Brain boosters for baby in the belly

What you do and eat during pregnancy affects your unborn child’s development. Here are some tips on what to do during your pregnancy:

GET MOVING

As little as 20 minutes of moderate exercise - think brisk walking, yoga or swimming - during pregnancy can boost your unborn baby's brain development, according to a 2013 study by the University of Montreal in Canada.

Regular exercise helps your psychological health and lowers anxiety and fatigue during pregnancy, said Dr Seng Shay Way, a specialist in obstetrics and gynaecology and a consultant at Raffles Fertility and Women's Centre.

But steer clear of contact sports, such as judo and kickboxing, and exercises with a risk of falling, such as cycling and mountain climbing, he added.

LOAD UP ON GOOD FATS

Here is a good reason to load up on healthy omega-3 fatty acids in your prenatal diet: Your kid is likely to do better on tests measuring verbal, social and communication skills after birth, said Dr Tan Wei Ching, a senior consultant at the department of obstetrics and gynaecology at Singapore General Hospital (SGH).

Just one or two servings of fish a week provides enough DHA, a type of omega-3 fatty acid, for your unborn baby's brain development, she added. But stick to low-mercury varieties such as canned tuna and salmon. Nuts and seeds also contain this healthy fat.

GET SOME SUNSHINE

While too much exposure to sun can harm the skin, a lack of vitamin D due to insufficient exposure to sunlight during pregnancy can affect your baby's brain and motor development, reported a 2012 Spanish study.

Researchers found that babies of mothers with a vitamin D deficiency during pregnancy had lower IQ and motor skills, compared with those whose mums had enough vitamin D. The Health Promotion Board recommends that pregnant mums get 10mcg of vitamin D daily.

Get some sunshine between 10am and 3pm, for up to 30 minutes each time, but be sure to slather on sunscreen. Vitamin D is also found in eggs, salmon and milk.

MANAGE STRESS

When a pregnant woman is distressed, she releases stress hormones that can pass through the placenta. These excess hormones may trigger preterm labour and slow down your foetus' growth, said Dr Tan Hwee Sim, a specialist in psychiatry and a consultant at Raffles Counselling Centre.

Studies show that depression and anxiety during pregnancy can have a negative effect on the child, who may be less active, more irritable and easily agitated after birth, she added.

LIGHT UP BABY'S WORLD

Although your unborn child is cocooned in darkness, he can make out changes in brightness occurring outside the womb.

Hone his budding visual skills by shining a torchlight on your belly about 15cm away, said Ms Wong Boh Boi, assistant director (clinical services) of Thomson Parentcraft Centre at Thomson Medical Centre.

Hold your torchlight still and keep this activity brief, preferably under a minute, she added.

INVOLVE DAD AND OLDER KIDS

The rest of the family can be part of the (one-sided) conversation too. Many studies have shown that babies can recognise their loved ones' voices before birth.

In a 2013 study published in the Proceedings Of The National Academy of Sciences, researchers got a group of pregnant mums to play a recording, which included a made-up word "tatata" repeated in different ways and pitches.

After birth, babies who heard the word responded to it, as shown on brain scans, while babies who did not listen to the recording did not.

TRY ROLLING OVER

Do this when you are eight months pregnant. You may feel some "quickening", caused by your unborn baby's limbs moving, when you suddenly roll over or stand up, said Dr John Medina in his book, Brain Rules For Baby: How To Raise A Smart And Happy Child From Zero To Five.

Called the Moro Reflex, this shows that your little one's movement and balance abilities are already working.

TALK AND READ TO BABY

By week 18, your unborn baby will be able to hear, said Thomson Parentcraft Centre's Ms Wong. So, talk or read nursery rhymes daily to stimulate his hearing. Keep it short, preferably no longer than five minutes.

ENTERTAIN WITH MUSIC

Soothing tunes help stimulate brain activity linked to logic and planning, while intense loud music can agitate an unborn baby, said Ms Wong.

Amuse your little one with some soothing music. It does not have to be classical tunes, but ditch the headphones. She said: "Imagine blasting loud music directly in your face while you're in a small space. It can be damaging to your baby's hearing."

CLEAN UP YOUR ACT

If you or your husband smoke or drink excessively, get help to quit immediately.

Not only do these habits harm your unborn baby's brain development, they also increase your child's risk of learning and behaviour problems later in life, said Dr Tan of SGH.

FUEL UP

Cutting back on key nutrients and calories during pregnancy can stunt your baby's brain development, so now is not the time to diet.

Dr Medina pointed out that malnutrition studies show that babies who do not get enough nutrients while in the womb grow up to have lower IQ.

On top of having regular meals, you need an extra 370 and 480 calories daily in your second and third trimester respectively, based on the recommended dietary allowances by the Health Promotion Board.

A GENTLE BELLY MASSAGE

This is another way to bond in the second trimester when your pregnancy stabilises. The best part is, dads can help with the belly rubs too.

Remember to get the green light from your doctor first, though. When applying oils or creams on your belly, do so gently using an upward stroke, advised Ms Wong of Thomson Parentcraft Centre.

WASH FRUIT AND VEGGIES

Always wash fresh produce before you consume them or consider going organic, advised SGH's Dr Tan. She added that researchers at the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health in the United States, found that pregnant mums who were exposed to organophosphate pesticides, commonly used on food crops, had a higher risk of having kids with lower IQ.

IRON FOR A BETTER BRAIN

Iron deficiency is a top cause of mental retardation in babies, said Dr Tan of SGH. You need more iron-rich food, about 19mg daily, to help your child grow well.

Get it from red meat and dark leafy vegetables, and check with your doctor before you pop iron supplements as they can be dangerous for your unborn baby.

EAT SAFE

Learning disabilities, movement problems, mental retardation, stillbirths and cerebral palsy are some consequences of food-related poisoning infections during pregnancy.

Stick to thoroughly cooked meals and lay off undercooked, raw or unpasteurised food such as uncooked eggs, meat and soft cheeses, advised SGH's Dr Tan. She added that sashimi is safe to eat, provided it is from quality sources.

This article first appeared in Young Parents magazine. Young Parents, published by SPH Magazines, is available in digital and print formats. Go to www.young parents.com.sg to subscribe and for more stories.