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How can I Keep my Child's Brain Healthy?

To maintain a healthy state of mind, children need to be set challenges. Expanding their skills gives them focus and forces their brains to concentrate on something previously unknown. Learning a new skill teaches discipline and pushes brains to the limit

Content young girl enjoying a good night's sleepMany things help your child’s brain development - and they also help us adults keep our brains healthy throughout life. Environmental factors (such as natural poisons or toxins) and lifestyle both have an impact but there are steps we can take to keep a healthy brain and mind. This guide has useful tips for parents which will help to keep their child’s brain healthy and give them the best start in life.

How does diet affect brain health?

We are what we eat, so it should come as no surprise that our diet affects our brains’ health. The brain needs the right nutrients to ensure that it develops and functions properly. Our bodies need a good balance of carbohydrates, protein, fibre, minerals, vitamins and some fats and sugars. These can be gained from a variety of foods like meat, fish, legumes, fruit and vegetables.

The brain needs energy – which means carbohydrates. Although junk foods can provide a quick sugar fix, or ‘sugar high’, they do not feed the brain properly and can cause inconsistent blood sugar levels – resulting in a ‘crash’ in energy. Slow releasing carbohydrates, such as porridge and wholemeal bread, are most effective in burning energy gradually. Proteins are good for the brain, as well as iron (red meats, spinach) and also potassium, which can be found in bananas, mushrooms, beans and avocados.

The Mind website explains the importance of good diet for mood, and there are many articles and research studies stressing the importance of drinking water. Since the brain (and our bodies) are mostly made of water, we need to consume at least 2 pints per day, or we risk the brain becoming dehydrated. A glass of water can make the brain work 14% faster.

How does exercise affect brain health?

Exercise is good for the brain - it releases endorphins that make us feel good! This helps to fight off mental health problems' such as depression, and can help us to feel happy and optimistic. Encourage your child to go outside, run, play, have fun and feel the benefits! Health implications such as cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure and smoking can all compromise blood flow to the brain, so from a young age, educate your child on how to follow a healthy lifestyle. As well as keeping us fit and happy, exercise also enhances sleep, which is fundamental for a healthy brain...

How does sleep affect brain health?

Sleep is vital for a healthy brain because it gives us the opportunity to regenerate. Sleep helps to enhance the brain’s development and memory. A decent sleep can also improve the way in which we think. According to the National Sleep Foundation, we spend around 40% of our childhood sleeping so it is of vital importance. A lack of sleep can cause problems with behaviour – children can become irritable and reluctant to concentrate at school.

How much sleep do children need?

Children of different ages need different amounts of sleep. Toddlers need 11-14 hours a night, 3-5 year olds between 11 and 13 hours, 6-13 year olds need around 9-11 hours and for all other ages around 8 hours are recommended. NHS statistics show that only 50% of 11-17 year olds have the recommended amount of sleep. This can be detrimental to both their development and their education.

How important are the early years for brain development?

It’s vital that parents realise the importance of early brain development. Save The Children suggests that around 130,000 youngsters are unfortunately not at the level they should be before they start primary school. Some parents fail to accept how important the early years are for brain development and 61% of parents questioned are under the false impression that learning at school is most significant.

How can I help my child’s brain develop?

The more often your child uses their brain, the better it will develop. Give your children lots of opportunities to be creative and let their imaginations run wild – craft activities, singing, dancing, playing fancy dress and making up stories. The home is a great place for younger children to start learning. Give them tasks to focus on to help keep their brains active. Spend time reading with them and give them chances to expand their vocabulary – reading is one of the most important factors but it's often overlooked. Seldom is enough time is spent on it.

Maths is equally as important. A useful tip is to introduce children from an early age to counting money, measuring ingredients or identifying items. Parents need to help keep children’s brains mentally stimulated and constantly challenged.

Memory games are a brilliant idea. Test your children at memorising items, create a challenging treasure hunt or make a ‘mystery box’ where they have the chance to work the touch sense. Other useful games for mental stimulation can be puzzles, card games, jigsaws, ‘Simon Says!’ or even a family game of scrabble!

How do teenagers’ brains change?

Teenage boy using his laptop late at night

Due to hormones, many changes occur in teenage brains. Try and encourage your teenage child to focus on their education, and help them recognise the importance of sleep. Sports and hobbies can be a good release for them, so encourage these as much as possible. Due to the popularity and accessibility of technology, everything we need is available at the touch of a button and we can obtain information instantly. Don’t let your teenager spend hours sat in front of a TV, computer or mobile phone screen, as this can severely compromise their social and communication skills. You might want to introduce regular periods of ‘family time’. There are also many useful ‘Brain Training’ apps available for download on smartphones and iPads.

How can I challenge my child’s brain?

To maintain a healthy state of mind, in ourselves as well as our children, we need to always push ourselves to the limit and set challenges. Expanding our skills gives us focus and forces our brains to concentrate on something previously unknown. Learning a new sport, language, skill, or how to play an instrument can teach discipline and give our brains the opportunity to be pushed to the limit. We feel good when we have set our minds to something and succeeded.

So, how can you keep your child's brain healthy? Well, in order to keep any brain healthy we need to find the correct balance. Ensure that children follow a nutritious and varied diet plan, recognise the importance of sleep and exercise and fill their lives with challenges and brain stimulating activities.

For further reading you might find the EQ Knowledge Bank of interest. It’s a collection of articles, each one aiming to answer the questions asked by parents. You’ll find a mine of information on all aspects of education along with guidance and advice for parents on tricky issues, such as bullying and online safety. It’s well worth a look.

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