30 January 2012
Good nutrition is one of the key components to raising smarter kids.
By BRIGITTE ROZARIO
Should you feed your child more fish? How about supplements like vitamins and minerals? Should you send your child for holiday courses and seminars? Surely, training both the right and left brain will help?
These are just some of the common methods that parents use in the hope of making their child “smarter.”
Is it possible though, or is it just a myth? Can you actually make your child smarter?
Consultant paediatrician Dr Azam Mohd Nor gives parents hope. While there are certain things that will help, he admits there is no clear recipe for making a child smarter.
Dr Azam explains that it starts from the womb and good nutrition. The mother should eat nutritious food and take folic acid pills when pregnant, especially in the first trimester.
“The growth rate of the development of the brain happens very much within the first trimester and this is where the development is very important. And that’s why it is important for the mother to take proper nutrition from the word ‘go.’
“There are some studies showing that women who are at the age where they might conceive should already take folic acid because a deficiency in folic acid can cause a neural tube defect in the baby – which is a defect of the brain.
“This is a very direct association that is proven and therefore it is an important factor in the development of the child,” explains Dr Azam.
According to him, it is a fact that children who are on breast milk tend to have a higher IQ compared with children on infant formula.
“Studies have shown that the IQ is eight points higher compared with the child who is on infant formula. The reason is that the content of the nutrients in breast milk is far more superior compared with the content of nutrients in infant formula,” he says.
Dr Azam adds that breastfeeding offers the most important nutrients for the child. However, that is not to say that a child who is breastfed for two years will be smarter than one who was breastfed for nine months.
This is because after the first six months, breast milk is no longer the child’s only form of nutrition. It is a good supplement but the child would also be on some solid foods by then.
“A lot of times, parents fail to give the right kinds of food to the child and this might cause problems,” says Dr Azam.
He informs that DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid), one of the Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, is important for brain development. However, not enough is known about exactly how much DHA is required.
“Breast milk is a gold standard; it provides the baby with DHA. In some of the infant formulas, there is DHA. But, how good is this DHA? Nobody knows whether this is going to be able to function as well as the DHA in the breast milk. Nobody can tell. But there are some studies to show that it helps,” he adds.
Hence, fish as brain food is not a myth, says Dr Azam, as fish like tuna and cod contain DHA.
However, with all the current fears of mercury toxicity, some groups are reluctant to eat fish. Dr Azam explains that not all fish are affected and if parents are worried, then they should go for the small fish such as cod.
“Fish contain a lot of good fats – we’re talking about the Omega-3 fats. The Omega-3 fats is the one that is in the brain and helps brain development. So, therefore the people who eat this fish tend to have better brain function,” he says.
According to Dr Azam, researchers have found that the Eskimos don’t have a high incidence of Alzheimer’s disease because of their diet, which obviously is mostly fish.
“It all comes down to the nutrition. You may want to consider giving your child food that has high DHA content. You may also consider giving food that has less trans fats and avoid things like artificial colouring and processed foods. You may want to give more wholegerm foods because you know it produces good nutrients for the child.
“You may want to consider giving food that is high in antioxidants because this will help reduce the destruction of the brain cells.
“These are important. One should never undermine good nutrition,” says Dr Azam.
Right and left brain
As for using both the right and left brain, Dr Azam explains that there are studies to show that the right brain is more involved in creative thinking and the left brain is more involved in logic thinking.
“The brain is like an organ or a muscle. It can be trained to be used in a certain fashion. If you are always training your brain in a logical manner, then you tend to use your left brain more. But, if you are a bit more on the creative side, then your right brain is more dominant. But, this is all training and there are also ways or mechanisms to make sure that both sides are being trained. This is where you have all these developmental programmes where they train the right and left brain brain. I don’t think it is actually a myth. I think it is a way to help to create the child’s thinking,” says Dr Azam.
However, he warns against being too rigid when trying to be creative. For example, if a child is allowed to paint freely – he is using his right brain. However, when the child is sent for art classes and taught the “right” way to paint … then that would be using the left brain more!
The same goes for those rigid and highly-repetitive piano lessons. While you think you’re sending your child for a creative class, your child would be using more of the left brain than his right!
TV and videogames
Dr Azam doesn’t believe in over-stimulating young children with TV exposure. According to him, in France, baby television and educational television have been banned because it is believed that children who watch too much television tend to have communication problems and it reduces their intelligence potential.
“In my opinion, they shouldn’t watch TV under the age of two. It’s not good for them. I may not have the studies to show it, but I think that’s one of the main reasons why more children today are a bit slow with their speech development. I feel that a lot of children now have issues with what we call mild autism.
“What happens is the parents are working and the maid is looking after two or three other children. So, they switch on the television and the child watches from morning till night. Even their meals are taken in front of the TV. At the end of the day, there’s a bit of interaction with the parents. What kind of social development can there be? Again, the child learns from what he or she sees and so they mimic what they see on television.
“What is more interesting now is that you will notice there are a lot of younger children who speak with an American accent. It is because this what they hear and see,” says Dr Azam.
He explains that the TV only gives one aspect of stimulation; there is no touch and no interaction.
This can result in the child not developing as well socially and being a bit slow in communicating. Parents’ desire for an instant diagnosis and solution can lead to the child being misdiagnosed and even labelled wrongly. The labels include “autistic,” “dyslexic,” and even “ADHD child.”
“This is what I feel sad about – society is in too big a hurry to label a child. It’s like we can’t wait and give the child a chance to develop.
“I think this is something that a lot of parents should learn – not to be so quick to label their kids as dyslexic or autistic or having ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). I’ve seen parents coming in with their two or three year old claiming their child has ADHD. It’s too soon and it’s very frightening the way things are going,” he adds.
He warns against over-exposure to videogames, as well. With so much movement, colour and excitement, videogames are so exciting to the child that school in comparison becomes boring. This, he says, creates inattention in the child.
Dr Azam recommends parents cut down on their children’s videogaming and television time and spend more time with nature, instead.
“Chances are they will be more attentive in school,” he says.
Giving kids time to develop
Patience is a virtue that parents need to have. Sometimes they’re in such a hurry for their child to learn and grow smarter that they don’t give the child time to develop.
Dr Azam gives the example of a child at birth and one at 12 months old – the difference is tremendous. A newborn sleeps and drinks milk. A 12-month-old can interact and start communicating. Similarly, children born in January and December of the same year are going to be at different stages of development.
“What happens to the children who are born in December when they are put in the same class as those who are born in January? Even though you may think there is no difference at all, obviously there is some difference in the maturity of the child.
“So, there might be issues with that which are not being looked into. Maybe, children born early in the year tend to be able to understand things better, concentrate better and achieve things better.
“Whereas those who are born in December may be more slacking in a lot of things that they do. That’s why there are some studies to show that children who are born in the first six months, from January to June, tend to do better in class compared to those born at the tail-end of the year,” says Dr Azam.
He also emphasises that all children learn differently.
“This is something parents must understand and look into. Some people are more into words; some are into numbers; some learn through pictures; and some through reading.
“So, parents need to evaluate how the child functions, what makes them tick, and use that to increase their potential.
“And, that is where a lot of education systems fail because this doesn’t happen,” says Dr Azam.
He emphasises the need to nurture the child’s curiosity and sense of exploration from a young age.
“That’s important. A child’s brain is like a sponge – it absorbs everything. So, it is important for you to nurture that curiosity. They also have an ability to imprint information – they look at things and they learn from it. In fact, they learn a lot from just observing their parents and family members.
“That is the reason why parents need to be good role models. You must be good role models because the child will learn from you. Whatever you are doing, they will do the exact thing.
“You may tell a child not to smoke. But if the father and mother are puffing away, the child will learn that smoking is not bad.
“This is a very strong mechanism of learning. They tend to learn by what’s going on around them.
“Yes, you need to expose them to their surroundings and show them things but you also need to be very careful about what kind of exposure you give to your child,” he warns.
Everything interplays but nobody can give you an exact figure of how much comes from genes, nutrition, stimulation and the environment.
What can one do then?
“Optimise everything. Make sure everything is being looked into and optimised to make sure that the child achieves his fullest potential.
“At the end of the day, it’s about just doing enough, and not doing things excessively. It’s all about the yin and yang – having a balance. Having DHA is good but if I feed my child a lot of DHA, it might be detrimental. Taking Vitamin C is okay but if I give 20 tablets of Vitamin C to my child it’s not good because it can cause problems. So, it’s all about the balance.
“The question is: What is the balance? Nobody can give you a direct number to it. This is something that we are still trying to find out.
“The only recipe I would give for making your kids smarter is to eat healthy food, make sure that you give the good fat rather than the bad fat. What foods have the good fats? Those with Omega-3, not the polyunsaturated ones.
“Make sure they get enough vitamins, minerals and trace elements. Make sure that they get enough iron in their food because iron is important for the development of the brain.
“Avoid things that are not natural like processed foods and colourings in your foods. Then there is also the environmental issues and getting proper stimulation, and exposing the child to the right things.
“This is the best advice that one can actually give to making kids smarter,” he concludes.