In last week’s post, I wrote that a baby’s brain is very undeveloped at birth, owing to the relatively small size of a newborn’s head. In fact, the newly born child has all the brain cells (neurons) he will ever need but they aren’t able to communicate with each other very efficiently.
One of the most important developmental stages in these early days is for the infant to do what is necessary for these neurons to connect to each other. Eventually, he’ll end up with neural networks that are needed for learning and living. These networks provide us with the ability to learn language, interpret sound and vision, control emotions, think and remember. The quality of the brain cells themselves and the way they connect to each other will determine whether that individual grows up with an average or a really smart brain.
Some of this will depend on the child’s genes but a great deal will depend on the environment you provide and in which the child will develop. It’s not true that clever parents will automatically have clever children. Academic success and intelligence are hugely reliant on a growing environment that is characterized by lots of love, little stress, mental stimulation and a good diet.
Mental stimulation is not provided by mindless facts. Many children can learn to count, recite the alphabet, give correct answers to learned questions and so on, but these don’t indicate a good brain. Essentially, as Dr David Perlmutter points out in his book (see reference below), the goal of parent’s interactions with their young children should not be whatthe children learn but howthey learn it. Stay away from activities that dull their brains, deaden their senses and put them at risk for later learning difficulties.
It’s better for a developing brain to learn what letters and numbers represent rather than being able to spell or count. In order for this to happen, they need to learn their shapes and understand that letters and numbers are symbols that carry meaning according to their shapes.
It’s also important that the connections being made by the neurons are firmly cemented in place. For this to happen, children need repetition of incoming mental stimulation. Most seek this out automatically by insisting that parents reinforce learning. Most of us know how a child will demand the same story over and over again, or be happy to watch the same film again and again. This is a good example of how children learn and how they strengthen the connections in their neural networks.
Here’s one example of a brain-building activity given by Dr Perlmutter that will help the child to learn the meaning of numbers:
For a child beginning at around age 12 months: Find a puzzle containing pieces shaped from numbers 1 to 10. Fitting the numbers into their correct places allows the child to experience the ‘feel’ qualities of numbers, which helps to ingrain the picture of the number into their brains. You can enhance her experience by showing her what a particular number represents. For example, when she puts the number 2 into the correct place on the puzzle board, hand her two small balls and say “Two.” Every time she puts back another puzzle piece, add balls to her collection until the puzzle is completed. This paves the way for early recognition of the symbolic nature of numbers. This is far more beneficial than simply teaching the child to memorise counting from one to ten.
Acknowledgement is given to Dr David Perlmutter who wrote the informative book Raise a smarter child by kindergarten: Build a better brain and increase IQ up to 30 points.Available from Amazon books.
Food allergies in children are more widely recognised and treated than food intolerances. Yet foods that a child’s body considers to be unfriendly and possibly harmful can and do cause all manner of undesirable, difficult to handle behaviours. The realization of this has dawned very slowly among many professionals and there are still medical people who find it hard to believe that such a wide variety of behaviours can be due to the food we give our families.
Food intolerances affect not only behaviours and general health. Symptoms may not only be seen in ailments such as headaches, rashes and asthma but also in, for example, low muscle tone which may in its turn negatively impact coordination, handwriting, reading, speech, bladder and bowel problems.
One of the pioneers who paved the way to our current understanding is Sue Dengate. If you’re interested, she has a brilliant website at www.fedup.com.au which makes excellent and informative reading. She designed the Failsafe diet, which has helped many food sensitive children around the world.
Here is a concise list of behaviours compiled by Sue that may indicate an intolerance to one or more foods:
Inattentiveness, forgetfulness, unexplained tiredness, difficulty concentrating, anxiety, depression, panic attacks. Such children may be diagnosed with Inattentive ADHD.
Irritability, restlessness, inattention, difficulty settling in to sleep, restless legs, night waking, night terrors. Such children may be diagnosed with ADHD including hyperactivity.
Losing temper, arguing with adults, refusing requests and defying rules, deliberately annoying others, blaming others, touchy and easily annoyed, angry and resentful, spiteful and vindictive; kicking, biting, hitting, spitting and punching. Such children may be diagnosed with Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD).
Food allergies, sensitivities or intolerances can play havoc with a child’s ability to benefit from teaching. Before we go into this, let’s clarify what causes food (and environmental) allergies and sensitivities.
Genetics seems to be an important factor in the risk of developing allergies. It seems that children with (true) ADHD who have food allergies are also likely to have parents with similar problems.
Nutritional factors are also significant for the development and severity of all forms of allergy. When a child has less than adequate nutrition, his immune system cannot function as it should and is more likely to misfire when faced with various stressful elements in the digestive system. For example, children with deficiencies of omega-3 are more likely to suffer allergies; deficiencies in magnesium and zinc are also know to promote allergic responses. The overall quality of the diet may also play an important role. Too much processed, stale, chemically altered or nutritionally depleted foods may well promote an allergy.
Another factor is toxicological stress. Children who are regularly exposed to pesticides that are toxic to the immune system, heavy metals (lead, mercury, cadmium), plastic residues and solvents may be more prone to allergies.
Developmental markers may also play a role. Breastfeeding may significantly reduce the risk of later developing food allergies. Ideally, babies should be breast fed exclusively until at least six months of age – longer if possible. The reason for this is that a young infant’s gut is naturally leaky and for a good reason. Large molecules, for example the antibodies in the mother’s milk, can cross through the gaps to enter the baby’s bloodstream to protect her from infection while her immune system is still immature. This is a vulnerable time and if other molecules enter the blood, the developing immune system may see them as threatening and becomes non-tolerant of them. This is exactly why mothers are encouraged to not only breastfeed but to carefully and slowly introduce solid foods one food at a time, starting with foods least likely to generate an allergic response. This ‘educates’ the baby’s immune system and helps the body develop a tolerance towards each food as it is introduced.
Intestinal parasites are worth a mention as well as they may also cause upsets in the digestive system and underlie the emergence of allergies. For this reason, regular treatment is advised for the whole family and not just for the fur children!
Non-food allergies such as hay fever can raise the severity of food allergies. If these types of allergies are particularly active in some months of the year, such as Spring, pre-existing food allergies may become more predominate at the same time.
When the immune system is not involved in a child’s reaction to foods, we refer to them as having a food intolerance. Knowing the difference is important because it will impact on the success of treatment. The most frequent reason behind food intolerance is inadequate digestion of particular nutrients. Lactose, or milk sugar, is probably the most common example of an intolerance due to digestive difficulties.
Take a long, serious look at your child. Sometimes allergies and food intolerances show up in his or her physical appearance. Some children can show a characteristic ‘spaced out’ or even an almost ‘demonic’ look when they suddenly become impossible. These looks can sometimes be accompanied by sounds such as throat clearing or clucking. This last noise is typical of a dairy or milk sensitivity. Some slur their words or begin to speak very rapidly. A few children whine or repeat the same phrase over and over. In addition, they may develop a hoarse voice or red ears or cheeks after exposure to a certain food or chemical.
Other signs include dark rings under the eyes, which can be grey, black, blue and even reddish. Nose rubbing, skin-scratching, wriggly lets, small horizontal wrinkles under the eyes and facial twitches and tics are very common in some children.
Abnormally rosy cheeks are particularly characteristic of allergic children between the ages of two and four years (and of adult women who have multiple food or chemical allergies).
Some children show hives, which look like mosquito bites or more generalized rashes.
And lastly, a bloated or abnormally large abdomen may also be a sign of problems – not always of a food allergy or intolerance but possibly of a yeast infection or parasites in the gut.
Next week we’ll continue this theme and describe the behaviours that so often accompany food intolerances – and are mistakenly thought to be ADHD, oppositional or even defiant behaviour caused by mental disorders.