Helping babies build their brains

 

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 allergy or intolerance – similar but very different

 

Some people use the terms ‘food allergy’ and ‘food intolerance’ as synonyms but this is incorrect. Some of the signs of food intolerance and allergy are similar but the difference between the two are very important.  Eating a food to which you are intolerant can leave you feeling miserable. A true food allergy, however, could be life-threatening.  Either way, a child whose body reacts negatively to something in her diet will find it more difficult to focus on schoolwork and do her best.  It’s worth considering whether or not she has a food intolerance.

Let’s first consider the differences between the two conditions.   If you’re allergic to a food, your immune system will consider the food as an enemy invader and defend the body with antibodies.  These antibodies produce symptoms that can cover a range of conditions like hives, eczema, indigestion, nausea, diarrhea, excessive winds and vomiting. More severe symptoms are termed anaphylactic and may include difficulty breathing, dizziness or loss of consciousness. Without immediate treatment – an injection of adrenalin – anaphylactic can be fatal.

A food intolerance, on the other hand, doesn’t involve the immune system.  It takes place in the digestive system and is usually due to an inability to properly break down a particular food.  This could be due to enzyme deficiencies, sensitivity to food additives (colourants and flavourants) or reactions to naturally occurring chemicals in foods. The symptoms are sometimes vague and can include a combination of gastrointestinal problems such as bloating and wind, diarrhea, nausea and indigestion and aggravation of eczema and asthma. These symptoms often take long to emerge, often several hours or days so it is difficult to pinpoint what foods may be causing the symptoms.  The symptoms too may take a couple of days to go away.

Almost any food can cause an intolerance but there are some types that occur more than others.  Common culprits are dairy, gluten and foods that can lead to gas buildup, such as cabbage and beans.   A specific type of intolerance can develop to the protein in wheat and other grains called gluten. This condition is called Coeliac disease.

The tricky thing about intolerances is that they are dose-dependent. This means that a certain amount of the offending substance has to be consumed before symptoms appear.  Small quantities of the food may be handled by the body, unlike people with allergies, who must stay away from even the tiniest trace of the trigger food. Everyone is different, so the amount tolerated will vary from person to person.

If you suspect that your child has a food intolerance, you can try an elimination diet to decipher what food is causing problems. Keeping a food diary is useful because you need to be able to look back to see what might have been eaten a few days before.

What you need to remember is that while a food allergy will probably make itself conspicuous with the more severe symptoms, many food intolerances go unnoticed and ignored.  Try to remember that these can negatively affect learning and behaviour – and if your child shows puzzling challenges, keep in mind that food might be the reason.  Next week, we’ll list some behaviours that may indicate an intolerance to one or more foods.

 

Omega-3 benefits learning: Fact or fiction?

 

 

There’s quite a lot of hype going around about the miraculous effects an omega-3 supplement may have on a child’s ability to learn, attend and behave appropriately. There is no doubt that these oils are needed for building the brain in young children and having it function well throughout our lives. We know how the brain utilizes the oil so it seems logical that having too little may negatively affect the brain.  Yet the evidence for supplementation isn’t consistent. 

For example, research from the University of Oxford in 2008 found that dietary supplementation with Omega-3 improved both reading progress and behaviour in children from the general school population who were struggling with reading.  Disappointingly, the same research team duplicated this study in 2018 and this time found no evidence that Omega-3 helped or improved the reading ability or memory of underperforming school children. The results were entirely different.

Contradicting this recent finding are two further studies. One, published in 2016, was conducted by the University of Sweden and found that children with attention problems may be helped sin their reading with the addition of these fatty acids.  In particular, they found significant improvement in the children’s ability to read a nonsense word aloud and pronounce it correctly and read a series of letters quickly.

The second study, reported in 2018 in the journal, Aggressive Behavior, found that children taking omega-3 over a year showed decreased psychological aggression and improved behaviour, effects that seemed to encourage less fighting and arguments between caregivers. This is the first to suggest that improving child behaviour through Omega-3 supplementation could have long-term benefits to the family system as a whole.

It seems sensible to address this somewhat contentious issue with caution especially as good Omega-3 supplements are expensive. Certainly personal experience by ILT practitioners shows that some children benefit markedly by regular, long-term supplements of Omega-3 as well as eating more foods containing this oil. Others show less dramatic improvements.

We cannot always blindly believe research studies but if your child shows unusual difficulty in learning, consider first whether or not she shows some signs of Omega-3 deficiency. These include:

Dry skin

Dandruff

Frequent urination

Irritability

Soft, brittle or easily frayed nails

Scaly, ‘crocodile’ skin

Cracked skin on heels or fingertips

Chicken skin bumps on backs of upper arms or thighs

Dry, unmanageable hair

Dry eyes

Excessive thirst

Tiredness, weakness, frequent infections, lowered immunity (always sick) and allergies.

If you can’t afford supplements, encourage your child to eat cold water fish, such as snoek, pilchards, salmon, hake (but grilled or baked – not battered and deep-fried) and walnuts and pumpkin seeds. Flax seed oil is cheaper and not as strong-tasting as fish oil and can be hidden in smoothies, salad dressings, milk over cereals and so on.

To conclude, don’t expect that your child’s problems will miraculously disappear once you start on an Omega-3 supplement. Give it at least 4 months before seeing results.  In addition, oil deficiency may not be the one underlying cause of the child’s challenges. There may be other areas needing intervention.  Try to have a comprehensive evaluation of all the factors that may be impacting on a learner’s ability to cope with the demands of school and life.

 

Food intolerances and behaviour

 

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:

Quiet children

Inattentiveness, forgetfulness, unexplained tiredness, difficulty concentrating, anxiety, depression, panic attacks.  Such children may be diagnosed with Inattentive ADHD.

Restless children

Irritability, restlessness, inattention, difficulty settling in to sleep, restless legs, night waking, night terrors.  Such children may be diagnosed with ADHD including hyperactivity.

Defiant children

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).

 

When food isn’t a friend

 

 

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.

 

 

Is your child eating enough oil?

 

 

The media has been focusing for quite some time on the benefits of fats and oils in our diets.  It seems that finally the world is realizing that saturated fats are not the killers we once thought they were and we are becoming aware that not all oils available in supermarkets are as healthy as marketers would have us believe.

Standing out from this muddle of misinformation over the decades has been the fact that Omega-3 oil is a key nutrient for brain help.

None of us would disagree that learning takes place largely in the brain. It follows that if the brain is deprived of the nutrients that it needs to be healthy, it won’t be able to fulfil its learning function. 

We can all be labelled as ‘fat heads’ because our brains are predominantly made of fat.  Almost all of its structures and functions are crucially dependent on essential fatty acids. These cannot be made by our bodies but come directly from our food.  Pause then, for a moment, and consider the impact of the last thirty years or so during which we were sternly told that fat was bad for us and we should consume low-fat or fat-free products.  We now know without doubt that if a child’s brain is deficient in the important fatty acids (mainly Omega-3) it will still function but will process information far slower than otherwise.  Imagine an outdated computer that works but processes slowly, compared to an up-to-date version, which processes at the blink of an eye 

Researchers in the UK have found that a child’s blood levels of Omega-3 (specifically a component known as DHA) can significantly predict how well he or she is able to concentrate and learn.  From sampling nearly 500 schoolchildren, they found that higher levels were associated with better reading and memory, as well as with fewer behaviour problems, as rated by parents and teachers 

Many of the children identified as having below-average reading skills showed levels of Omega-3 that were way below the level considered optimal. Their parents also revealed that almost nine out of ten children in the sample ate fish less than twice a week, and nearly one in ten never ate fish at all.  This is significant because fish is the only really practical source of Omega-3 in our diets. If a child is sensitive to fish, flaxseed (or flax oil), pumpkin seeds and walnuts provide the most commonly available alternatives.

In the light of this knowledge, it makes sense to encourage children to eat fish from an early age.  We have good sources of cold water fatty fish (which are the best sources of Omega-3).  Snoek, hake, trout, pilchards and herrings will all feed our hungry brains – but not battered and deep-fried – learn to grill, bake or lightly braai!

The question naturally arises about Omega-3 supplements – particularly in children who are picky eaters.  I’ll be addressing this in next week’s post.

 

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