Brain Rules for Baby

John Medina Also available in audiobook: Download our app for free listening.

For many soon-to-be parents, the prospect of raising a child can be both daunting and exciting. In ideal circumstances, parents want their children to live a fully enriching life brought on through self-earned accomplishments. But, at the same time, well-read parents-to-be know that the seeds of future success are planted early on in life. This may be the single largest reason why Brain Rules for Baby has become such a popular read among expectant couples.

In this parenting tome, author John Medina adapts material from his previous best-seller, Brain Rules, and refocuses it on critical development periods in a child’s early life. Within this collection of 304 pages, inquisitive parents can learn about the numerous ways they can productively shape their child’s mental capacity, particularly when it comes to fostering happiness, intelligence, and moral direction.

In all, Brain Rules for Baby bridges the gap between science and parents’ unending concerns about preparing their child for a fruitful life. While this book can’t prepare you for all of the surprises of raising a child, it can help you understand this job of a lifetime in a whole new light.

Preparations during pregnancy

As you jump into Brain Rules for Baby, you may be surprised to learn that author John Medina has chosen to start so…early, to put it one way. In fact, Medina starts off his breakdown of child development before the child is even brought into the world. 

But immediately pushes back on the notion that the pregnancy period is a time for action, in most cases. Rather, in this book’s first section, it is said that one of the best things prospective mothers, in particular, can do is focus on the natural course of the pregnancy. This includes recognizing the stages of their fetus’ development and how certain phenomena (such as morning sickness) play a part in those all-important 9 months.

That being said, external stimuli can recognizably change the course of a fetus’ development. In fact, you won’t be able to ignore Medina’s strong belief after he relates an anecdote about commercial fetus “brain training” products. 

Medina does not leave you hanging with that clear-cut denial, though. As you continue reading through the book’s pregnancy section, you will go through a simplified progression of the fetus’ development that is fit for non-scientific audiences. This includes highlighting how neural development actually occurs, and how factors such as memory and the senses actually perform in utero.

Finally, before concluding this section, Medina provides you with his four broad recommendations for making the most of your soon-to-be child’s development during pregnancy. Specifically, it is pointed out that weight, nutrition, stress, and exercise need to be balanced in order to achieve the desired results of happiness and intelligence down the line.

The role of the relationship

After understanding the in-utero groundwork relating to a child’s development, we can move aside for a moment to discuss a topic rarely covered in parenting books – your relationship with your partner. A topic so casually disregarded by authors and experts alike, it comes as no surprise that only a small portion of the parents believe that their relationship with the partner could be the main channel through which they can address “invisible” child development issues.

While it may feel like a poor reassurance, Medina immediately highlights the fact that most marriages – as many as 80% - suffer to some degree after the introduction of a new child. But don’t worry as we are quick to steady the ship by clarifying that there is hope, so long as you and your spouse are prepared to address the four major causes of marital disputes. These “Grapes of Wrath” include sleep loss, social isolation, unequal workloads, and depression.

It is self-evident that each of these triggers for marital instability can be related back to your mutual relationship with your new child. While there’s clearly not a single cure for all of these challenges, “making empathy a reflex” may steer the relationship in a much more fruitful direction. 

Also in this section, Medina injects some more public-friendly science into a parental understanding of how babies respond to stress. While it takes some time to show itself, stress can alter a baby’s behavior over time. If left unaddressed or unresolved, the perpetual presence of stressing elements – namely you, their parent – may cause babies to develop lifelong antisocial behaviors. Worse yet, unresolved marital tension that leads to a divorce further hurts a child’s chances of succeeding, particularly when it comes to financially supporting higher education.

Seeds and soil for smart Babies

One of the primary methods for communicating causes and effects in a child’s development is through the use of sections describing the “seeds” and “soil” of a child’s intelligence and happiness. These separations can really help prospective parents understand how individual action patterns can branch out over time and lead to both positive and negative results.

This can immediately be seen when you begin to read about the “seeds” of a smart baby. Medina hits the ground running by highlighting how both environmental and genetic factors play a role in the development of a child’s intellect. As the material later in this section indicates, though, the curation of environmental factors should be a prospective parent’s focus.

Questions like “what does it mean to be “smart?” or “is my child smart enough?” are going through every parent’s head. Given that it comes up often in tests of early childhood intelligence, it takes some time to break down what IQ (intelligence quotient) actually is, how it is analyzed, and what its implications hold for a child’s practical intellectual future. Medina is mostly dismissive of IQ overall because he believes that no test of intelligence should be used as definitive proof of a child’s capabilities.

In the “seed” section and into the beginning of the first “soil” section, you’ll find several actionable collections of “ingredients” for fostering intelligence. Also, Medina discusses how the following seven qualities and skills have been shown to correlate with lifelong intelligence:

  • Memory
  • Improvisation
  • The desire to explore
  • Self-control
  • Creativity
  • Verbal communication
  • Decoding non-verbal communications

Along the same lines, readers who are looking for a quick list of actions they can take to help nourish their child’s intellectual development can look to Medina’s list of ingredients for high quality “developmental soil”:

  • Breast-feeding
  • Talking with your baby “a lot”
  • Open-ended play
  • Praise for effort (as opposed to IQ)

When it comes to development, you’ll also come across a surprisingly contemporary assessment of the role “screens” and electronics at large should play during the early years. While he does not look down on the potential enriching benefits digital devices can provide, he does set down some hard and fast rules that parents can reliably follow (such as avoiding TV exposure altogether before age 2). When it comes to video games, though, Medina more broadly asserts that they should encourage activity, not passivity, regardless of their content.

Finally, towards the end of the “smart soil” section, Medina slows down the book’s pace to address hyper-parenting, which he feels can be an obvious side-effect of the entire effort to maximize a child’s intelligence. Among other considerations, Medina points to the belief that unreasonably high expectations, constant pressure, and cyclical anger can extinguish a promising flame of intelligence even under otherwise ideal circumstances.

Seeds and soil for happy babies

What is happiness? That timeless question represents an issue of immediate concern for parents who may be trying to set their child up for a fruitful life. Traditionally, most people attribute happiness to a mix of material wealth, emotional stability, and moral fortitude. But while jumping into the section on the “seeds” of a happy baby, Medina takes a moment to cover how various scientists have tried to put facts behind the feeling of happiness.

Among other indicators of happiness covered in this section, Medina found that friendship was the most actionable option that parents can foster in their children. This is because friendships themselves both create and support emotional regulation and empathy, both of which can allow a child to better guide their own course in life through adolescence and adulthood. Medina even goes so far as to get into the ways in which emotions involved with friendships help develop the physical aspects of the brain, thus joining the social and scientific aspects of this development “seed.”

Beyond this examination, though, there are some reassurances about how happiness is “seeded” in early life. For example, all parents should understand that no one gene controls a child’s temperament, that is, their ability to process their own emotions. As such, parents can begin to understand their child’s burgeoning moral development as the growth of tendencies that can be readjusted through purposeful changes in the child’s environment.

Also, when it comes to the developmental soil associated with a child’s happiness, Medina pushes back on what you may have otherwise heard about the formation of attachment (between the child and parents). Specifically, he demonstrates that real attachment takes years to form, thus creating an imperative to reliably provide productive attention both before and after age five.

Using an analogy of a dry meat rub, Medina highlights these “spices” as being crucial to raising a happy child:

  • A demanding but warm parenting style
  • Comfort with your own emotions
  • Tracking your child’s emotions
  • Verbalizing emotions
  • Running toward emotions
  • Empathy (and lots of it)

Babies and the prospect of morality

As an offshoot of his discussion on developing happiness, Medina loops back and looks at the daunting prospect of fostering morality in a newborn or young child. Here, you’ll find some interesting analysis regarding the practical implication of “moral sensibilities” and how “moral reasoning” develops over time. It is also particularly interesting to dive into the role lying plays in a child’s moral development, which people with young children already will find particularly enlightening. The hardest part is, of course, is to link your views and findings with current social trends and scientific data, something that Medina does quite extraordinarily. 

Most parents would agree that raising a moral child is not straightforward by any stretch of the imagination. Nonetheless, parents lust for a foolproof plan that is actionable and that can teach them, how to apply the right amount of discipline without necessarily resorting to helicopter parenting. Luckily, Medina provides some verbal illustrations of how the following three guidelines can help (but not necessarily ensure) a moral child:

  • Clear, consistent rules and rewards
  • Swift (or timely) punishment
  • Rules that can be explained in an age-appropriate manner

Before rounding out this section, let’s address one burning question held by many modern parents – should I spank my child? Long story short, if you decide to descent into this negative camp, you should be aware that conclusive scientific evidence shows that spanked children are more likely to turn out aggressive later in life.

Final Notes

Altogether, Brain Rules for Babies’ popularity is well-justified. This book is one of the most actionable parenting books available today, and it is made better yet by its repeated emphasis on deriving parenting practices from scientific evidence. Medina’s voice is measured and focused on the topic at hand, which soon-to-be parents should find particularly useful. 

While developing a child’s intelligence and happiness is no easy task, Brain Rules for Babies does make it a little easier by providing the perspective and reassurance that all new parents and parents-to-be deserve. Even if you are only interested in reading one part of this book, you should do so as soon as possible so that you can begin to turn its knowledge into an actionable course for child-rearing.

12min Tip

It would be critical that you as either a parent or soon-to-become one, open up to different perspectives on how to raise a smart child. With that in mind, we recommend that you explore How to Raise an Adult, by Julie Lythcott-Haims.

Sign up and read for free!

By signing up, you will get a free 3-day Trial to enjoy everything that 12min has to offer.

or via form: