Smart start
Find out what you can do to turbo-charge your baby’s early brain development

Do you want to help your baby develop into a talented little person whose abundant growth sets her on track to reach her full potential in life? While she’s been born with a pre-determined set of genetics, her brain is actually very immature at birth – and open to growth opportunities.

Experiences determine how your baby’s genes are expressed, so it’s vital to turn her early experiences into launch pads for healthy brain development.

Here’s how it works: after birth your baby’s brain undergoes a process of wiring and rewiring. Her brain will recognise what her most frequent experiences are, then choose what to keep and what to delete.

For instance, the more eye contact and interaction your baby receives the more her brain will further her social skills. The more languages she hears the more her brain’s language pathways will develop.

Her brain is open to anything, much like a computer being formatted with new software. What she uses most is what the brain will decide she needs to develop the most. If her brain is deprived of different kinds of experiences, her brain will lose its natural capacity to learn those things as well as others.

So what experiences are essential to healthy, flourishing brain development? In addition to maintaining good health and nutrition, your baby needs to bond with you and engage in play. These aspects are the foundations for her emotional, intellectual, social and physical development.

Preparing the brain for learning

So what primes your child to learn? One of the essential factors is that she should be in an alert and calm state. This is key to successful learning experiences and in turn lead to greater self confidence and willingness to try new things.

Achieving alertness

To achieve full alertness, she needs to learn to regulate her level of alertness through her senses. Have you ever noticed that you twirl your hair or play with your jewellery when you’re focusing on something? You use your senses of touch and movement to keep your arousal levels up. Your baby needs to do the same.

Achieving a sense of calm

To achieve a sense of calm, your baby needs you to be aware of how her senses affect her feelings. Children have different preferences with regards to their senses. For example, some find sucking their thumbs soothing, while others will enjoy looking at a mobile or kicking their legs.

If your baby likes quiet, serene surroundings and in your enthusiasm you are loud and intense, she will withdraw into her shell for protection and may even express discomfort through tears.

On the other hand, if she needs a lot of sensory input to become aware of what is happening around her, she’ll be unresponsive to learning if you use a soft voice and provide an environment with few sensory stimulants, such as a room full of neutral colours.

Spot the signs

So how can you tell if your baby needs more or less stimulation in her environment to learn? She will show you clearly if you know what to look for.

Your baby’s alertness may be too low if she:

  • Rubs her eyes
  • Yawns
  • Has a slouched posture
  • Shows little eye contact.

Your baby’s alertness may be too high if she:

  • Is hyperactive
  • Makes quick movements
  • Breathes quickly and shallowly
  • Makes loud noises.

Tips for changing levels of alertness


The hard work this requires creates the right level of alertness, regardless of whether your baby is feeling lethargic or overexcited


The wild, free expression of dance will help increase alertness in a lethargic child while repetitive, simple dance steps will bring an over-excited child back to an optimal state for learning

Listen to music

Hard rock has a loud bass and uneven beat which increases alertness, while classic music (especially baroque) provides an even, slow tempo, which reduces excitability

Bath your baby

A cool bath will wake her if she’s sleepy and a warm one will calm her if she’s in a wilder state

Adjust the environment

If your child is feeling overwhelmed, dim the lights and shut out noise if possible. If she needs stimulation to become alert, add colour, sound and light


If your baby is hyperactive, sucking a thick drink through a straw will help her focus. Chewing crunchy and sour or sweet food, such as cucumbers, raisins, popcorn and chunks of cheese, helps increase alertness.

In addition, it helps to respect your child’s limits. Maintain a state of calm by giving your baby breaks when she needs them. Notice what catches her attention and use this as a guide to where her talents and interests may lie and what gives her pleasure. These are the types of activities her brain will register as important.

Laying sturdy foundations for learning

The roots that anchor and feed your child’s brain development are her senses – the 5 we all know, plus the sense of movement. The senses and motor skills boost each other. Your baby needs opportunities to explore all these areas to gain an understanding of her world.

It’s crucial for her to be in control of her sensory and motor experiences, to ensure that she’s not overwhelmed. Always start small and gradually build up the amount of sensory stimulation she receives.

Sensory fun

  • Washer shake up - Pop your child on top of the washing machine in a non-skid baby carrier or sit her on top of it and supervise for safety. This stimulates her movement sense receptors
  • Fruit Shoot - Pack a tub full of round fruit, such as apples, oranges, naartjies and grapefruit. Place a paper bag with the opening facing your seated child. Let her roll the fruit into the bag and encourage her to smell them. Then ask her to describe the colour and feel of each fruit
  • Tortoise shell - Make a pretend little house out of a large cardboard box. Let your child decorate it. Create a textured pathway to her “house”. You can include pillows, sheep skin, towelling, bubble wrap, egg crates, carpets, corduroy and satin. Let your child roll, crawl, jump or tiptoe along the path to her house. Play housie-housie.

Here are further ideas for toys that are great vehicles for smart play:

Birth to 9 months

  • Rattles (Sensory)
  • Pop-up toys (Cause and effect)
  • 9 to 18 months shape shorter (Problem-solving)
  • Push and pull, balls (Movement)
  • Play food (Real life imitation)

18 to 36 months

  • Finger paint (Creative materials for hands)
  • Action and animal figures (Fantasy play)

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