I recently finished reading John Medina’s “Brain Rules For Baby: How To Raise A Smart And Happy Child From Zero To Five.” Medina is a developmental molecular biologist, and as the title suggests, the book is essentially a best practices guide for raising young children. Anecdotes, both from Medina’s own life and a parental confessions website, keep the book lively. I recommend it to anyone with a small child or expecting one soon.
If you don’t have time to read the book (and I can’t imagine why that would be the case if you have a young child), here are the parts I found most interesting.
It seems that the importance of exercise is common knowledge, but I did not realize all of the studies indicating the many benefits for mother and baby of exercise during pregnancy. Medina, citing studies, recommends half an hour a day of aerobic exercise, but avoiding anything too intense or high impact. He also recommends that mothers try to manage their stress and eat healthy foods in reasonable amounts so the baby gains the appropriate amount of weight.
One aspect of the book that I thought was very interesting was how much a baby affects their parents. This seems obvious, especially to those of us who are parents, but I’ve read other baby books that focus solely on the child and ignore the parents. The book not only notes that raising a child is a significant stressor on relationships, but also explores in detail why it is such a stressor and provides tips for avoiding the worst outcomes (trauma to the child, divorce, etc.) [generally, fathers need to treat mothers like the all stars that they are and help out more]. Medina identifies four factors that contribute to partners fighting after having a baby: sleep loss, social isolation, unequal workload, and depression. I think that all parents recognize them and all expecting parents would be wise to think about them and try to plan ways to avoid them as best as possible.
A central theme of the book is how babies crave safety. This seems completely sensible and intuitive, but wasn’t something I had thought a lot about. The need for safety has profound implications. If a baby feels unsafe, she will have a very hard time developing in a manner that will allow her to be a healthy adult with normal emotional activity (give your baby lots of hugs, love, and face time [not FaceTime (r)], and avoid fighting in front of her). If a toddler feels unsafe, any punishments won’t have their desired effect because he won’t be able to focus on the lesson to be learned (corporal punishment and spanking are ineffective and often harmful). If a child feels unsafe, he won’t be able to concentrate and learn in school (make sure that you and your child’s school are providing a safe environment).
The book also stresses the importance of empathy. It’s important for you and your child. Parents should demonstrate empathetic behavior. They should also teach empathy by helping children name their feelings and others’ feelings and get them to try to see conflicts from others’ points of view.
A safe, empathetic baby is likely to be primed to build her brain and lead a happy life. What helps build her brain? According to Medina: breast feeding for a year, talking to her nonstop, playing (especially imaginative play with other children), and praising effort rather than IQ (e.g., “You did well on that test; you must have worked very hard” and not “You did well on that test; you must be very smart”). Praising effort is definitely an interesting concept because it seems so common for parents (and especially grandparents) to tell children (and grandchildren) how smart they are. This is undoubtedly comes from a good-hearted place, but according to research can backfire as children grow up. Things to avoid include television (especially for very young children) and hyperparenting (having extreme expectations, exerting large amounts of pressure, and expressing continual anger or disappointment).
For a child to be happy, it is important that he have friends. Emotional regulation is important for having friends. The book discusses strategies in depth for helping kids learn about and process their emotions in healthy ways (it’s important to acknowledge and respect emotions rather than make them a source of shame or embarrassment). It also notes that while biological factors are important, genes provide tendencies not destiny.
The final chapter before the conclusion is on sleep. It discusses two major strategies, nighttime attachment parenting and cry-it-out, and the studies that have evaluated them. Based on a lack of evidence that one is clearly superior, Medina recommends picking a method to try at the appropriate time before your baby is born.
One of the many difficult thing about being a parent is the many, many decisions we have to make. Many are fraught with controversy: sleep methods, when and how to introduce to solid foods, whether to circumcise, vaccines, etc. Even the decisions that aren’t particularly controversial can be agonizing. Compounding the angst is the many, many conflicting opinions that you’ll inevitably be bombarded with from friends, family, the media, blogs, etc. And it’s not like we’re educated and trained to be parents. To become a doctor you have to go to medical school and pass boards. To become a lawyer you have to go to law school and pass the bar. To become a parent all you have to do is have sex with a member of the opposite sex.
While contradictory evidence and information overload can be frustrating, I’d rather have more information rather than less when making parenting decisions. Brain Rules for Baby provides a lot of useful information in an accessible, non-judgmental manner. I recommend it to any parent of a young child or expecting parent. Worst comes to worst you can point to it when your tween is having an emotional meltdown as some evidence that you tried your best with him.