Baby Einstein’s days might be numbered thanks to a new study linking children’s fish consumption with better sleep, which helps them perform better on IQ tests.
The study, published last month in the journal Scientific Reports, looked at 541 Chinese schoolchildren. When they were ages 9-11, they completed surveys that indicated the frequency with which they ate fish, and their parents reported on the quality of their sleep (including duration, disruption, breathing trouble, sleep-walking, bedtime resistance, etc.). At age 12, the children took an IQ test. Those who ate fish frequently scored 4.8 points higher than those who rarely or never ate it; and even those who ate it sometimes scored 3.3 points higher. The regular fish eaters also had a higher-quality of sleep. When the researchers analyzed both numbers together, it showed that it was the higher sleep quality that actually made the difference in their verbal IQ scores.
“We already know that omega-3s are good for you, and we already know that sleep is incredibly important to your cognitive performance, but it was interesting to combine the two,” Tracy Cutchlow, author of Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “At this point they’re not saying it’s a definite cause but an association.”
And this association raises a question many parents have: What can we do to make our kids smarter? Or, to put it in a more sensitive way: How can we help our kids’ brains thrive?
Fish and Other Omega-3-Rich Foods
“Children should be introduced to it early on,” Jennifer Pinto-Martin, one of the study’s authors and the executive director of the Center for Public Health Initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania, told CNN.
Anyone with a picky eater knows that’s easier said than done, but Cutchlow said not to lose hope. “Introducing a new food to a kid takes a lot more tries than we imagine it might — it’s something like eight or more times,” she tells Yahoo. “Just because they don’t put it in their mouth, chew it and swallow the first time doesn’t mean that they’re never going to eat it.”
If fish is still off the table, though, there are other good omega-3 sources they can try, such as wild rice, walnuts, pasture-raised eggs, and flax-seed oil.
Besides just being delicious, avocados are a great source of lutein, which in turn has shown to improve memory and spatial working memory. It’s also packed with monounsaturated fat, which protects brain cells and enhances memory.
Safety and Love
Before you start stressing about what’s on your kid’s plate, just make sure she feels secure and loved.
“The brain’s No. 1 concern is survival, so getting that sense of being in a safe environment allows the brain to relax about that and know it can do other fun things like learn,” Cutchlow explains. “Without it the brain is just on high alert looking for safety and not able to concentrate on anything else.”
As the fish study indicated, this is key to healthy brains of all ages. REM sleep is when we move our short-term memories from the day into long-term knowledge, so that’s how kids retain anything they learned in school or at home during the day.
“It’s incredibly important to have solid sleep routines in place for your kids,” Cutchlow says. Shut down those screens an hour before bed and consider switching from overhead lights to dimmer lamps to ease the transition into bedtime.
Though it’s unclear whether regular physical activity improves children’s IQ or cognitive abilities, it does benefit their executive functioning. That means they’re more able to perform goal-oriented tasks in highly stimulating environments — that sounds a lot like taking a test in school.
The Growth Mindset
Instead of all this talk about improving IQ, how about improving the way kids use their brains? Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University, developed the idea that acknowledging children for their effort and perseverance (the growth mindset) is more helpful than praising them for being inherently smart or talented (a fixed mindset). Encouraging them to try different strategies to solve problems is the key to making them feel they can conquer other challenges too.
“It helps children access the smarts they already have,” Cutchlow explains. “One aspect of it is talking to your kids about how the brain is a muscle, and when you learn something, you’re exercising your brain and making connections between neurons.”
Above all, don’t get fixated on making your child a genius.
“Our job as parents is not to make our kids anything,” Cutchlow says, “but really to guide them to be who they are.”
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