Review and Summary: Brain Rules for Baby

Brain Rules for Baby Book Cover

We are flooded with parenting advices on how to raise children, ranging from the absurd and obviously nonsensical to the ones that are so technical that they leave us puzzled and uncertain about how to comprehend or implement them. John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist, provides a breath of fresh air with his scientifically-backed insights on parenting in Brain Rules for Baby: How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five. This book is brimming with a treasure trove of fun facts and invaluable advice. Armed with the knowledge of what actually transpires inside a baby’s brain, your perception of their actions will be irrevocably altered after reading this book.


Myth: Playing Mozart to your womb will improve your baby’s future math score

Instead of doing so, teach impulse control to your baby in his/her early years.

Myth: Exposing your infant or toddler to language DVDs will boost his vocabulary

  • Truth: Some DVDs can actually reduce a toddles’s vocabulary
  • Instead of using DVDs, the words have to come from you—a real, live human being. The number and variety of words you use when talking to your baby boost both his vocabulary and his IQ

Myth: To boost their brain power, children need French lesson by age 3 and a room piled with “brain-friendly” toys and a library of educational DVDs

  • The greatest pediatric brain-boosting technology in the world is probably a plain cardboard box, a fresh box of crayons, and 2 hours.

Myth: Continually telling your children they are smart will boost their confidence

  • By doing so, they’ll become less willing to work on challenging problems. If you want your baby to get into a great college, praise his or her effort instead.

Myth: children somehow find their own happiness

  • The greatest predictor of happiness is having friends.
  • Learning a musical instrument boosts the ability by 50%.

Stop Placing 100% Trust in Parenting Books and Advice

So many parenting books have such opposing conclusion is because they are not having a robust-enough scientific filter. Keep in mind that brain science can’t solve every parenting situation because:

1. Every kid is different

  • Individual complexity is muddled in cultural differences, complete with their very own value systems.
  • Get to know your children by:
    • spend a lot of time with them
    • know how they behave and how their behaviors change over time.

2. Every parent is different

Kids raised in two-parent households are confronted with no one parenting style but two. Child-rearing in two-parent households will always be a hybrid proposition. The children begin responding back to the parents, which will influence future parenting behavior. All of these changes complicate the research.

3. Kids are influenced by others

Life gets more complex as a child grows up. One researcher has gone on record saying that peers—especially of the same sex—shape a child’s behavior much more than parents do. Children do not live in an exclusive social ecology dominated by parents and nobody else.

4. We can say ‘linked to’ but not ’causes’

Two things can be associated without one causing the other. To ensure one thing causes another, the ideal research should be performed with the following requirements:

  • find the behavioral secret sauce that makes smart or happy or moral kids who they are
  • discover parents who were missing the secret sauce and give it to them
  • measure the kids 20 years later to see how they turned out

Those requirement is challenging, specifically the last point. Thus, this is why most of the research we have about parenting is associative, not causal.

Empowering Parents: The Balance Between Control and Letting Go – Seed and Soil Approach

There are some factors parents can’t control and some they can. There’s seed and there’s soil. All of the nurture in the world won’t change the fact that 50% of your child’s potential is genetic. Good news: as a parent, you can only do your best.

The Surprising Benefits of Morning Sickness for Your Baby’s Health

The best feature of life in the womb, from the baby’s point of view, is its relative lack of stimulation. The baby wants to be left alone. Some evolutionary biologists believe this is why morning sickness still persist in human pregnancies.

Morning sickness, which can last the entire day (and, for some women, the entire pregnancy), makes a woman stick to a bland, boring diet. This avoidance strategy would have kept our maternal ancestors away from the natural toxins in exotic or spoiled foods in the wild. The accompanying fatigue would keep women from engaging in physical activity risky enough to harm the baby.

In addition, researchers now think it could make the baby smarter, too. One study, yet to be replicated, looked at children whose mothers suffered from major nausea and vomiting during pregnancy. Theory (that still need to be proven further) shows two hormones that stimulate a woman to vomit may also act like neural fertilizer for the developing brain. The more vomiting, the more fertilizer; hence, the greater effect on IQ.

However, moms, do not force yourselves to vomit in hopes for the sake of increasing the IQ of your future baby. Being healthy and safe matter more!

What is the significance of the B-complex vitamin, folic acid, during conception and pregnancy?

During pregnancy, baby’s neural tube has to develop properly. If it doesn’t, the baby could have a protruding spinal cord or a tumor near his lower back, a condition known as spina bifida. Or the baby could grow without a complete head, a rare condition known as anencephaly. Folic acid helps shape the proper neural tube—both the near and far ends. Women who take folic acid around conception and during the first few weeks of pregnancy are 76% less likely to create a fetus with neural tube defects than those who don’t take the supplement. It is the first thing mom can do to aid baby’s brain development.

The Calming Effect: How Rubbing the Baby with Its Own Amniotic Fluid Before Washing Can Soothe the Newborn?

Smells remind babies of the comfortable home they were inhabiting for the past nine or ten months. That’s because smell and certain types of memory from powerful neural linkages in the human brain. Indeed, many mothers can identify their own newborns based on smell alone.

Things proven to help baby’s brain during pregnancy

1. Gain just the right weight

Your baby’s IQ is a function of her brain volume. Brain size predicts about 20% of the variance in her IQ scores. Brain volume is related to birth weight, which means that, to a point, larger babies are smarter babies.

IQ rises with birth weight, up to 8 pounds (~3.6 kg)

  • A baby’s IQ rises steadily with birth weight, up to about 8 pounds (~3.6 kg). Above 9 pounds (~4 kg), IQ actually drifts down a bit, about 1 point on average.This loss probably occurs because larger babies are more likely to experience hypoxia (lack of oxygen) or other injuries during birth.
  • If you have BMI between 25 and 29.9, you need to gain only about 15-25 pounds (~6,8-11,3 kg) to create a healthy baby. You want to add about half a pound (~0,2 kg) a week in the critical second and third trimesters of pregnancy.
  • If you are underweight (BMI <18.5), you need to gain 28-40 pounds (~12.7-18 kg) to optimize your baby’s brain development. That’s about a pound (~0.45 kg) a week in the critical last half of pregnancy. This is true for women of healthy weight, too.

2. Eat just the right foods

Between four months and birth, the fetus becomes almost ridiculously sensitive to both the amount and the type of food you consume. Babies experiencing a critical lack of nutriment have fewer neurons, fewer and shorter connections between the neurons that exist, and less insulation all around in the second trimester. When they grow up, show slower language growth, have lower IQs, gets worse grades, and generally make poor athletes.

  • Eat a balanced meal, with a heavy emphasis on fruits and vegetables.
  • For the non-vegetarians, a source of iron in the form of red meat is appropriate. Iron is necessary for proper brain development and normal functioning even in adults.
  • Only 2 supplements thus far have enough data behind them to support an influence on brain development in utero:
    • Folic acid
    • Omega-3
      • Those of us who don’t get enough omega-3 are at much greater risk for dyslexia, attention-deficit disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, even schizophrenia.
      • Few studies (indicate the question warrants further research): mothers who ate more fish starting in the 2nd trimester had smarter babies than those who didn’t (performed better on cognitive tests that measure memory, recognition, and attention at 6 months post-birth).
      • Researchers recommend pregnant women eat at least 12 ounces (~0.34 kg) of fish per week. What about the mercury in fish? It appears that the benefits outweigh the harm. Eat those fish from source possessing less concentrated mercury (salmon, cod, haddock, sardines, and canned light tuna) as opposed to longer-lived predatory fish (swordfish, mackerel, and albacore tuna)
  • No single diet is going to work the same way for all people, and that’s because of this extraordinary individuality. This is especially true if you’re pregnant.

3. Avoid too much stress

Maternal stress → influence prenatal development → long-lasting behavioral consequences, especially if the woman is severely or chronically stressed in those hypersensitive last months of pregnancy → consequences:

  • Change the temperament of your child
  • Lower your baby’s IQ
  • Inhibit baby’s future motor skills, attentional states, and ability to concentrate, differences still observable at age 6
  • Damage your baby’s stress-response system
  • Shrink the size of baby’s brain

A woman’s stress hormones affect her baby by slipping through the placenta and entering the baby’s brain:

  • The first target: the limbic system
    • Area profoundly involved in emotional regulation and memory
    • This region develops more slowly in the presence of excess hormone, one of the reason we think baby cognition is damaged if mom is severely or chronically stressed.
  • The second target: the one that’s supposed to rein in glucocorticoids levels after the stress has passed.
    • The excess hormone from mom → baby has a difficult time turning off her own stress hormone system → baby’s brain become marinated in glucocorticoids whose concentrations are no longer easily controllable → the baby can carry this damaged stress-response system into adulthood → elevated levels of glucocorticoids thus become a regular part of her life → excessive stress is contagious: you can get it from your kids, and you can give it to them, too.

4. Exercise just the right amount

  • Exercise should be a part of human pregnancies. Pregnant woman should exercise 30 minutes or more of moderate exercise per day.
  • Benefit: easier time giving birth than obese women. The pushing phase was so much shorter → babies less likely to experience brain damage from oxygen deprivation.
  • Fit mothers also tend to give birth to smarter babies than obese mothers

Exercise buffers against stress

  • Certain types of exercise actually buffer a pregnant woman against negative influence of stress.
  • Aerobic exercise elevates BDNF, a molecule in brain that can specifically block the toxic effects of those nasty glucocorticoids. More BDNF → less stress, which means fewer glucocorticoids in womb → better baby brain development.

Too strenuous exercise and baby overheats

  • During strenuous exercise, especially in the later stages of pregnancy, the baby’s heart rate and breathing begin to decline. Overly strenuous exercise begins to shut off blood flow to the womb → restricting baby’s oxygen supply → not good for the baby’s brain.
  • Elevation of more than 2 degree celsius → raise the risk of miscarriage and can affect brain and eye development
  • Swimming is one of the best forms of exercise in later stages. The water helps transfer excess heat away from the womb.
  • Proper balance: moderate, regular, aerobic exercise. Meaning: keeping your heart rate < 70% of its maximal rate, then slowing things down as due date approaches.

What happens when parents fight?

  • Marital conflict → fully capable of hurting a baby’s brain development.

Infants younger than 6 months can usually detect that something is wrong. They can experience psychological changes—such as increase blood pressure, heart rate, and stress hormones—just like adults.

Babies in emotionally unstable homes → much less able to positively respond to new stimuli, calm themselves, and recover from stress. Even their little legs sometimes won’t develop properly, as stress hormones can interfere with bone mineralization. By the time these children are 4 years old, their stress hormone levels can be almost twice as high as children in emotionally stable homes.

Reconcile in front of your kids

Parents who practice bandaging each other after a fight, deliberately and explicitly, allow their children to model both how to fight fair and how to make up.

Five things to consider as you contemplate your child’s intellectual gifts:

1. The desire to explore

Babies learn about their environment through a series of increasingly self-corrected ideas. Babies with innovator’s DNA have an ability to associate creatively, an annoying habit of consistently asking “what if”, an unquenchable desire to tinker and experiment.

2. Self-control

This is part of behaviors under the collective term executive function. Executive function controls planning, foresight, problem solving, and goal setting. A child’s brain can be trained, But genes are undoubtedly involved. One more way every brain is wired differently

3. Creativity

It has few core components. These include the ability to perceive new relationship between old things.

4. Verbal communication

It is important in human intelligence. Once language acquisition gets going it tends to develop quickly. We are not born with the capacity to speak a specific language. We are born with the capacity to speak any language.

5. Interpreting nonverbal communication

Face-reading abilities are so important because the brain devotes a tremendous amount of neural real estate, including the fusiform gyrus, to the single task of processing faces. Neural acreage of this size is expensive; the brain doesn’t fence off one area for such a restricted function unless it has a good reason. The brain has face-specific regions because a person can damage them and lose the ability to recognize the people to whom the faces belong. The disorder is called prosopagnosia, or face-blindness.

IQ tests don’t really matter

  • Some researchers believe IQ tests measure nothing more than your ability to take IQ tests. Researchers don’t agree on what an IQ test measures. Given the range of intellectual abilities that exist, it is probably smart to reject a one-number-fits-all notion as the final word on baby’s brain power.
  • Intelligence measures are more plastic then many people realize.
  • IQ has been shown to vary over one’s life span, and it is surprisingly vulnerable to environmental influences.
  • Standard IQ tests are not capable of measuring exploration, self-control, and creativity to verbal and nonverbal ability, even though they play a powerful role in the future success of your children.
  • A baby may have many other intellectual aspects in abundance that IQ tests are inherently incapable of detecting. That’s not to say that everyone is a potential Einstein. These gifts are unevenly sprinkled among our children, and most have genetic components. There’s more to intelligence than just seeds.

Our brain’s main job is not learning. It’s for surviving.

The brain is not interested in learning. The brain is interested in surviving. Every ability in our intellectual kit was engineered to escape extinction. Learning exists only to serve the requirements of this primal goal. Learning is an incidental byproduct of a much deeper force: the gnawing, clawing desire to live to the next day. We do not survive so that we can learn. We learn so that we can survive.

If you want a well-educated child, you must create an environment of safety. When the brain’s safety needs are met, it will allow its neurons to moonlight in algebra classes. When safety needs are not met, algebra goes out the window.

What boost your baby’s brain?

1. Breastfed for a year

Breast milk is the nutritional equivalent of a magic bullet for a developing baby. It has important salts and even more important vitamins. Its immune-friendly properties prevent ear, respiratory, and gastrointestinal infections.

2. Talk to your baby a lot

The more parents talk to their children, even in the earliest moments of life, the better their kids linguistic abilities and the faster that improvement is achieved. The gold standard is 2100 words per hour (moderate rate of conversation). The variety of the words spoken is nearly as important as the number of words spoken. So is the amount of positive feedback. You can reinforce language skills through interaction. Children whose parents talked positively, richly, and regularly to them knew twice as many words as those whose parents talked to them the least.

By age 3 kids who were talked to regularly by their parents had IQ scores 1 1/2 times higher than those kids whose parents talked to them the least.

When should you start doping all this talking? As soon as the baby is born. Babies are reliably capable of interacting with adults 42 minutes after birth. And preverbal infants are processing a lot of verbal information, even if they don’t always seem to be taking it in. Even reading to a 3-month-old is probably good, especially if you hold the child close and allow her to interact with you.

3. Hurray for play!

Open-ended play was fertilizing baby’s brains with the behavioral. kids allowed a specific type of open-ended play time were:

  • More creative
  • Better at language
  • Better at problem solving
  • Less stressed
  • Better at memory
  • More socially-skilled

Mature-dramatic play is the tools of the mind. It has to be engaged in many hours a day. In mature-dramatic play, such engagement allowed children to learn how to regulate their social behaviors. This imaginative exercise included friends. They would have to follow the rules, too. They might push and pull argue with each other until they agreed on what those rules were and how they should be executed → self-control.

4. Praise effort, not IQ

What separates high performers from low performers: effort. Effort is in part the willingness to focus one’s attention and then sustain that focus. Effort also involves impulse control and a persistent ability to delay gratification. You get effort from your child by how you praise him. What you praise defines what your child perceive success to be.

What happens when you praise your kids saying “You’re smart”?

  • Child begins to perceive mistakes as failure.
    • Because you told her that success was due to some static ability over which she had no control, she starts to think of failure (such as a bad grade) as a static thing, too—now perceived as a lack of ability. Successes are though of as gifts rather than the governable product of effort.
  • He/she becomes more concerned with looking smart than with actually learning something
  • He/she becomes less willing to confront the reasons behind any deficiencies, less willing to make an effort. Such kids have a difficult time admitting errors. There is simply too much at stake for failure.

What to say instead: “You work really hard”

Should have said “I’m so proud of you. You must have really studied hard” → appeals to controllable effort rather than to unchangeable talent → growth mindset praise → children with a growth mindset tend to have a refreshing attitude toward failure.

Educational videos and DVDs didn’t work for babies

They had no positive effect on the vocabularies of the target audience, infants 17 to 24 months. For every hour per day the children spent watching certain baby DVDs and videos, the infants understood an average of 6-8 fewer words than infants who did not watch them.

Before age 2, TV is best to avoided completely. After age 5, some television shows improve brain performance.


  • Keep the TV off before the child turns 2
  • After age 2, help children choose the shows. pay special attention to any media that allow intelligent interaction
  • Watch the chosen TV show with your children, interacting with the median and helping your children to analyze and think critically about what they just experienced.

Stop hyper-parenting

Children do not go through the same developmental milestones in lock step. Children go through developmental stages at their own pace. Many don’t follow the order, they sometimes skip a step or two or repeat the same stage several times in a row.

Hyper-parenting can actually hurt your child’s intellectual development in several ways:

  • Extreme expectations stunt higher-level thinking

Kids sense a parent wats them to accomplish some intellectual feat for which their brain are not ready → coerces the brain to “lower-level” thinking strategies → creating counterfeits habits that may have to be unlearned later.

  • Pressure can extinguish curiosity

If parents supply only rigid educational expectations, interest will be transformed into appeasement. Exploratory behavior is not rewarded, so it is soon disregarded. remember, the brain is a survival organ, and nothing is more important to a child than the safety parents can provide.

  • Continual anger or disappointment becomes toxic stress.

Parents press their children to perform tasks their little brains aren’t yet capable of executing → create a psychological state, called learned unhelplessness, which physically can damage a child’s brain. The child learns he can’t control the negative stimuli (the parent’s anger or disappointment) coming at him or the situations that cause it → a gateway to depression.

Author: John Medina

Publication date: 21 September 2010

Number of pages: 336 pages


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