While genetics determine our baby's brain capabilities, what we do after birth plays an equally, if not more important role.

Pregnancy: Boost your baby's brain during pregnancy and beyond

Before birth

A doctor? A lawyer? An architect? These used to be topics of discussion before a teenager enters university. But these days, academic achievement, university scholarships and career success are already on many parents’ minds even before their baby is born! Are we overly anxious or are these issues that should be considered at an early stage of life?

Research shows that planning ahead is not without merit. The brain power that will eventually lead our child to that prestigious scholarship and dream career starts its long journey right in the womb!

A baby experiences the fastest rate of growth while inside his mother, more than any other stage in life.

Brain cells or neurons are growing at an amazing rate of 500,000 cells a minute during the first half of pregnancy.

This is a critical period because the foundations of your baby’s intelligence and temperament are being laid down —foundations that have a long-lasting impact on your baby’s personality, learning and achievements in life.

Let us take a look at some important “must-haves”, “must-avoid” and “must-note” during this period of gestation.


Nutrients critical for brain development during pregnancy: Iron, Folic acid, Vitamin D, Iodine, Omega-3 fatty acids.


Compounds and chemicals found in the items below cross the placenta and can adversely affect our baby’s brain development.

1. Alcohol
Drinking while pregnant leads to a baby with lower IQ, poor attention span, poor cognitive skills, poor memory and impulsive behaviour.

2. Nicotine from cigarette smoke
Babies exposed to prenatal smoking have increased risk of developing psychiatric problems in childhood and young adulthood, as well as certain eye disorders.

3. Pollutants
Children exposed to traffic-related pollutants during pregnancy are at increased risk of developing autism.

4. Pesticides and insecticides
Prenatal exposure to pesticides (on food crops) and insecticides (used in the garden and at homes), have been associated with earlier labour, lower birth weight, lower IQ score, heart defects and autism. Fruits and vegetables should be thoroughly washed, or consider buying organic produce to avoid pesticide exposure from food.

5. Caffeine
Moderate amounts (limit to 200 mg/day; 2 cups of instant coffee or 1 cup of brewed coffee) appears to be safe in pregnant women. Studies on animals have shown that caffeine can cause birth defects, premature labour and low-birth weight in the offspring.


1. Rest
A baby should be left alone during the first half of the pregnancy. A dark, warm, moist and quiet environment without stimulation is optimal for a baby’s rapid development during this period. Research has found that babies born to mothers who had more severe morning sickness scored higher on IQ tests when aged between three and seven years. Twenty-one percent had IQ scores in the gifted range versus 7 percent in other group. These babies were also less likely to have birth defects, be born prematurely, small or at a low birth weight. It may be that morning sickness exists as a means to get mummies to rest during this critical period of baby’s development.

2. Exercise
Most women benefit greatly from exercising throughout their pregnancies. Not only can exercise help boost energy, enhance sleep, reduce stress and contribute to faster post-delivery recovery, it can also lead to a shortened second-stage labour. When the duration of second stage labour is reduced, the risk of baby getting stressed and oxygen-deprived in the birth canal decreases correspondingly, protecting the baby’s brain from harm. The American College of Obstetricians recommends 30 minutes or more of moderate exercise per day.

3. Manage stress
Stress hormones produced by the pregnant woman can cross the placenta and affect the baby’s brain. Exposure to high levels or prolonged elevated levels of such hormones can lower a baby’s IQ, damage his/her stress-response system and weaken the attention system. There are two types of toxic stress that can hurt a baby’s brain: (1) Chronic in duration: Sustained, long-term exposure to stressors that you perceive are out of your control; (2) Severe in intensity: A truly severe, tough event during pregnancy usually involving a relationship. Some women may be genetically predisposed to be more sensitive to stress than others. It is important that such women keep stress to a minimum during pregnancy. Spouses and partners should try to be more patient and supportive to help mummies manage their stress levels.

4. Not too early
According to a study published in the journal Pediatrics, babies born at 37 weeks and 38 weeks had lower reading and Maths scores compared to children born at 39, 40 or 41 weeks. This has been attributed to the finding that the last 6 weeks of gestation is a critical period of growth and development of the baby’s brain. Brain weight at 34 weeks is only 65 percent of that of the term infant. For this reason, elective induction of labour and caesarean birth before 39 weeks should be discouraged in order to allow the brain to fully develop while still in the womb — the ideal environment for baby at that stage.

5. Stimulate wisely
It remains unclear whether playing music on the belly will make a baby smarter. Some concerns on “belly” devices are whether they will disrupt the baby’s sleep, which is vital for growth and development, and whether it is too loud for the baby. If you want to try musical stimulation, keep loudness level at or below 70 decibels, play music for not more than one hour each time and try to choose classical music. Activities that have been shown to be just as useful include listening to music, and reading or talking to the baby (fathers can participate too!). Research has found that a newborn baby can recall music pieces heard when they are in the womb. This recall may be useful to help babies soothe themselves after birth. Read and talk as often as you can to your baby from 20 weeks on. Choose books that emphasise on rhymes and repetitions like the Dr. Seuss series.

Pregnancy: Boost your baby's brain during pregnancy and beyond2

Beyond birth

Know your baby’s cues

Babies display behavioural cues, which are signs and signals to indicate their state of mind. These cues are their way of communicating whether they are feeling calm and relaxed, ready for interaction or tired.

Baby Cues:
“I am calm and relaxed”:
• Hands to mouth
• Grasp and hold a finger or toy
• Bring hands together
• Eyes softly closed

“I am ready to interact!”:
• Relaxed posture and face
• Cooing and babbling
• Making eye contact

“I need a time out!”:
• Splays fingers
• Stiff arching posture, Pulls away
• Yawns
• Hiccups
• Looks away
• Hyper alert – wide-eye staring
• Crying
Source: Mater Children’s Hospital, Brisbane Australia

Know your baby’s developmental milestones

Your baby’s developmental milestones are important indications of his or her brain development. While there may be a range of ages where certain milestones are developed, and while some babies may skip certain milestones, we encourage parents to track these milestones and encourage their babies’ development through play activities and daily interactions. This is because the development of one milestone often lays the foundation for the next, such that a developmental delay in one milestone may lead to delay in subsequent milestones.

For example, pointing using the index finger at nine months leads to the ability to pick up a tiny object using the thumb and index finger at 15 months, which affects good pencil control at three years, and subsequently laying the foundation for speedy but neat writing of a long essay in school! Similarly, a baby’s babbling at eight months is his first step to mastering a language in school! Indeed, the long journey to that university scholarship begins with a tiny milestone, which leads to the next tiny milestone, and so on and so forth. Nurture and celebrate the development of each tiny step forward for your baby!

Know the facts and myths in brain stimulation

Parents have a great deal of power in shaping their baby’s brains. Research has shown that while genetics play an important role in determining our baby’s brain capabilities, what we do or do not do play an equally, if not more important role in moulding our baby’s brains.

With such a heavy responsibility in our hands, it is important to know and discern between facts and myths in the field of baby brain stimulation. From brain toys and DVDs to enrichment programmes, parents should learn which are backed by sound scientific theories and research, and which are not. Not only does investing in the wrong programme and product deplete our financial resources, but they also take away precious time, which can be invested on truly beneficial brain-enhancing activities for our children.

In conclusion, we have discussed many things that you can do to enhance your baby’s intelligence. However, let us not forget that some of the most important ingredients in nurturing a bright and well-rounded child will come naturally to many parents — the deep love and unwavering belief in your precious baby. Enjoy the journey!


Tip #1: Babies should not have any “screen time” in the first two years of life.

“Screen time” includes television, computer, tablet and smart phone — anything with a screen. Even programmes specially designed for babies, if delivered through these devices, have been found to offer little or no benefits to the babies. In some cases, such programmes have been found to have a negative impact because they reduce brain performance and attention span.

Tip #2: Talking to baby increases his/her IQ.

The number of words communicated and also the manner in which they are spoken have a profound effect on a baby’s brain development. Scientists call this unique talking style instinctively used by mothers “motherese”. Motherese” is speech involving raised pitches, reduced speed, exaggerated vowels (“I loooove my baaaaaby”) and animated facial gestures. How a mother talks is more important to a baby than what she says.

Photo: iStock

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