What does “Growing Up Brainy” actually mean? In this episode, smallTalk co-founder & physician scientist, Dr. Nathalie Maitre, talks about the concept of being brainy. It’s not about being smart, but rather about potential.

 

All babies have potential when it comes to their brain development and as parents, there are many ways we can provide an enriched environment to help our little ones grow and develop.

Today’s Guest:

Dr. Nathalie Maitre, is the co-founder of smallTalk, a practicing neonatologist, and a researcher specializing in the neuroscience of infant brain development–meaning how babies build their brains and how they grow with their families.

More Resources:

Alison Gopnik, Ted Talk – What Do Babies Think?

Transcription for Episode 2: Your Baby's Amazing Brain

Amy
Welcome to Growing Up Brainy. Your portal into what’s happening inside your baby’s brain. We interview the experts, demystify the science, and help you nurture your child towards a bright open future.

 

Hello there! I am your host, Amy Husted, startup addict, boy mom of two, and chief commercial officer here at smallTalk. On today’s episode, I have the pleasure of talking to Dr. Nathalie Maitre, co-founder of smallTalk and physician scientist specializing in infant brain development. Nathalie’s work is the baseline for everything we’re building here at small talk. So there’s truly not a more perfect person to serve as our very first guest. So, Nathalie, before we get into our topic today, I would love if you just shared a little bit more about your background.

 

Nathalie
Thanks, Amy. That was a wonderful introduction. Very enthusiastic. So thanks for that. I am, as you put it, a physician scientist. That means I’m both a practicing neonatologist who takes care of babies in the nicu. So very preterm babies, very sick babies who can’t be with their parents for long periods of time. And I’m a researcher who specializes in the neuroscience of infant brain development, meaning how babies build their brains and how they grow with their families.

 

Amy
Now, with this being the first full episode of Growing Up Brainy, I thought we could spend a little time talking most of all about the title, specifically the word brainy, and what we actually mean by that. So the quick answer is that we don’t mean smart. Brainy does not equal smart. But Nathalie, I would love if you could spend a little bit of time explaining how you describe what do we mean by brainy.

 

Nathalie
Thanks for that opportunity, Amy. So when we talk about growing up brainy, what we’re actually talking about is babies growing into their full potential. And that means a lot of things for a developing child and for their brain. It means that their brain is going to learn to make new connections, to make new pathways in the brain, to grow as a human being and as part of a family with their parents. And it’s actually an incredibly miraculous journey, growing up brainy, and it’s becoming a child and becoming everything that they could potentially be, regardless of where they came from.

 

Amy
So, Nathalie, you bring up two great points. Two things that I’m hearing is that babies have all of this potential. And the other one is that they all have their own beginning and that might look different. So let’s start first with the potential. I think that’s something parents get really excited about. And, you know, what is their baby going to grow up to be? Who are they going to grow up to be? So how do you look at this idea of potential within these tiny little babies?

 

Nathalie
That is a really complicated question, actually, because potential is everything we don’t know. So that’s going to sound like a cop out. But it’s not. Potential for a baby and for a baby’s brain is actually, as far as we know, limitless. Now, that potential might look different for every baby, but we as scientists and as physicians have yet to figure out what the limits of that potential are. So when we talk about it, when we say, will my baby be able to be president someday? Well, I don’t know, potentially, right. By that I mean that from a brain standpoint, it’s the same thing.

 

When babies are born, they’re at a stage of development where cells are still being born, where connections are still being made, where connections between different neurons, the cells of the brain, are being made. And that’s really, really important when we talk about potential, because when a connection is made between two cells, it starts a pathway and then another cell in another cell and some of these pathways are used more than others, and they become like these Internet highways in the brain and others are not. And some of the neurons on those highways, they kind of die off and the roads can be lost. So the potential is limitless. And it’s a little bit like that Robert Frost poem, right, The Road Not Taken. Two roads are there and in the brain of babies, it’s billions of roads that are there. And it turns out that probably any road you take could be a great one, but that some might be more exciting even than others. So that’s why that potential is incredible and wondrous, not just for us as parents, but also for us as scientists.

 

Amy
I love everything about that! So then kind of taking that back to the beginning, where do babies start? What are they really capable of so early on? And then how is that maybe even impacted a little bit by their beginnings, looking different just based on circumstance?

 

Nathalie
So the beginning of a baby is actually inside mom. And that’s what’s so incredible. Every baby starts inside the womb inside their mother, and that womb creates an environment. It’s not just the mom supplying the nutrients and the support for the body of the baby. It’s also the mom that’s providing this incredibly rich environment that is helping to wire the very beginnings of the developing brain, which will continue after a baby is born. And so when we talk about beginning, it’s not just birth, but it’s also what happens before birth.

 

And sometimes for some babies who are born under more difficult circumstances, it can be the difference in their environment when they’re born preterm. For example, babies who are born preterm, go from this womb environment to often a hospital environment. And that’s a very different one. And it’s going to wire the brain and those highways that I just talked about in a really different way than being inside of mom. So the beginning can look really different based on whether a baby is born at term and into an environment that is more typical. So close to mom, close to dad, and being able to go home or already be at home for some people. And in other cases, it’s a baby who’s born with sort of an interrupted development. There was this interruption, prematurity. The birth happened sooner than it was supposed to. And then there’s an added complication to that beginning, which is a disruption. And that’s all the things that happen in the environment around the baby that are not would have been inside the mom.

 

But regardless of that beginning, what parents need to know is that the potential is there. And you could start off as a preterm infant or you could start off as a full term infant. And you still have that infinite potential that we don’t know much about and that all these neurons are still multiplying, making connections. And some people say, oh, well, don’t babies who are born in Nicu, don’t they have more problems if they’re born early or what if they were born and they lacked oxygen or something like that? And what about their potential? And what I’m saying is we actually don’t know how far these babies could go and how far these connections could grow and become those information highways that we talked about.

 

And I like to think that what I don’t know is the best part of all of this. It’s like when you look out at the stars and the universe and you just imagine because you don’t know, but you see all this infinite potential and maybe I won’t ever in my lifetime go to Mars, but I can see Mars out there. And isn’t it incredible that it’s there? Well, it’s a lot like that with babies. Just because a baby’s born with differences at birth and has a slightly different beginning doesn’t mean that you can’t look at the stars or the planets and start thinking, wow, what would it be like to go there? And so, you know, that’s sort of a convoluted answer to what the beginning is, but the beginning, at least as I see it, and as many scientists see it, physicians, but I hope parents too, the beginning is the beginning of all possibilities.

 

Amy
That’s beautiful. I’ve already said this once, but I’m loving every second, Nathalie. I just love this. Well, we are going to take a quick minute and we will be right back.

 

The Growing Up Brainy podcast is brought to you by smallTalk. smallTalk allows your baby to engage with foreign language through play. This interactive language exposure during infancy results in what we like to call brain magic, wiring your little one’s brain with the building blocks of a new language and getting them a different and better brain for a lifetime. Look for our first product, the smallTalk Egg launching this fall of 2021.

 

Amy
So, Nathalie, as I’ve gotten to know you over this journey with smallTalk, I’ve always loved, you reference all the time about babies being little scientists and how they quickly learn through experimentation. And I would just love if you shared some of those bits that you’ve learned and seen along the way with our audience.

 

Nathalie
Yes. So, I am so fortunate because part of my job involves following babies from the neonatal intensive care in the hospital all the way to the clinic and seeing them with their parents and getting to see them interact in a room with the many things that their parents bring with them. So it’s always fun for me to see babies as I’m examining them and they’re knocking on something and they’re chewing on it and they’re smelling it and tasting it and they’re doing all these things. And I’ll tell a parent, oh, my goodness, look at that little scientist. And they won’t believe me. And I say, no, no, no, no, it’s true. This is the work of a very famous and wonderful scientist called Alison Gopnik, among many others. Bear in mind that there are incredible scientists studying how babies learn through all sorts of different ways. But Alison Gopnik did this absolutely fantastic TED talk, which I think a lot of people know, and she looks at how babies discover how they have this amazing open brain, how they’re these little scientists.

 

And one of the examples she uses is, as she’s talking about things is how they learn what other people prefer and at what age they’re interested in what another person prefers changes. And so she uses the example of a child who’s given cheesy crackers and broccoli and at what point, you know, and the scientist demonstrates what the scientist prefers saying broccoli. Yum. Right. And at the beginning, the child just gives them the crackers because they’re like, the crackers are good, I like the crackers. But eventually they understand that the other person actually likes the broccoli and would give the person the broccoli. And it was just fascinating stuff about how babies learn, how they experiment. And for me, it’s always really cool to see that from the youngest ages, I think she looks at toddlers and she sees that. And most people think, oh, a toddler is too young to be able to learn these things and make these connections. But most people who have children know that their children are scientists and they form very strong tastes by then, right?

 

Amy
Oh, yeah, absolutely. My son Nathan, when he was a toddler, my kids have always been picky eaters, but absolutely. I definitely saw them go from when they’re less than a year, they’ll eat whatever I give them. They don’t really know better. And then he really got into mac and cheese and we were struggling to get the veggies into him anymore. So we started putting the peas inside the mac and cheese. And it’s one of our favorite memories because he always called them green bubbles, that there are these green bubbles in his mac and cheese. But eventually he caught on to us and realized that we weren’t necessarily loving our veggies, if I’m being honest, which is probably where the bad habits started. But yeah, I can definitely see that, how they learn and they adapt to those things that they’re seeing and experiencing themselves.

 

Nathalie
So I’m sure you hid them. But eventually he figured out that those were peas and that was not just the mac and cheese. Right. He could tell those are green. And if I poked my finger and I fish one out, it just doesn’t taste the same as the rest. It doesn’t feel the same. It doesn’t look the same. It doesn’t taste the same. Right.

 

Amy
Exactly. And there was one small moment in time where he wouldn’t eat mac and cheese unless it had the peas inside. So I’m not sure how we got away from that. But for a minute it was glorious.

 

Nathalie
Well, just that concept of taste, texture, color and how they discover these things. It’s true for food, but it’s true for so many other things. And when we see babies putting things, taking an object, putting them in their mouth, especially very young babies who have learned to grab and do that, most people think, oh, he’s just hungry. It’s like, no, no, no. This baby is discovering. He is actually using everything available that is within his control as a tool to discover.

 

And when you think about it, a baby, let’s say a four month old baby can’t control a lot, right. Maybe they’re able to hold something to their mouth, but they’re not. Yeah, and they’re swatting at things and they might be kicking at some things, but there’s not a ton of control on their environment except when they figure out how to control their parents, of course. But what they’re doing is that they’re actually experimenting. They may not be hungry just because they’re putting something in their mouth. They’re literally using it as one more modality to explore and grow their brain in the same way that they listen. They touch, they feel, they taste. All of their senses are being recruited to that incredible potential brain development that we talked about earlier.

 

Amy
OK, so, Natalie, we all know we’re both moms here ourselves, that parenting can feel very overwhelming in those early months. I mean, forever, really, but especially in those early months. And so we just told our audience that their babies are full of all this potential. They love to experiment, they’re little scientists. How can we pull that back and find some little nuggets? What are little nuggets that you would encourage parents to do that are just simple ways to engage with their baby at this very young age and to foster all of that magic that’s happening inside of them?

 

Nathalie
So I think it all sums up to one thing, which is provide opportunity and anyone can provide opportunities for discovery to a baby. Sometimes it’s as simple as having your baby on your chest and letting them explore you. Anyone who’s ever had their child poke their fingers in their nose or ears knows this and it’s OK to react. So one of the I would say provide that environment. And there’s this concept in science of enriched environments. I think that parents provide the most enriched environment in the way they interact with their children in giving them the opportunity to touch them, to see them react, to hear their voices, to hear their heartbeat, see their faces exaggeratedly, reacting to whatever the baby is doing, all the funny faces we instinctively make, all the ways we sing or talk to our babies.

 

Any kind of sensory experience that is emotionally linked is important. And I think that that’s what is really the key. When we give opportunity, we need to make sure that it’s meaningful because it provides a sense of connection. So if we think about it, this is not about making sure that your baby has three hundred toys. That’s not it. That is too much. And actually, it’s not as valuable to that baby’s development as one or two meaningful interactions with their parents finger or shirt. You know, something very basic, whether they going to react to them pulling on their hair. And I know I’m saying this to another mom who probably had to cut her hair when her baby started, you know, pulling at it and playing with it. I don’t know, Amy. I ended up with very short hair for the first few years of my children’s life.

 

Amy
I’ve definitely had all the links. But you’re right, it is easier when they’re little and there’s less to grab.

 

Nathalie
But even that grabbing opportunity. Right. And reacting. Your reaction, you’re saying no, no, no, or we don’t do that or ow. All of that. Everything, all that sense of connection you provide when your baby’s exploring makes it a richer experience. An enriched environment isn’t about having a richness of many things. It’s having a few things that are meaningful and connected to people who care about that child.

 

Amy
Yeah, I love how you point out that emotional connection because you could have all the right toys, but if they’re just left there by themselves to not connect through those toys. You know, it’s only doing so much. Now I know Mom sometimes needs a break and it’s great if baby’s entertained by a fun little play gym like that. There’s nothing bad in that. But there’s so much good that comes from those moments where you do get down on the floor and engage in that toy with them.

 

Nathalie
Absolutely. And but conversely, you can’t forget that sometimes babies need quiet to sort of consolidate everything they’ve learned. And everything they’re researching, and so I don’t know if you had a baby monitor when your children were babies. Did you have that?

 

Amy
I did. I did.

 

Nathalie
Did you ever listen to them during nap time and just listen and they’re actually laying there awake in their crib? Right.

 

Amy
My favorite was when they were waking up at the end of nap.

 

Nathalie
Yeah. What did they do?

 

Amy
I mean, it sounded like they were having a little conversation with themselves.

 

Nathalie
Yes, that’s exactly right.

 

Amy
Or hitting their feet on the edge of the crib and, you know, exploring those things around them.

 

Nathalie
Right. So that conversation that you heard, it’s actually consolidation. It’s really important to have that quiet time where there’s not so much enrichment and, where instead, what you allow your child to sort of think through what they’ve learned and practice it and test it out in different ways and playing with their mouth and everything else and hear those sounds. And wire their brain and say, when I make this sound, this is what it sound like. And I’m talking to myself and I think I sound like mom and I think I sound like dad, but maybe not. And it’s fun to say that word. And I remember thinking, I know my children can say these words because in that play time before they fall asleep or when they wake up, I would hear them say these words and I would say to the pediatrician, they can say the word, I’ve heard it. They just won’t say it like, except during that time.

 

Going back to what you’re talking about. So these nuggets. I would say one of them is provide opportunities and know that those opportunities for discovery and wiring the brain and reaching that potential have to be connected to something that is meaningful to the child. If possible, an emotional connection with you helps. And conversely, don’t feel like you have to be providing something 100 percent of the time. It’s OK. The brain actually needs rest to consolidate. We know this from studies of adults, even the hippocampus, one of the places in our brain that helps make memories. It doesn’t function well unless we have silence. We need silence to consolidate what we learn when we hear. It’s the same for babies. So trying to find that balance, provide opportunity, but at the same time, make sure you provide plenty of time for rest, silence and consolidation.

 

Amy
So I just love this again, Nathalie. What I’m hearing is that when we want to really engage our babies and we want to help them reach their full potential, it all comes back to balance and it comes back to that emotional connection and taking these things in these opportunities. I love that word, opportunities. Just looking for opportunities to engage, to connect and to help our little ones discover. I just love that. I love learning about them being these little scientists and these little experimenters. And we are just so thankful that you took some time and you shared that time with us today and you shared your insights and your expertise. And I know we’ll be hearing from you again, not just because you’re brilliant, but as the co-founder of Small Talk. So much of what we do here is dependent and thankful upon you. So thank you so much for your time today.

 

Nathalie
Well, thanks for that compliment. It was a huge privilege to be here. So see you soon, Amy.

 

Amy
Thank you.

 

Amy
Well, that is all we have for you today. Thanks so much for joining us on Growing Up Brainy. Till next time we hope you’ll subscribe, leave us a review or best of all, follow smallTalk.tech on Instagram to join in the conversation.

 

Growing Up Brainy is brought to you by smallTalk. smallTalk allows your baby to engage with foreign language through play. This interactive language exposure during infancy results in what we like to call brain magic-- wiring your little one’s brain with the building blocks of a new language and gaining them a different and better brain for a lifetime. Look for our first product, the smallTalk Egg, launching this fall of 2021.

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