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Baby’s brain and beyond: Brain-boosting tips from parent and author Tracy Cutchlow

Photo: Betty Udesen


Tracy Cutchlow read a lot of books on baby brain development. But in her newborn-baby fog, she couldn't remember what they said. She just wanted an easy reference that focused on what to do and how to do it. So she wrote one. She combined her journalism experience (15 years as an editor, including at The Seattle Times and MSN Money), her exposure to neuroscience (as editor of the bestselling books Brain Rules and Brain Rules for Baby), and her interest in photography and design.

The result? An unusually beautiful book, Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science (and What I've Learned So Far). Cutchlow distills the best scientific research into brief tips, covering everything from play and potty training to sleep and discipline. The tips are paired with documentary photographs taken by former Seattle Times photographer Betty Udesen. We chatted with Cutchlow about why she decided to tackle the book, as a new mom, and about some of her tips for fellow parents.


SC: Why did you decide to write Zero to Five?

TC: I was the editor of Brain Rules for Baby, which is a great book for conceptually understanding brain development. I'm so grateful for that experience. But then when I had a baby, I was like, "Wait, how exactly do I do this?"

My publisher had been joking about this book since I got pregnant: "Hey, the editor of Brain Rules for Baby now has to apply the book in her own life — great story!" Over time, it became clear that he wasn't joking. Believe me, no one with a 6-month-old baby thinks, "You know what? I should write a parenting book." Then I got excited about creating something really useful for new parents. It turned out to be an advantage that I was going through this stuff as I was writing the book, from 6 months to 2 years. If I were looking back now, trying to remember, the personal stories wouldn't have been as real.


Why did you choose to focus on newborns to 5-year-olds for Zero to Five?

Zero to Five focuses on baby's first five years because this is when we, as new parents, wading into uncertain waters, need the most help. (I know: parents of teenagers disagree!) And such an incredible amount of change is happening in the first five years in baby's brain. Starting in the second half of pregnancy, those neurons are making hundreds of connections per second. We're thinking, "I don't want to mess this up." At first, that panicked feeling is about keeping our tiny, incomprehensible newborn alive. Then you get a handle on that and say, "OK, now what?" Zero to Five is about what you do next.


What is the most surprising thing parents of young children may learn about discipline from Zero to Five?

Well, what surprised me about discipline is the concept of teaching instead of punishing. I thought punishment was how you to taught a kid not to misbehave. You know, "Throw your food again and you're not going to your friend's house." But this doesn't teach the things you actually want your child to learn in the long run — like why they shouldn't do that thing, how they can manage the emotions behind the misbehavior, and what they might do instead.

Teaching instead of punishing doesn't mean you're weak on discipline. You have rules and you have consequences for breaking them. But your consequences are carefully crafted and delivered in a certain way. You have to separate your desire for your child to "just do what I say right now" from the values you want your child to learn. Seattle parent coach Sarina Natkin, of GROW Parenting, was incredibly helpful to me in putting together this part of the book.


What is the one thing you would tell all first-time parents?

When you feel yourself getting frustrated, take deep breaths. Everyone's heard this. It sounds simple. But it requires noticing that you're getting upset and then just stopping in the middle of whatever's happening. That takes practice. You can practice by sitting in silence for a few minutes each day and catching on to the thoughts that flit through your head. Notice the emotions these thoughts bring up. Notice how the emotion feels in your body: palms, heartbeat, shoulders? Then name the emotion: "That's anxiety." "I'm feeling fear." Breathe. Breathing deeply is such a powerful tool because it engages the parasympathetic nervous system. It's our body's built-in way of restoring calm during stress. And when we're calm, we make better decisions. This is one tip you'll be able to use multiple times a day!


Here are three simple brain boosters for little ones, Adapted from Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science (and What I've Learned So Far) by Tracy Cutchlow

Put down your phone

We are social animals. We thrive on face-to-face interaction, and we don't function well without it. Human interaction is so important that, in baby's first years, it’s what turns on the brain for certain types of learning. Some of the most critical things baby can learn are through lots of face-to-face interaction: communication skills, empathy, and control over your emotions and behavior. A large part of communication is nonverbal: interpreting facial expressions, gestures, and body language.

Children need a ton of practice reading other people. Studies show how much time it takes to understand nonverbal communication:

  • 3-year-olds are better than 2-year-olds at understanding the facial expressions that add meaning to an utterance (such as a look implying "you need to do this" with a directive to clean up the toys).

  • 4-year-olds are able to identify and communicate emotions in body movement at a rate better than chance; 5-year-olds are even better at it.

  • 8-year-olds are as good at reading nonverbal signs as are adults.


Create a feeling of safety

Creating a feeling of safety is key as baby's stress-response system develops over the first year of their life. Your baby's strongest need is to feel safe with you. Children are exquisitely sensitive to their environments. If you create an environment of safety, love and emotional stability, good things happen:

  • Baby's brain develops a healthy stress-response system, efficiently deploying and then reducing stress hormones as needed.

  • With stress hormones in balance, baby's neural circuits for learning and reasoning are protected. The cardiovascular and immune systems can function properly.

  • Life's smaller stresses ("No shirt! I don't want it!") become chances for growth, as supportive relationships buffer the negative effects of stress.

  • Baby sees your healthy responses to stressful experiences and gets practice responding in healthy ways.

In a home with high levels of conflict, baby's stress-response system is damaged. The system is either forced into a state of constant high alert or dulled into reacting too mildly to stress. Baby is unable to form a trusting attachment with caregivers. Later, the child is more likely to be aggressive and delinquent. You might think babies are too young to understand that their parents are fighting, but babies younger than 6 months old can tell something is wrong. Babies' blood pressure and heart rate rise, and so do their levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

That doesn't mean you can never fight. Not all arguing hurts a child's brain development. If, when you argue, you are supportive of your partner and show small signs of affection, children learn that you can and will manage a conflict in a way that preserves family harmony.


Keep the nap until at least 5 years old

Little ones younger than 5 still benefit from a nap, and naps aid learning. Researchers gave preschoolers a memory test in the morning and then a 2 p.m. nap. The preschoolers were tested again after the nap and also the next morning. The children who napped scored higher on the memory test than non-nappers, both after the nap and the next day. Researchers swapped which children napped and which didn't. Same result. Naps aid early learning, the researchers suggest, because kids' short-term memory is limited, and the sleep allows for more frequent memory consolidation.

Preschool teachers' secret: time the nap soon after lunch; have the kids lay down and stretch their legs, toes, hands and arms; play soothing nature sounds; and rub the kids' backs for a bit.

If all else fails, your child can read in bed or play in their room for "quiet time."

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