Brain Rules for Baby – book + website review

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.

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One Response

  1. Great review – this is a topic I’m very intetested in right now and I’m downloading the book onto my Kindle as I type! I also recommend the book ‘Bright from the Start’ to others interested in early childhood brain development.

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