How to Grow a Smarter Child

Blame “The Big Bang Theory” or Mark Zuckerberg’s wealth if you want, but it’s become cool to be smart. Popular culture and scientific revelations about how the brain develops in babies and children has fueled a surging interest in shaping children into smarter, more competent adults. Here are six research-backed methods of accomplishing just that.

1. Eat fatty fish during pregnancy.

It has been proven that young children whose mothers consumed more than 200 grams per week of fatty fish (like salmon, trout and sardines) while pregnant get neuropsychological and cognitive benefits. Two hundred grams is about seven ounces (about the size of two decks of cards), so two fish meals a week should suffice. If vegan or vegetarian moms absolutely will not eat fish or use fish oil supplements during their pregnancies, they might consider algae oil capsules, since fish eat algae that contain omega-3 fatty acids and build it up in their bodies over time. The big caveat, though, is that several studies of pregnant women who took fish oil supplements haven’t shown any difference in their kids’ cognitive development. Currently, the evidence hints that it’s the fish flesh, not just the oil, that contains the magic ingredients needed to smarten up that child. Of course, pregnant women should avoid mackerel, tuna and swordfish because of their excessive mercury levels, which can actually harm neural development in sensitive fetal brain tissues.

Related: Are Omega-3s Worth the Money? Yes!

2. Make sure kids eat breakfast.

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The positive effect of the morning meal on cognitive performance has been most established in at-risk kids who may be more restricted in the kinds of foods they can afford to eat. But that doesn’t mean that wealthier kids should ignore that positive effect — breakfast certainly isn’t going to hurt. Parents should try to combine some protein and fat, such as a hard-boiled egg or almond butter on whole-wheat toast, to prevent sugar crashes during a second-period math class and keep their child’s energy going all morning.

Related: The Best Nutrition Tips for Children with ADHD

3. Create a safe and drama-free environment.

Toxic stress is now thought to hinder your child’s brain development and is considered a negative exposure (e.g., exposing your child to cigarette smoke). The more stress a child experiences — whether from larger traumas like divorce or the loss of a parent or from more chronic problems like marital discord or financial insecurity — the more at risk is the child’s brain. Parents should have stressful arguments away from their children and carefully consider the consequences before taking children to fractious events like political protests. Children younger than 7 may block out the details of stress and trauma, but they may still retain the powerful emotions felt during that time, according to St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Nancy Cambria, who worked extensively on stories about the effects of gun violence on children in the aftermath of incidents in Ferguson, Missouri. This can affect their future resilience, trust and social relationships as well as executive functioning (higher-order brain problem-solving).

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4. Limit residential moves and other life interruptions.

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Residential moves are also high on the list of the most stressful events children experience. A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that frequent domestic upheavals in a year during early/mid-adolescence correlate with increased rates of violent offenses, attempted suicide, substance abuse and unnatural death. The study recommended heightened vigilance for relocated adolescents and their families, including "close cooperation among multiple public agencies, particularly child, adolescent, and adult mental health services."

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5. Choose housing away from air pollution.

Children living in nonpolluted areas perform better on cognitive tests than kids from the polluted areas, a study conducted in Mexico City found. More than half of the MRIs of kids living with pollution showed areas of inflammation in the brain. The researchers also autopsied the brains of dogs from the polluted areas and found particulate matter deposited in the brain and inflammation spots similar to that found in the children. You can look for your community in the American Lung Association’s State of the Air report or inquire with your city and county government about air pollution reports for the communities around you.

Related: American Lung Association’s 2016 State of the Air Report

6. Hone your child’s working memory.

Working memory is a “daily life” type of memory, used for everything from remembering a grocery list to keeping in mind that you have to go back to question No. 8 while simultaneously solving question No. 24 on the SAT. It is one of the core executive functions and is necessary because the human brain can only focus on a few things at a time. A Chinese study of schoolchildren trained on an abacus-based mental math skill set showed that the training helped with not only math, but working memory as well.

Related: How Our Brains Learn and Why We Forget Things

What Do YOU Think?

How far are you willing to go to give your child an intellectual advantage? Do you fight for a better environment for your child, pushing government officials for clean air initiatives, for example? Are you able to plan smart meals for your kids? Or does overworking at your job keep you from going the extra mile at home? Let us know in the comments!

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