SINGAPORE: When he was six months old, unable to walk or talk, Alan was already enrolled in an enrichment class – one specially catered to babies from birth.
Along with babies even younger, he was exposed to flashcards, singing, dancing and massages, all aimed at stimulating their five senses.
His mother Cindy Lim believes this US$30 (S$40) an hour class at Baby Sensory Singapore really works. He has become more inquisitive and confident, she claims.
She hopes these sessions will give him the edge once he starts formal school. “In a classroom environment, he is able to sit (still). I guess that’s good for him, to be part of the classroom and not be too disruptive,” she said.
This mother is not alone in sending her baby for classes - there is a thriving multi-billion dollar industry of services and products that promises parents that their babies will be super smart, super talented and super successful, as the new series How To Raise A Super Smart Baby finds out. (Watch it here.)
But how can parents navigate this confusing landscape of scientific claims and conflicting fads, to find out which claims actually do deliver?
THE FIRST 1,000 DAYS: A GOLDEN WINDOW
Experts say that the first three years of a baby’s life are considered the most crucial years of stimulation where whatever a baby eats, feels and hears influences their intelligence.
Like adults, babies experience the world through five senses – sight, sound, touch, taste and smell – which should be engaged so that neural connections in the brain can develop.
For example, visual stimulation is so critical that if a baby is kept blindfolded, the visual centre in their brain would never develop. Their optic nerve would shrivel up and the baby would never be able to see.
In fact, the first three years of a baby’s life is when their brain develops the most – in size and in complexity – so it is no wonder that those years are often referred to as the golden window of opportunity.
Dr Stacey Tay, a senior consultant (paediatric neurology) at the National University Hospital, said: “This period (lays) the foundation for the way you learn in the future as well.”
Baby Sensory Singapore believes that stimulating the senses of a baby’s brain accelerates development. Master franchisor Wendy Tan claims that some babies who have gone through the programme start talking earlier or turn over on their tummies earlier, compared to other babies.
“We had babies that started our class when they were just five days old and they are more advanced, physically and emotionally as well,” she said.
Dr Tay, who advises new parents on how they can raise their babies in a stimulating environment, believes that a baby’s development is best improved by giving the child a full range of experiences, and not just one kind.
“If you wanted a child to become a musical genius, you would expose the child to music. But I wouldn’t get the child to do just one kind of instrument,” she said.
“I would ask the child to experience different forms of music. And do other things that would improve their fine motor skills, like playing with Playdoh.”
RIGHT BRAIN TRAINING
But while Dr Tay believes our environment already offers a rich range of stimuli for children, some parents are willing to go even further to create experiences for their babies – such as signing them up for right brain training.
According to proponents of right brain training, the two sides of the brain process information differently. The left is in charge of logic, reasoning and language, and it processes information slowly. The right brain handles creativity and memory, and processes information quickly.
There are over 30 centres in Singapore offering right brain training and many of these methods are from Japan.
Some centres use flashcards, puzzles and games where the infants are required to remember details such as colours and shapes.
Heguru Education claims that right brain training from a tender age will build a child’s photographic memory, improve his analytical thinking and lead to better concentration.
Parent Ms Chua Ru Wei is convinced the classes have helped her son. Now in preschool, he has a photographic memory, she said.
When we read a book, he can remember the pictures, the details, the colour of the dress and what colour book the girl was holding.
Mr Kuah Eng Liang, founder of Heguru Education, said that after a child turns three, the development of the right brain will start to decline and abilities like photographic memory and creativity will start to fade or diminish.
WATCH: The different ways (3:44)
BUT WHAT DOES THE SCIENCE SAY?
Dr Tay, however, is not so convinced. Having a good memory for flashcards, she said, doesn’t necessarily mean the child will develop good memory.
“There is this big question that nobody has really answered, about how translatable that skill is,” she said.
Just by being able to go through 20, 30 flashcards in one minute, will it help the child to think better, to write a composition better in the future? That has never been shown.
Dr Tay added that right brain development is a thinking that dates back to the 1970s when people didn’t understand much about neuroscience, and thought that the right brain was dedicated to creativity and the left to logical thinking skills.
With more studies and scans done of the brain today, experts know that it is not as simple as that, she said.
The brain functions like a huge complex network, and language skills for example – which used to be thought to reside just in the left brain – actually engages the right brain as well as other more distant part of the brain, she added.
“So, programmes that actually tell you that they are training the right brain are not necessarily training the right brain per say. What they are doing is actually to train a particular skill,” she said.
THE MILKY WAY: INFANT FORMULA HYPE?
But if flashcards and right brain training aren’t necessarily the keys to making your child smarter, is nutrition the answer?
After birth, a baby’s brain growth depends critically on the quality of what he eats or drinks. The infant formula business is big business – in 2015, the world bought US$47 billion (S$62 billion) worth of formula milk, more than what it spent on tea and instant coffee.
Premium brands that can cost as much as US$50 (S$66) a tin dominate the industry. (Related story: Taskforce on formula milk reports 4.8% drop in average prices)
In milk powder commercials, ingredients like DHA and ARA - fatty acids found in breast milk - get special mention but do they really make a difference?
Dr Natalie Epton, a specialist pediatrician and neonatologist at SBCC Mount Elizabeth Novena, said that research by the Cochrane Collaboration group suggests that while there is no harm in adding DHA to formula milk, there is no conclusive evidence it leads to better brain development in babies.
“We know that when DHA occurs in breast milk, they also occur with the enzyme that is able to break that down and utilise it in the body,” she said. “But getting DHA without the enzyme, nobody knows whether that is actually worthwhile doing or not.”
In short, there are no lack of products and classes that promise to help parents raise a smart child, and most would want to cram as much as they can into that golden age of 0-3.
One thing is certain, babies crave stimulation. And as some experts point out, simply talking, playing or bringing them to the playground may well give them the brain boost they need.
Watch the series How To Raise A Super Smart Baby here.