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On a recent shopping excursion, I found myself standing near a family with a baby. While the adults in the group engaged in a conversation, the infant took the opportunity to check out his surroundings. When his eyes met mine, I made a funny face. I widened my eyebrows and scrunched my lips into a circle. The baby looked curious as I changed my expression to a big smile. He immediately smiled back at me, his entire face lighting up in delight. During that brief moment, we made a connection, one I’d like to believe most adults are hardwired to make as they interact with babies. However, many adults may not fully appreciate the profound importance of these early exchanges.


A 2016 survey by the Bezos Family Foundation and Zero to Three of more than 2000 parents found that most parents fail to recognize the significance of social interactions with their babies during the first year. Researchers refer to this phenomenon as the “missing first year” due to the fact that parents mistakenly believe their children’s emotional and language development begin later than science tells us. According to findings in the National Parent Survey, “34% of parents believe that talking to children starts to benefit their language skills at a year old or later, when in fact it begins at birth. 63% of parents say the benefits of talking begin at 3 months or older.”

 

 

The ideal time for learning

Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience have helped researchers to better understand the critical importance of brain development during the first years of life. These discoveries support the earlier findings and hypotheses of developmental psychologists who have long studied human development and behaviors. Advancement in tools such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and electroencephalograms (EEG) offer a view of what happens inside a brain and measure the electrical activity in babies’ brains. These tools give researchers deeper insight into when and how the human brain develops.

By studying the brain, neuroscientists have determined that there are critical periods of time when the brain is optimally prepared for particular learning. Although the brain can retain some plasticity after the critical windows of opportunity have closed enabling further learning, there are ideal time periods for the development and learning of discrete skills.

Neuroscientists tell us that babies are born with billions of brain cells, or neurons, that quickly learn to communicate with each other using electrical signals within the brain. These signals form connections called circuits that are strengthened through repeated use. More than one million new neural connections are formed every second during the first few years of life.

Neurons that are not used are naturally pruned as the brain specializes and circuits grow stronger through repeated use. Throughout the critical learning period in the first year of life, the brain develops the ability to regulate the interconnected skills of motor control, behavior, language, emotion, vision and memory.

The foundation of this interconnected brain circuitry is established through social communication and bonding, and is referred to as “serve and return” interactions. Responsive interactions occur between infants and their caregivers when they engage in back and forth exchanges, often “mirroring” each other’s facial expressions and utterances. A baby may shape her mouth into an O while her mother makes the same face back to the baby. The baby coos and the mother echoes the sound before changing the sound and the expression that the baby then mimics in return.

These small interactions play a significant role in brain development as they are repeated over time and circuits are strengthened in the infant’s brain. Serve and return interactions are simple connections forming the foundation for further complex brain development.

No substitute for human interaction

During the critical first years of life babies need love in the form of consistent care, shared exchanges, and cognitive stimulation. There is no substitute for caring and responsive human interaction. Researchers at the University of Washington observed no measurable benefits from interactions between infants and audio or video recordings. Babies are social learners who need face-to-face communication with other humans in order to learn and thrive.

When children grow and develop within an environment of nurturing, responsive communication, the serve and return interactions grow increasingly more interactive and multifaceted. Infants develop emotional awareness of themselves and others within the context of their strengthening relationships. Meanwhile, their motor, language and cognitive skills are simultaneously growing over time as they engage in back and forth communication with caring individuals and as they interact within their environments. The serve and return interactions at the foundation of brain development fuels the ability of growing children to react to feedback from caring adults and teachers as they continue to grow and learn.

As parents and other caregivers of infants gain understanding of the amazing but hidden development of their children’s brains, they may find comfort in the knowledge that their presence and attention are the greatest gifts they can give their children. Picture-perfect nurseries, enrollment in baby swim classes, and other false pressures modern parents place on themselves in order to achieve parenting perfection are simply not necessary. Consistent, nurturing care for both parents and babies is key.

I enjoyed my brief encounter with the baby at the mall. I hope he has the opportunity to engage in countless small, repetitive, and responsive interactions every day. This communication, including eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, talking, and reading aloud, can have profound influence on his developing brain. Never underestimate the power of connecting and communicating with babies.

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Ah, back to school time. The excitement of a new year for our kids and the impossibly busy schedule for their mamas. Anyone else get to the end of the day and think, "What did I even DOOO today, and why am I so exhausted?" 🙋

Luckily, finding a system to help you plan out your days can help reduce stress and improve your overall quality of life—which we are all for.

Here are eight planners we love that'll quickly take you from "What is happening?!" to "Look what I did!"

1. Day Designer

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In the moments after we give birth, we desperately want to hear our baby cry. In the middle of the night a few months later it's no longer exactly music to our ears, but those cries aren't just telling us that baby needs a night feeding: They're also giving us a hint at what our children may sound like as kindergarteners, and adults.

New research published in the journal Biology Letters suggests the pitch of a 4-month-old's cry predicts the pitch they'll use to ask for more cookies at age five and maybe even later on as adults.

The study saw 2 to 5-month olds recorded while crying. Five years later, the researchers hit record again and chatted with the now speaking children. Their findings, combined with previous work on the subject, suggest it's possible to figure out what a baby's voice will sound like later in life, and that the pitch of our adult voices may be traceable back to the time we spend in utero. Further studies are needed, but scientists are very interested in how factors before birth can impact decades later.

"In utero, you have a lot of different things that can alter and impact your life — not only as a baby, but also at an adult stage," one of the authors of the study, Nicolas Mathevon, told the New York Times.

The New York Times also spoke with Carolyn Hodges, an assistant professor of anthropology at Boston University who was not involved in the study. According to Hodges, while voice pitch may not seem like a big deal, it impacts how we perceive people in very real ways.

Voice pitch is a factor in how attractive we think people are, how trustworthy. But why we find certain pitches more or less appealing isn't known. "There aren't many studies that address these questions, so that makes this research especially intriguing," Hodges said, adding that it "suggests that individual differences in voice pitch may have their origins very, very early in development."

So the pitch of that midnight cry may have been determined months ago, and it may determine part of your child's future, too. There are still so many things we don't know, but as parents we do know one thing: Our babies cries (as much as we don't want to hear them all the time) really are something special.

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A new school year is looming and while a lot of parents are looking forward to seeing their kids take the next steps in their education, many of us are not looking forward to getting everyone back into a weekday morning routine.

Mornings can be tough for kids and their mamas. One of our favorite celebrity mamas, Kristen Bell, does not deny that mornings with her daughters, 5-year-old Lincoln and 3-year-old Delta, aren't easy at all.

"It's miserable," Bell recently told POPSUGAR. "It's awful no matter who's doing what. And I'll tell you right now, the 3- and 5-year-old aren't doing jack."

Anyone who has ever tried to wrangle a preschooler out of their pajamas, to the breakfast table, then into their school clothes and backpack at seven o'clock in the morning knows exactly what Bell is talking about. She says some days are better than others, but it's hard to know what level of kid-induced chaos you're gonna wake up to on a weekday.

"It depends on their emotional stability, it depends on their attitude toward each other, toward life," Bell told POPSUGAR. "It depends on their developmental stage."

Luckily, Bell has got some backup. She's been open about how she and her husband, Dax Shepard, practice a tag team approach to parenting, and sometimes, Bell gets a chance to tap out of the morning routine. Unfortunately, Shepherd's later schedule means it doesn't happen as often as she would necessarily like.

"I don't want to say that I do more mornings than he does, but if you were to check the records, that's probably what you'd find," she told POPSUGAR.

If, like Bell, you're really not feeling mornings with the kids, there are a few things you can try to make things a little easier on yourself, mama.

1. Change the conversation

Instead of saying "hurry up" or "get in the car, right now,"try to mix up your vocabulary a bit.

If there's a need for speed, remind the kids that it's time for "fast feet" or that you're racing to the car.

If you're feeling overwhelmed, you might consider sharing that with your kids. Let them know that mama's got a lot to do this morning and that it would be a huge help if they could make sure their water bottle is in their backpack.

2. Make breakfast ahead of time

If cereal isn't your jam or your kids need something hotter, and more substantial in the morning, cooking up breakfast can be a major hurdle on hectic mornings.

Check out these Pinterest perfect make-ahead morning meals, like breakfast enchiladas or egg muffins, and make mornings a bit easier on yourself, mama.

3. Bring some Montessori into your mornings

Help your kids take control of their AM destiny by bringing some limited choices (like clothing) into the morning routine and allowing for natural consequences (like having to settle for an apple in the van because they missed breakfast) but also allowing for fun with mom.

"Try doing something simple, with clear boundaries, such as reading two books before it's time to start the morning routine. If they're ready early, you can spend more time together, which is also a great natural incentive," writes Montessori expert Christina Clemer.

Here's to a less stressful AM routine for Kristen Bell and the rest of us mamas. Just because it feels miserable today doesn't mean it will be tomorrow. There is hope, Kristen!

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It was a year ago when I was pregnant, parenting a highly-spirited preschooler and also working a full-time job while trying to maintain a part-time side business when I got to the point of I have had enough.

I can't remember exactly what the trigger was, but like most times, it wasn't just one thing but a build-up over time that culminates in a massive meltdown.

You see, I was not getting much appreciation or validation for all of my contributions. This was a time when my partner, too, was working full-time and in graduate school two evenings a week. It was stressful for everyone, but, as the wife and mother, I carried the family through it by tending to the little details: the pick-up and drop-offs, the shopping, the cooking, all the minutiae of everyday life.

So, after perseverating on my laundry list of seen and unseen responsibilities, I decided to sit down with pen and paper and make a "day in the life" list from wake-up to bedtime that showed my partner exactly what my day entailed—a day that supported two other people in the house and one in the oven.

Even I was surprised to see all of the things listed out in 15-minute increments. On paper, it actually looked even worse than it felt. I thought to myself about how much physical, mental and emotional energy I expend in this hectic season of our lives. And I didn't regret it for a minute.

However, back to my original complaint…I still wanted to be validated for it. I needed to be seen for both the implicit and explicit tasks and expectations in my day-to-day.

So I handed my list over to my husband, expecting him to be awakened to the fact I was indeed working in overdrive and for him to be grateful for all the ways that I take so many burdens off of him so that he can be successful in school and his career.

Instead of that, his response almost put me into a state of shock. He read over the list and then said, "I know. You are Superwoman."

His words, like kryptonite, left me speechless. Part of me knew that his intent was for this to be a compliment, but it felt so invalidating. It completely missed the mark, and instead of leaving me feeling appreciated, I felt less understood.

Superheroes have innate superpowers that I imagine they use with ease. In fact, they are expected to use their powers and perhaps that is their sole purpose. No one ever looks to a superhero and asks, "Do you need a break?" And as a feminist, I sure as heck believe women are strong and powerful. But the idea of being labeled a "superwoman" did not feel empowering.

I already know I am efficient, capable, strong and fierce. But, I am also fatigued, sometimes overworked and underappreciated, and worst of all expected to be the one that keeps it together for everyone else.

What I learned about through my research of who Superwoman really is was this: her powers always wear off by the end of the story. Turns out these so-called "superpowers" really are temporary. That I can relate to.

I am only human and there are days and weeks where I feel on top of the world, days where I can manage it all with ease. I can be up all night nursing a baby, take both kids to school, and show up on time for a 9:00 am meeting with a French pastry I baked from scratch. I can push through the exhaustion and demands every day…until I can't.

And it's not just my spouse who uses this label. I have well-meaning girlfriends who have also tossed the term out there as if it was meant to be a feather in my cap.

When things get tough, I appreciate the texts of support my girlfriends send me. Even when they are far away, it's nice to know someone cares when everyone in your house has the stomach flu while your partner is out of the country. It's comforting to be able to share the ups and downs of trying to balance a career with a growing family.

But when the text comes in and says something like, "I don't know how you do all that. You are a supermom!" I feel like there should be an auto-reply that says, "Connection lost."

The thing is, I don't want to be elevated to superhero status for living my life. It is not heroic and it's probably not too far off from what every other devoted partner and mother provides their family. But, this is what I think we need, what we are starving for. We need someone to say, "How are you doing?" or, "What have you done lately to care for yourself?" or, "Thank you for all that you do and who you are."

Those are the kinds of words that let me know I am seen and make me feel validated when I am working the hardest. They let me know that the people I love the most see me, and not a cape.

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