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Big Love = Big Brain

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We have all heard that nurturing children makes them smarter. Ever wondered exactly how that happens?

While the impacts of nurture on cognitive development are wide-ranging, one of the most intriguing effects of providing children with TLC is the enhanced growth of certain parts of their brain. Big Love equals Big Brain (you could also argue too much love results in a big head but we’ll leave that for later).

Recent research has shown that nurturing a child is actually associated with an increase in the size of a child’s brain, specifically the hippocampal part of the brain. You can smirk at the name, but the responsibilities of this part of the brain are no laughing matter. Its functions include:

  • Memory Indexing: The hippocampus is responsible for the consolidation of new memories, including memory forming, organizing, and storing.
  • Emotional Responses: The brain activates an autonomic nervous system when it encounters stress by releasing stress hormones. The heart rate increases to accommodate the stress and allows the body to adapt. The hippocampus is essentially involved in this response, and is the key to learning and memory.
  • Navigation and Spatial Orientation: The hippocampus plays a role in the learning and remembering of spaces and consequently helps us navigate between familiar places.

Overall, a larger hippocampus is associated with better memory, responses to stress, and learning abilities. So, the more developed a child’s hippocampus, the better these abilities.


How exactly does nurturing cause the hippocampus to get bigger?


As a child’s brain develops, several linkages (synapses) are formed in the brain between neurons. A nurturing environment sparks activity and development in the hippocampal part of the brain. Through a nurturing environment, a child encounters repeated positive experiences which in turn develop denser and more complex synaptic networks. 

As a result, the hippocampus becomes a hub of blood and oxygen flow and consequently becomes physiologically bigger. Think of nurture like steroids for the brain that enable a greater potential for future learning abilities, behavior, and emotional responses.

How do I provide that nurturing environment?


Most parents will testify to the wondrous joys of parenthood. But all parents – especially those of children in the Terrible Twos – will agree that it is one of the most demanding roles to fulfill. The responsibility of taking care of a young child who is completely dependent, mainly communicates by crying, and has many, many, many needs is a herculean task unto itself. The added responsibility of having to provide an environment that encourages a larger brain size can seem overwhelming.

Even the littlest of things can go a long way to provide a nurturing environment, and help form those positive associations in a child’s brains. Here are some general guidelines and some techniques that you can you can use to nurture your child to develop his or her emotional and cognitive faculties.

  • Indulge in interactive activities: Work on a home project, drink hot chocolate together, read a book, listen to music, play board games, cook together, have family meals, draw and color with your child. Any interactive activity that fosters the family unit is one of the most important ways to encourage cognitive and emotional growth.
  • Show them affection on a regular basis: This is a simple one, however with the demands of day-to-day life one tends to forget what a long way kisses and kind words can go. The easiest ways that parents can express their love are through physical gestures of affection. Snuggling, hugs, kisses, gentle “rough” play, and gentle tickling, are all wonderful ways parents can show love. Additionally, parents can also bond emotionally with their children through language. Sweet nicknames which make them feel special, is just one of many way of creating emotional intimacy through language.
  • Encourage their curiosity: Young children are innately very curious. Provide a boost to their curious nature  by introducing them to new things on a regular basis – be it new books, toys (even safe household objects can do the trick), places or people.
  • Keep open channels of communication: Listen to your child and assure them of your willingness to talk about any subject. Also, if you children are young, use words and gestures that your child can understand. Try to keep your voice levels down, even if you are getting frustrated and also teach your children to communicate with you without getting frustrated
  • Foster your child’s self-worth: It is important to help build your child’s self confidence and to teach them to deal with difficult situations. Show them support when it is needed, and make sure that they know you are always there for them no matter what happens.
  • Encourage their unique interests: Set goals for your child based on his or her interests and abilities. Some children love music or excel at drawing, while others might enjoy reading or simply kicking a ball around. Each child is different. Do not weigh them down with societal expectations. Celebrate their uniqueness and accomplishments and do not compare your child’s abilities to those of other children. Even if your child is very young, they have the ability to sense when they are being perceived negatively.
  • Support their relationship building abilities: Some children seem to be able to relate to others more easily and at an earlier age and can often take leadership roles within their peer group and have many friends. To some children, relationship building abilities might not come naturally. In order to nurture interpersonal abilities in your child, provide your child with opportunities to be around other children and to engage in group activities, discuss relationships with them, discuss other people’s points-of-views, and read stories and discuss the motivations of the characters.
  • Develop their creative abilities: Early childhood is a great time to nurture your child’s musical and artistic interests. Simple activities such as singing and humming rhythms with them, providing them with simple instruments or encouraging them to draw, paint or sculpt patterns and shapes by using crayons, blocks, or play dough are great ways to develop your child’s creative faculties.
  • Encourage ‘pretend’ play: Develop your child’s complex thinking abilities by encouraging them to come up with imaginary stories and anecdotes, or getting them to help you with chores and errands (‘pretending’ to be an adult), creating a ‘pretend’ play space (such as a tent, tree house, box, etc) to encourage your child’s imagination, or playing dress-up. ‘Pretend’ play engages emotion, cognition, language, and sensory motor skills that allows children to hone their creative thinking abilities, build social skills, acquire confidence, and develop their problem-solving skills.
  • Nurture linguistic development:The best ways to do this is by reading to your child (especially at bed time) on a regular basis, having conversations about topics that are of interest to you both, encouraging them to tell you stories, using a second language at home, taking your child to a library and letting them select books, getting them to talk about their artwork and writing about it, and attending storytelling and theater workshops for children. These steps will help your child acquire many words and expressions that will assist them in developing their verbal and linguistic abilities
  • Nurture mathematical and logical skills: Expose your child to mathematical and logical learning by applying mathematical concepts in a fun environment. Simple activities at home such as counting, comparing amounts, measuring things around the house, playing with geometric shapes helps them develop their mathematical and logical skills.
  • Discipline them in a constructive way:  Help your child learn from his or her mistakes by using techniques that teach, rather than physically punish them. Learn what is effective for your child by observing their behavior and using a variety of techniques to see what works. Some good techniques to consult include Harvey Karp’s or Elizabeth Pantley’s techniques for controlling tantrums. Also, do not forget to show approval for positive behaviors.


Rest assured. Providing a nurturing environment does not come naturally to everyone. We have to learn and hard wire our own brains to be patient, respond positively to our children, and provide a healthy learning environment while juggling the stresses of our day-to-day lives. It may not be easy but it’s not beyond the reach of most of us. And always remember that the rewards are immense and these little things will go a long way to developing your child’s cognitive and emotional faculties. 


Photograph credit: Copyright (c) http://www.123rf.com’>123RF Stock Photos

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Contributed by saimaismail

Saima is the Editor-in-Chief, and co-founder of Bright Babyhood. She is a management consultant and a Columbia University alumni. She currently spends her days managing and writing for Bright Babyhood, and brainstorming ways to convince her toddler to eat. You can find her writings at www.BrightBabyhood.com.

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