How to Raise a Smart Baby

Do’s and Don’ts While Baby is in Utero and After Birth

By: Adline A. Ghani

Parents are a baby’s first teachers but most will only kick start their child’s learning well after the infant is born — engaging the little one with books, toys, videos and mobile devices.

In recent years, however, a growing number of mums and dads are realising the importance of boosting their baby’s brain development before birth. This is an effort highly encouraged by experts, like Dr. Juriza Ismail, Developmental Paediatrician at the Child Development Centre of the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia Medical Centre. This is because, according to Dr. Juriza, “A baby’s brain has 25% the capacity of a mature brain and as such it is ready to learn.”

Crucial Stages

During the fetal stage, the crucial foundations to a baby’s brain, nervous system, intelligence and personality are formed. Babies can also interact with stimuli while in the womb and even develop a lasting response to them. For example Dr. Juriza points out, “Even a child’s auditory preferences are affected by their auditory experiences before birth.”

As Dr. Juriza explains, babies develop sensory and motor skills at different stages during pregnancy so it is important to introduce stimuli only after the baby has developed sufficiently to sense and respond to the stimuli. With this in mind, when should a parent start stimulating an unborn child’s brain? “Babies can benefit from stimulation as early as the third month of pregnancy,” she says. “At this point, they begin to perceive spatial orientation and tactile stimuli.”

There are also many things that parents can do, as well as avoid, in order to boost their baby’s brainpower while in the womb.


The Do’s

Much of the responsibility to ensure healthy brain and physical development falls upon the mother. Her health condition, what she eats, her surroundings, as well as her state of mind can all have an effect on the unborn child. Here are some of mum’s must-do’s while expecting:

Adequate nutrition

A pregnant woman should get adequate nutrition in essential nutrients and vitamins like iodine, iron, zinc, folic acid, vitamin B12, vitamin C and vitamin D. Malnutrition can cause the baby to develop learning disabilities that include impaired language, motor skills and I.Q development.

Bond with baby before birth

Mothers who make an effort to bond with their unborn child, in a gentle and loving manner, will have healthier, happier and more relaxed babies. In Dr. Juriza’s expert opinion, talking to the baby, touching and stroking mum’s abdomen, soft and calm music, as well as prayers are all beneficial to the baby.

Moderate exercise

Physical activity increases mitochondrial activity in a mother’s brain, which can transfer to the fetal brain. Regular exercise can also advance a baby’s brain activity.

Consume Omega-3 and antioxidants

Omega-3 fatty acids have a positive effect on the fetal brain, heightening a baby’s attention span after birth. Antioxidants, on the other hand, help protect a baby’s brain tissue from damage due to free radicals in a mother’s body.



The Don’ts

While the list of must-do’s can be an exhaustive one, the things that a pregnant woman should avoid are no less important. According to Dr. Juriza, parents-to-be who want to further their unborn child’s mental development, should start by ensuring that the antenatal environment is well nourished, low-stress and drug-free. Some of the most damaging factors that can have detrimental effects on a baby’s brain are:


Pregnant mothers must avoid inhaling or ingesting substances like cigarette smoke, excessive alcohol and illegal drugs. These neurotoxins can cause harm to a baby’s brain development in utero.


Severe or prolonged emotional distress, particularly in early pregnancy, can lead to permanent impairment of an unborn baby’s neurodevelopment. This is because the stress hormone, cortisol, can interfere with a baby’s development.


Pregnant women are advised to avoid medication, especially in early pregnancy as even common medicine like aspirin may cause bleeding in an unborn child’s brain.


Exposure to pollutants, toxins, radiation and pesticides in pregnancy may lead to an increased risk of autism development and lower intelligence. In addition, Dr. Juriza cautions against flashing the mother’s abdomen with bright lights, as this can cause damage to the baby’s immature retina.



Boosting Brain Cells

Once baby arrives in the world, his brain reacts to the environment and undergoes learning experiences through various stimuli, which in turn help the brain to grow and develop. The learning process doesn’t just encourage the growth of new brain cells, it also helps the brain branch out and make connections. There are numerous ways in which parents can help boost the growth of brain cells and nerve connections in their newborn, for example:


Numerous scientific studies have found that breast milk contains around 400 nutrients that cannot be found in formula. As a result, breastfed babies tend to be smarter than their bottle-fed peers. Also, the longer and more frequently they are breastfed, the better their intellectual advantage.


The physical closeness of parent and baby is a boon for baby’s brain, as he or she can be intimately involved in the parent’s actions and conversations. The baby’s observations and experiences act to stimulate his growing brain.

Baby talk

“Talk to your baby often,” says Dr. Juriza. The upbeat tones, exaggerated syllables, slow rate, raised pitch and animated facial features that a mother or father makes to baby can have a profound effect on his brain development.   

Baby games

Babies love to play and respond to games, like hide-and-seek, toy stacking and water play. As a result, millions of their brain cells are stimulated while they have fun. However, even ‘brainiacs’ have to take a break sometimes. Only engage the baby when he is alert and ready, don’t force activities upon him, warns Dr. Juriza.

Respond to baby

The human brain is programmed to seek safety and assurance. Therefore, a parent’s responsiveness to a baby’s cues is paramount to nurturing not only a healthy bond but a healthy mind too. The lack of a sense of security is believed to hamper baby’s learning and brain growth.

For parents, there may be nothing quite as rewarding as witnessing the growth and development of their baby’s brain, emotions and skills. To fully enjoy this journey, however, Dr. Juriza advises parents to learn more about the normal developmental milestones of the baby both in utero and after birth. This will allow parents to match the stimulation to the developmental stage, as well as detect any developmental delays early on. Most importantly, she says, “Enjoy your baby and learn about them through play and fun!”


Serious signs

While each child develops differently — either physically, linguistically or cognitively — there is a general guideline to the milestones that a baby should accomplish at a certain age. While in utero, one of the major warning signs to look out for is if the baby isn’t moving as expected. After birth,  parents should be concerned if their baby is too quiet, not moving vigorously and not attaining the following developmental milestones:

  • 4 months: Is unable to show if he is happy or upset.
  • 6 months: Not cooing or babbling.
  • 7 months: Cannot imitate the sounds that other people make and isn’t using actions to get your attention.
  • 8 months: Hasn’t started babbling consonants.
  • 9 months: Doesn’t look where you point or respond to his name.
  • 12 months: Doesn’t say “mama” or “dada” or respond to words like “no” and “bye-bye.”
  • Between 12 and 15 months: Cannot babble as if talking.

If you are concerned about your child’s development, don’t hesitate to consult your doctor about your observations.

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