Cincinnati Family Magazine

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July 15, 2024

The Mama Effect: What Makes Babies Really Smart

Research shows that it’s time for Mozart to move over. Mama is more influential in stimulating Baby’s brain.


Are there alphabet magnets on your refrigerator? Have you started saving for your child’s college fund? Have you ever looked at your drooling, diapered progeny and exclaimed with all seriousness, “Oh! You are so smart!”

Of course you have. We all have. We’re parents and naturally want to raise bright, curious children.

Clever marketing companies have capitalized on this desire to raise intelligent children by offering more and more “edutainment” products claiming to stimulate babies’ senses, boost their intellects or help them learn to read sooner. However, actual scientists, pediatricians and educators say these CDs, videos and brightly colored toys are just popular fads with no measurable value to children’s mental development.

The good news is that stimulating your young child’s mind is actually simple and inexpensive. So move over Mozart … here comes Mommy!

Active Versus Passive Musical Influence

Heard of the Mozart Effect? It’s the theory that listening to classical music somehow raises a baby’s IQ, but the research that spawned this idea had nothing to do with children. The 1993 study that launched the Mozart Effect was performed on 36 adult graduate students, not babies. Rather than raise their IQs, listening to classical music helped them score a few points higher on paper cutting tests! But guess what? They scored better on the same tests after listening to Stephen King horror novels, too. Yet no one suggested The Shining as bedtime reading for toddlers!

Despite its commercial success in the form of countless pink and blue classical music CDs, the Mozart Effect study has been roundly criticized by scientists and finally disproven by a Harvard psychologist who analyzed 16 identical classical music studies and found no significant difference in listeners’ IQs.

In 2007, the German Ministry of Education and Research tested the Mozart Effect theory and found the same thing … nothing. But there’s a catch: the same German scientists discovered that actually learning to play music raised a person’s IQ score. Studying music even grows brain cells. Professional musicians have more grey matter in their right cortex than non-musicians. It seems that learning to play an instrument, instead of just passively listening to a recording is what makes kids smarter.

Even if you can’t read a single musical note, you can join a mommy-and-me musical class where children sing, dance and play simple instruments. You can encourage your kids to sing in the school chorus, join the school band or even take instrument lessons from a private teacher.

It worked for Einstein. His mother was a pianist who wanted her son to love music, so she started him on violin lessons when he was 6. He became an accomplished violinist and played throughout his life.

ABCs and DVDs

If you’ve got a credit card and a DVD player, you’ve got the tools to create a child prodigy right? That’s what the marketing companies behind the baby genius videos would have you believe. But the research proves otherwise. A 2007 University of Washington study published in the Journal of Pediatrics involved 1,000 parents of infants and toddlers. The data showed that infants who regularly watched baby-oriented education videos demonstrated slower language development, understanding significantly less words than children who did not watch them. Pediatrician Dimitri Christakis, M.D., one of the study’s authors says, “The evidence is mounting that they are of no value and may in fact be harmful.”

On the other hand, the same study found that babies and toddlers whose parents read to them or told stories to them each day had measurably higher language skills. The pediatricians and scientists who authored the study say, “Although reading every day as opposed to less often is associated with about a seven-point increase in communicative development, watching one hour per day of baby DVDs/videos is associated with about a 17-point decrease.” Frances P. Glascoe, Ph.D., a professor of pediatrics at Vanderbilt University says that toddlers and preschoolers who grow up in homes where “talking, listening and reading are common” usually have high IQs and “greater success in school.” Their peers who watch more television are at an academic disadvantage.

So turn off the tube and read a book to your baby, or just look into his eyes and tell him a story. Read your grocery list out loud as you make it, chatter about the landscape as you ride in the car, name body parts as you dress your little one. Just keep talking. Do it every day and your baby will learn so many new words that he’ll soon be the one reading to you!

More Baby Brain Boosters

One of the simplest ways to build your infant’s brain power is by breastfeeding. A study of 14,000 children published in the May 2008 edition of Archives of General Psychiatry showed that breast-fed children scored an average of seven-and-a-half points higher on verbal intelligence, 2.9 points higher on non-verbal intelligence and 5.9 points higher in overall intelligence on standard IQ tests. Similar research conducted in several European countries had nearly identical results.

Adding a daily multi-vitamin to your child’s diet is another quick and easy way to provide healthy brain food. Numerous studies show that babies and school aged children who regularly take a vitamin supplement score better in intelligence tests than children who do not. In one study, children taking the recommended daily allowance of vitamins for three months learned 14 different academic subjects at twice the rate of children given a placebo. Alan Greene, M.D. says taking vitamins each day “could improve your child’s health and even intelligence. These nutrients affect our intelligence, our growth, our behavior, and our immune systems, and typical American children do not get enough.”


Strong Bodies and Minds

If your toddler would rather run around the room than sit still and study phonic flashcards, there’s a good reason for it; exercise improves every part of a person’s body, including the brain. When a child exercises, blood flow to the brain increases, bringing oxygen and nutrients that stimulates nerve growth in areas that affect memory and concentration. John Ratey, M.D., a Harvard Medical School professor, calls exercise “Miracle-Gro for the brain.” He says that people who exercise regularly have improved short-term memory, exhibit faster reaction time, and have higher level of creativity. Exercise also teaches leadership and organization. A 2002 survey of female executives at Fortune 500 companies found that 81 percent of them played team sports as girls and still take time from their high powered jobs to exercise at least three times a week.

While your preschooler might not be ready for team sports, he can get his daily dose of exercise right in your backyard, at the park or local pool. A game of chase or hide-and-seek in the house is great for rainy days. Even babies will benefit from some free time to roam around the living room unencumbered by confining exersaucers, bouncy seats and strollers. Rolling and crawling, touching, feeling and exploring are all activities that lead to learning.

Tap Into Your Inner Teacher

Babies are born with 100 million brain neurons that are still unconnected. Synapses, the connections between brain cells, are created by experiences like touching, hearing, smelling and tasting. That means a child’s brain is stimulated by frequent and varied experiences, not sitting still staring at black-and-white mobiles spinning over the cradle or being plopped in front of electronic toys that sing the alphabet song when you push a button.

Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D., an internationally recognized expert on child brain development, says that children who receive too little attention from adults or too few opportunities to explore their world have 20 – 30 percent smaller brains than children who are spoken to often. Likewise, Dorothy Routh, M.D., Florida State University’s director of the Center for Educational Enhancement and Development found that “when mothers frequently spoke to their infants, their children learned almost 300 more words by age two than did their peers whose mothers rarely spoke to them. However, mere exposure to language through television or adult conversation provided little benefit. Infants need to interact directly with others.”

The bottom line is that edutainment toys and videos can’t make your children bright and curious, but you can! You are your baby’s first and most influential teacher. Even if you weren’t an honor roll student, you possess the ability and the smarts to raise one sharp cookie. So teach them what you know … and watch them grow!

Deborah Bohn is a local writer, mom and frequent contributor to this publication.


area building blocks

Find ways to stimulate Baby’s brain at one of these local offerings:

Allegro School of Music

Educational and developmental music programs for infants and toddlers.

Baby Signs
Davidson • 356-7102
Williamson • 591-3131

Learn sign language with your baby.

Elite Energy Gymnastics
890-6611 •

Develops motor skills in infants and older.

Gymboree Play & Music
221-9004 •

Developmental play programs for newborns and older and music classes for ages 6 months and older.

Brentwood • 371-8086
Franklin • 595-0918, 791-4084
Hendersonville • 426-6250
Lebanon • 547-1284
Murfreesboro • 896-3118, 849-7886
Nashville • 322-7651, 262-9667, 297-2810
West Nashville • 525-5556

For newborns and older, this early childhood music and movement program nurtures children’s cognitive, emotional, social and physical development.

Let It Shine
369-3547 •

Parent and child movement classes in a gymnastics environment for ages 12 months and older.

The Little Gym
661-6700 •

Parent and child developmental gymnastics program for ages 4 months and older builds motor skills and more.

Music with Mar
210-2488 •

Music and movement classes for newborns and older in Brentwood.

Music with Mommie
478-5257 •

High energy music and movement for ages 5 months – 5 years in Bellevue, Brentwood, Franklin, Hendersonville, Mt. Juliet, Murfreesboro and Spring Hill.

My Gym
Brentwood • 371-5437
Hendersonville • 824-8002

Music and movement opportunities for ages 6 weeks to 13 months.

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