­ber to repeat.
SLEEP | Rule #7: Sleep well, think well.
STRESS | Rule #8: Stressed brains don’t learn the same way.
SENSORY INTEGRATION | Rule #9: Stim­u­late more of the sens­es.
VISION | Rule #10: Vision trumps all oth­er sens­es.
GENDER | Rule #11: Male and female brains are dif­fer­ent.
EXPLORATION | Rule #12: We are pow­er­ful and nat­ur­al explor­ers.