Raising Brain-Healthy Kids: Tips for Parents to Support Cognitive Development 

Did you know that 90% of a child’s brain is developed by age 5? Or that brain development stages continue to unfold until young adults reach their mid- to late 20s?

As a parent, I know that kids of all ages are vulnerable to adopting unhealthy habits and turning them into long-term lifestyle choices. While growing up, they’re bombarded with misinformation and pressure from peers, parents, and society. That’s why it’s never too early to start thinking about a child’s cognitive development—and ways that you as a parent can help support it.

5 Tips for Parents to Support Your Child’s Cognitive Development

Here are 5 of my go-to methods for boosting cognitive development. Though they’re useful to implement at any age, they’ll make a world of difference for children.

 1. Encourage Healthy Eating—Without Policing

Staples of the standard American diet, such as ultra-processed or fast foods, sugar, simple carbohydrates, dairy products, trans fats, some animal-derived saturated fats, engineered ingredients, and excess omega-6 fatty acids, are pro-inflammatory. Inflammation can trigger serious health conditions, from heart disease and gastrointestinal disorders to cancer and high blood pressure. Within the brain, high blood sugar levels associated with unhealthy eating habits can increase the risk for debilitating diseases like dementia.

Instead, ensure your child is eating well-balanced meals, like those outlined in The Omni Diet or The Brain Warrior’s Way Cookbook, which help reduce inflammation. These eating plans focus on plenty of fresh vegetables and fruits, lean protein, and healthy fats, plus herbs and spices for extra flavor and health benefits.

One word of warning: Avoid aggressive food policing. Tactics like making children clean their plates, restricting food, or pressuring them to eat less usually backfire. Allow your kids to make mistakes, but be ready to help them learn in the process. By stocking only healthy foods in the house and providing nutritious lunches, you’ll give them an excellent head start toward developing lifelong healthy dietary habits.

 2. Have Fun

Games are more than just amusement—they’re great brain-builders. Sudoku and crossword puzzles sharpen logic and reasoning skills. Trivia challenges and mnemonics games help improve memory. Board games, chess, and mah-jongg develop visual, spatial, and mental skills. Nowadays, there are even brain-training games available online. These kinds of activities help strengthen the left side of the brain, which is involved with logic and detail.

But it’s just as important to stimulate the right side of the brain, which is more artistic and creative. Introduce your kids to hobbies like arts and crafts, playing with (or making) dolls or puppets, or even joining in on a game of charades.

Because children’s brains are still in development while they’re young, it’s also the ideal time to teach them new skills. For example, they can soak up a second language, learn a musical instrument, or do karaoke to stimulate the brain. Even juggling has been shown to encourage growth in the areas of the brain that control memory, language, and reading.

Best of all, games and creative pursuits are fun—and something the whole family can do together.

Raising Brain Healthy Kids: Support Child Cognitive Development | BrainMD  3. Exercise Together for Bonding and Brain Health

Many of you know that for years I’ve practiced martial arts, which offers so many benefits. It feels empowering to kick butt in the dojo, and I get a great workout. At least one study has indicated that martial arts are great for the brain too, increasing white matter—thanks to those complex moves we learn in class. (Just be sure to protect yourself from brain injuries while practicing.)

Of course, I wanted to pass along those benefits and started practicing Kenpo karate with my daughter, Chloe. I loved instilling (and modeling) the practice of regular exercise for her at a young age, and I got to learn all over again whenever I taught her some moves. Meanwhile, she received necessary life lessons about dedication, persistence, and resilience. We enjoyed precious bonding time, and exercising in groups has been shown to be more beneficial for the brain than working out solo.

If martial arts aren’t your thing, try dancing, yoga, or paddle or racket games like tennis, ping-pong, or pickleball—all great brain-healthy sports. Regular exercise of any kind can help prevent conditions such as depression, anxiety, obesity, heart disease, and dementia. Plus, because exercise stimulates chemicals called endorphins, it simply feels good. Exercise reduces stress, improves sleep, and boosts self-esteem. Score bonus points for getting your movement outside in nature, which will add even more feel-good benefits.

 4. Add Supplements to Breakfast

Even if you’re providing healthy meals for your kids, ensuring that they have every nutrient in the proper amount every day can be an impossible task. This is where supplements enter the picture. While the right diet will provide much of what kids need to stay healthy, supplements will fill in the gaps. After all, none of us is perfect—and even if we were, it’s tricky to get all of our necessary nutrients through diet alone.

That’s why I like to say that supplements pick up where food leaves off. They give our bodies an extra boost to help fight off modern-day threats, like environmental toxins. At minimum—and at any age—I recommend taking daily multivitamins, omega-3 fish oil, vitamin D, and a probiotic. The good news is, you can easily incorporate these into your kids’ breakfasts at home. I like blending all 4 of these necessities right into morning smoothies. But you can also incorporate them into your favorite recipes, like homemade protein balls or my Amazing Avocado Gelato.

 5. Create Healthy Bedtime Routines

Sleep is a cornerstone of kids’ health, and they need plenty of it. Teenagers require 8-10 hours of sleep per night (a goal that two-thirds of teens don’t meet), while younger children need even more to support healthy development. Sleep deprivation for kids and teens can disrupt the release of growth hormone (and other hormones), interferes with their ability to pay attention and learn at school, and can even lead to behavioral problems.

Over a long-term period, regularly missing sleep will increase the risk of mental health disorders, diabetes, obesity, relationship issues, memory and cognitive difficulties, cardiovascular problems, and more. It also compromises the immune system and decreases productivity. Sleep helps the brain clean and refresh itself overnight—a necessary process for optimal health.

Unfortunately, just as obvious as sleep’s importance is the fact that kids of many ages are likely to resist it! Encourage them by creating a daily bedtime routine for your children. Stick to certain nighttime tasks, such as teeth brushing or bedtime stories, to help kids form the habit of going to bed at the same time every night.

Meanwhile, you’ll want to avoid certain activities just before bed, including screen time, overstimulation, and snacking. High-energy physical tasks, electronic devices (handheld, computers, or television), scary stories, and loud music can all be disruptive to sleep. Also finish eating and limit drinks at least 2-3 hours before bed. Middle-of-the-night bathroom trips will interrupt kids’ slumber, and they may have a hard time falling back asleep again.

Instead, introduce calming and relaxing elements before bed, like meditation, prayer, soft music, soothing books, and low lighting. Nighttime stories always did the trick for getting Chloe to sleep when she was younger. My husband, Dr. Daniel Amen, even wrote a children’s bedtime book, called Time for Bed, Sleepyhead, to help parents create the same effect with their children. It works like a charm.

Supporting Your Child’s Cognitive Development

Like their brains, kids’ habits form early. That’s why it’s so important to not only guide and educate them about the effects certain practices can have on their brain and body health but to model the appropriate behaviors for them. From enacting healthy sleep hygiene practices to boosting energy through diet and exercise, you’ll help ensure your kids get a great start on the path to lifelong well-being.

Tana Amen, BSN, RN