While parents can see clearly how their child is developing physically, their mental development can be more difficult. Parents may worry how their actions may or may not affect their child and if they’re doing the right things to nurture their child’s mental wellbeing.

Over the last few years developments in neuroscience mean we have a better understanding of how baby brains develop and what’s good for them.  The good news is simply being with people who connect with us lovingly and positively from birth is great for building strong, healthy brains, just as healthy diets and exercise are vital for healthy bodies.

Nurturing, playing and talking with a child, or lovingly giving them the space and opportunities to explore, play and make their own discoveries, helps them know they are safe as they learn about their world. Simultaneously, these activities help to build the all-important synapses in little ones’ developing brains.

This is a very simple concept to understand – “it’s not rocket science, it’s just neuroscience” as one worker puts it – but surprisingly it is not universally known by everyone, particularly many of the vulnerable families Barnardo’s works with.

This is why Barnardo’s has teamed up with KCA Associates to introduce its Five to Thrive approach into our children’s centres and family support services.  The approach gives our team, parents and carers a simple shorthand: Respond • Cuddle • Relax • Play • Talk to help growing brains to thrive. Each of the five activities has a part to play in helping a child’s brain grow and strengthen so they can use it flexibly.

Think of a child who tumbles down and is upset, who comes for a parent to ‘kiss it better’ and then quickly toddles off to their next adventure. The parent needs to be there to ‘respond’ to the upset child. Being close in a ‘cuddle’ links them together. Adults can calm themselves, babies can’t, so when the parent can ‘relax’ while connected with the child, the child also calms down.  Through non-verbal communication – ‘play’ -the adult can show how they are feeling, and this helps the child to feel better.  Finally, the adult uses words – ‘talk’ – to help the child to make sense of feeling better.

To help parents implement Five to Thrive in their daily routines, Barnardo’s has developed a programme using fun activities for parents and their babies.

Five to Thrive: easy brain workouts for babies and toddlers

Morning

Talk – Sing along

Sing along to your favourite song or your child’s favourite nursery rhyme. If your baby is not speaking yet, copy their sounds, facial expressions and any movements they make.

Play – Fun with water

Get a bucket or bowl and put warm water in it. Sit or hold your baby safely near it and support them to play with the water. Splash each other gently or run water over their arms or toes. Respond to your baby’s facial expressions and copy them.

Relax – Take a stroll

Take your child out for a walk and talk about everything you see and hear. Stop to touch hedges and trees, collect a few sticks and leaves. If you can’t go outdoors, look out of the window and talk about the things both of you can see.

Cuddle – Tickle, tickle

Tickle their toes or palms. You can also try out ‘high fives’, ‘pat-a-cake’, ‘this little piggy’ or any other childhood game that includes contact.

Respond – Copy them

Respond to your child by copying their facial expressions and give them time to respond. Playing these games is great for your child and can be amusing and amazing for you too.

Lunchtime

Talk – Story time

Read a book to your baby or toddler and give your child a chance to join in. If your child is older, ask them to turn the pages, predict what is happening next or get them to act out the story with their toys.

Play – Peekaboo

Hide your face behind your hands and then pop your face out with a loving smile, saying ‘peekaboo’. Encourage your child to copy you and take it in turns to play this game.

Relax – Yoga time

You don’t need to be a yoga expert to do some calming stretches. Stretch your arms up and down and use a calm voice to tell your child to copy your movements. Babies can take part too, gently help them to get their arms up for a good stretch.

Cuddle – Role play

Pretend your child’s favourite toy needs cuddles for comfort because it is upset or ill. Show your child how to comfort and talk calmly to the toy to make it feel better. This game teaches them about different types of positive touch and how to give and receive cuddles and love.

Respond – Get creative

Put a sprinkling of flour on your worktop and let your child draw with a finger in the flour.  Older toddlers may want to use a pencil and some paper with your help. Ask them to tell you about their drawing and respond to their answers.

Evening – calming down before bed

Talk – Get organised

Tidy up all the toys and mess from the day while you sing along about what you’re doing.

Play – Put on a show

Use finger puppets to put on a little show for your child which is related to their bedtime. You can talk about going to bed and sleeping with the stars in the sky. If you don’t have puppets, use some odd socks or old gloves.

Relax – Get wet

Bath time is a great for relaxing your baby or toddler. Move your baby gently in the water in a swaying motion or encourage your older toddler to pretend to swim. Blow some bubbles into the bath for them to catch or look at.

Cuddle – Show them how much you love them

Cuddle your baby as part of their feeding routine. This can be done while breast feeding or bottle feeding. For best results, place your baby on the left side of your chest. This will enable them to feel, hear and tune into your heartbeat.

If your older toddler doesn’t like cuddling as much, find another type of touch they like. Some children love their hair being stroked, or hands tickled.

Respond – Talk them to sleep

As your child settles for the night, respond to their fears or dislikes of settling down. Reassure them they are ok, respond if their cry and calm them with a soft spoken voice.

Piece by Debbie Koroma, Barnardo’s Early Years Expert  & Kate Cairns, Director for KCA