New parents have thousands of questions about how to give their baby the best start in life. We put some of the most searched for ones to Professor Frank Oberklaid, Director of the Centre for Community Child Health at The Royal Children's Hospital Melbourne and all-round baby expert.
“Did you know that your baby is developing memory from as young as two or three weeks of age?
A baby as young as two or three weeks will remember your smell.
You’ve asked me lots of questions that many parents have about their young child growing up and I’m here to answer them.
“Hi, my name is Professor Frank Oberklaid and this is my Mini Parenting Master Class.”
Why do babies sleep so much?
“Babies don’t know that the norm is to sleep at night-time and be awake during the day. So they sleep in bursts of three or four hours usually, wake up to have a feed and then go back to sleep.
As their brain develops, there are reasons for them not to sleep because there are things to be curious about; they’re engaging with their world, parents are talking to them, reading to them. So they get into that predictable pattern of being awake for longer periods of time, engaging and interacting with their parents and caretakers and the world around them, and then falling asleep again.”
Can a baby’s brain be stimulated while it’s still in the womb?
“For some time, a number of years ago, it was thought that babies being exposed to classical music made them smarter.
There’s no real evidence that babies listening to classical music makes them more intelligent.
On the other hand, it certainly doesn’t hurt. So if parents want to introduce music into the household, that’s a great idea because as parents calm as they enjoy the music, that feeling is passed onto their infant and they’ll be calm as well.
So there are lots of reasons why music is good for young children. Being smarter is not one of them.”
How does nutrition affect brain development?
“A baby will get all the nutritional needs they need from breastmilk and we say that it’s really important for mothers to try to breastfeed.
After that, that’s when there’s a danger period for some children in some countries where there’s food insecurity, where the quality, the diversity isn’t there, where there isn’t enough food to put on the table.
That can result in both cognitive stunting – that is, the child is delayed from a developmental point of view – but also from the physical point of view.”
Why do babies need human touch?
“There’s pretty good research evidence now about the importance of touch in newborn babies, not just for human beings but, in fact, all animal species.
We talk sometimes about kangaroo care, about placing a newborn baby on the mother from a very early stage and that’s comforting for the child, it’s [also] calming for the mother. So for lots and lots of reasons touch is extraordinarily important.”
How much should you actively engage with your child?
“Children are innately curious; they want to explore their environment. Everything’s so new, it’s a big world out there and so parents shouldn’t get in the way of that. What they should do is make sure the child is perfectly safe.
Don’t try and structure the child too much. But there are many learning opportunities, for example, sing to the child, read to the child, take the child for a walk down the street – there’s a tree, there’s a doggie, there’s a car, there’s a house.
So there are lots of those things, but don’t get in the way of the child because children are naturally very curious.”
How should we approach and encourage language learning?
“As the young infant and toddler starts to develop language like, very simple things – ‘dog’, ‘bye bye’, ‘ta ta’ etc. etc. – parents can reinforce that, they can mirror that, they can mimic that.
Young children love repetition, so to hear the same song again and again, to read the same book again and again, they’ll start to see what the patterns of language are. So we encourage parents to talk to young children a lot, to sing to young children.
At the same time don’t dominate the conversation; take turns. We sometimes name that as ‘serve and return’ – the child says something, the parents say something. Often mirroring what the child says is very important.”
What’s the best way to teach your child different languages?
“I think what’s important is to have some sort of consistency, so the young child isn’t confused. So sometimes one parent, one language works. Sometimes one activity, one language works. But at the end of the day, the kids are going to sort it out themselves and use both languages in an appropriate way.
In those early years of life, what babies need is responsive caring. They need a nurturing environment. They need parents that are tuned in to the young child. Parents are their babies’ first teachers.
As the parents are talking to the child, singing to the child, reading to the child, creating these stimulating experiences, there’s this explosion of learning – all of these networks are being developed in the brain. And those foundations of learning in those very early years are critical because they set the foundations for lifetime learning.
If parents provide all of that, then the child’s brain will grow and mature and fulfil all the potential that we want from all of our children.”