All parents want to help children develop to the best of their abilities, and it is no wonder that most parents are perplexed and confused when they think about their roles in children’s lives. Rearing a child from birth onward is complicated enough’ why add another layer of complexity? Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective), new scientific data suggests parents start child-rearing in the womb.
The amount of advice for nourishing your child’s intellectual and creative capabilities can pummel new parents. Very little parental advice, however, talks about the critical importance of babies’ pre-birth brain development.
As a new dad who is professionally immersed in neuroscience, I feel obliged to perplex parents even more – I would be doing you a disservice if I said this stuff was easy. It’s not easy, and it’s certainly not getting any easier. Throughout this article, there are three central points you should keep in mind:
- Readiness to learn starts in the womb.
- Parents need to start a baby’s learning process prior to birth or slightly after birth at the very latest.
- The first 3 years of life are the most important for brain development
Start Early – Start Smart
Typically, timetables for child development start too late. Science provides loads of evidence that the first three years of life are crucial to brain development. During these early years, about 85% of a child’s brain gets wired. Still, decades of scientific research also tell us that the wiring of a child’s brain starts much earlier – in the womb.
Most parenting advice today stresses the benefits of parents talking to their child. What this good advice omits, however, is that the parent-child dialogue needs to start when a child is in the womb – and then it needs to continue into the first years of life. How exactly do children benefit from this parent-child dialogue in the womb? The parent-child dialogue determines a child’s future capacities for learning and development, forming the building blocks of language acquisition for children.
“Sound Advice” for Parents
Cultivation of language and communication skills starts before children emerge from the womb. That scientific fact makes child-rearing even more involved and challenging than most parents imagine. In other words, the “quality time” parents should be spending with children starts before the children are even born.
My wife and I recently saw those two long-awaited lines on a pregnancy test. Like every other expecting parent, we hope and pray that our precious baby will develop normally. But as we wait patiently, we also know that our job as parents is already about to begin, months before we ever cradle our precious baby in our arms. Thanks to some “sound advice” from science, we have the advantage of knowing that nothing is better for the maturing hearing system of a fetus than talking and singing.
As my wife and I talk and sing to our unborn daughter, we know that the frequencies of these sounds are being registered in her neuro-pathways, laying the foundation for future language acquisition. We know this to be true for one simple physiological reason: the auditory system is already matured in the last trimester.
This important fact motivates all we do at my company, Kadho, Inc where we create science-based games that help develop the language learning capabilities of babies, toddlers, and unborn children. These products provide parents with the equivalent of several nannies from a variety of countries. Our mission is to plant the seed for language learning during the time that it matters the most. These seeds will enable children to think more creatively, even in more than one language, and help them to contribute to personal fulfillment, social success, academic achievement, and professional excellence.
Communication Starts with Hearing!
Perhaps you have heard from your physician, family, or friends that it’s important to talk to your baby in the womb, especially during the last few months of pregnancy. That’s not only good advice: it is backed by a great deal of science pertaining to infants’ auditory development, which begins during the first 20 weeks of gestation and becomes more or less functional within the five weeks following that.
Here’s some basic scientific information about what can and should happen to your baby’s hearing system in the critical period between 25 weeks of gestation and 12 months of age:
- While the fetus is developing, all of the most important parts of your baby’s hearing system are properly developed and tuned to receive and distinguish speech, music, and other sounds.
- During pregnancy, even the rhythms of language can influence the development of the fetus.
- Newborns can discriminate their mother’s voice from other female voices and even differentiate between their native language and other rhythmically distinct languages.
Babies that have been nurtured by their mother’s voice, other voices, or other “proper sounds” while in the womb will be born with the advantages of “properly developed” auditory systems. With a “properly developed” hearing system, a child will have the optimal ability to learn language and music during early childhood. By maintaining a solid language learning ability, children can learn foreign languages later on in life better and more quickly.
The Awesome “Window of Opportunity”
Scientific research over the last 50 years tells us that the first few years of a child’s life are the most important for brain development. During this period, a child’s brain generates a mind-boggling number (think trillions) of synaptic connections.
This remarkably rapid brain development process begins during the first few post-natal months and reaches its peak starting at about 6 months of age. It continues until about 3–4 years of age. During this period, language/communication and cognitive skills develop along with a child’s hearing system.
This period is the awesome “window of opportunity” for a child’s brain circuitry to develop. That’s good news for parents. But the good news from neurological science doesn’t end there: even though this “window of opportunity” closes later on, the early childhood closing process can be reversed, enabling children to grow their abilities to learn and acquire languages. In the simplest of terms, research strives to keep that marvelous “window of opportunity” open by introducing the right kinds of sensory stimulation.
Language Learning “Seed” Must be Planted Early!
Children are born with remarkable abilities to learn and acquire languages, and from birth, infants prefer to listen to speech sounds over non-speech sounds. However, a child’s most remarkable gift at birth is the ability to hear and distinguish between the world’s languages.
What does this mean?
- Parents can create happier, more productive children simply through the everyday use of language sounds. (That’s why my colleagues and I focus our research and gaming product development on the most basic elements of language learning.)
- We seek to help parents expose their children not only to the sounds in their own native language but also to the fundamental words, sounds, and phonemes of the 12 most commonly spoken languages in the world.
I feel confident that my unborn baby is already benefiting from the things I have learned about how the brain grows and works. I want to share what I’ve learned with other parents. We all know that caring parents matter, but they matter even more than we previously realized.
By taking into consideration what we have learned from neuroscience, moms and dads can capitalize on that precious window of opportunity to build their child’s emotional, social, and mental health and competencies.
By exposing your baby to different languages, music, and other sounds, you are encouraging him or her to learn to acquire new knowledge through discovery, reasoning, and problem-solving. This encouragement will lead to experiences in later years when thinking more creatively (even in more than one language) becomes increasingly important for success, fulfillment, and achievement in every area of life.
Early Exposure Matters. Make It Count!
The toy industry is diligent at creating products for educating and entertaining children both at home and at school,. Where they fail however, is in creating new products that improve children’s optimal capacities for learning. No wonder parents increasingly feel anxious and uncertain about about the value of the educational games they purchase.
At Kadho we have asked parents many questions about their children’s development and learning. Many answers reflect this parental worry. The products we develop, grounded in neuroscience and cognitive research are addressing this need for a better connection between developing the potential for learning and the actual education itself.
Dads also know that in addition to solid scientific evidence, parents need more intuitive reassurances that they can help their children to develop – from the earliest age, even prior to birth – all of the tools essential for building successful lives in a turbulent world. These tools include:
All of these tools start with the acquisition of fundamental language abilities.
I personally remain committed to bringing together decades of neuroscience and cognitive science in learning games for children of the youngest ages. These games are intended to nourish and to shape children’s mastery of meaningful skills, to foster cognitive and social development, and to strength the parent-child bond. While it is true that my efforts may not help me get rid of my own accent or learn to speak Mandarin with fluency, I hope to keep my daughter’s possibilities wide open.
— Kaveh Azartash, PhD,
Dr. Kaveh Azartash is a vision scientist by training and works to enhance early childhood education by using the principles of vision and neuroscience. Azartash is a public speaker, engineer, author, scientist and serial entrepreneur. He received his PhD from the University of California, Irvine, and for the last decade, has researched developmental vision science and specializes on how the brain processes visual input. He is currently CEO of Kadho which develops educational software.