Thrive By Five24 Apr 2019

Professor Donna Cross’ five top tips to build young brains

CoLab Director Professor Donna Cross shares her five top tips for parents of young children.

“Bobbie” the puppet, star of the “Bright Tomorrows Start Today” campaign. Photo Credit: Telethon Kids Institute.

This content was originally published by Telethon Kids Institute for the CoLab project- Bright Tomorrows Start Today. Colab is a partnership between the Telethon Kids Institute and the Minderoo Foundation. 

CoLab director Professor Donna Cross has worked with children and adolescents for decades and
specialises in their emotional and social development. Here are her five top tips to build your baby’s brain and set them up for a bright tomorrow.


Spend quality time talking and listening to your children every day. Show love to them, even in the smallest ways. Young children love routines and predictability: feeding, bathtime, storytime, bedtime. Turn these into special, fun times for you and your children.

Little kids don’t get bored by the same old things – in fact they love them! They learn best by seeing your facial expressions, hearing your voice and anticipating what comes next. When you do something, they respond. When they do something, you respond. This back and forth will build their brain. It’s the way children learn!

• Play ‘here comes the aeroplane’ at dinner time.

• Copy your child’s facial expressions, gestures, words or babble. This shows what they do is important to you and activates special cells in your child’s brain called mirror neurons. It’s also a lot of fun!

• Play together with your children’s favourite bath toys or build castles out of the bubbles and have fun blowing them down.

• Snuggle up together to read a story.

• End each day with a goodnight kiss.


Your child is born ready to learn. Provide opportunities for them to read, play and explore the world. Just like you can hear your tummy grumble, a baby has been listening to your voice before he or she was born. Your baby knows your voice!

• Sing songs to your baby – it doesn’t matter how good your voice is. Make up silly songs about what’s happening around you both.

• Turn waiting in line into a game. You can play round and round the garden with babies and toddlers or eye spy with older children.

• Point out the colours of objects around you or pictures in a book. Ask older children to find an object of a certain colour when you’re reading a book.

• Count their fingers and toes. Help older children to count yours. This is the beginning of maths!

• Children will let you know when they want to be put down. They need to explore the world. If it’s safe, let them go then welcome them back when they are ready for a hug.


Help your child grow up strong, healthy and safe. Create safe and predictable environments that help protect and improve your child’s health and wellbeing. Children’s little bodies need a healthy home environment so they can grow up strong.

• Keep the air clean by not smoking around them and avoid alcohol if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

• Encourage children to sample lots of different types of food. If they want to feed themselves they are learning to take responsibility for themselves. It’s messy but worth it!

• If you have access to a garden, grow veggies, pick them and cook them together. Playing in the dirt is good for our microbiome (the good bugs in our tummies) which can help to keep colds away and reduce the risk of allergies developing later on.

• Let your yes be yes and your no be no. Children need to know the boundaries and to know that these are set – it makes them feel safe.


Talk with your child, from the moment they are born. Encourage them to express themselves and their feelings. Babies and children of all ages need an understanding adult to help them manage their big feelings. These feelings can overwhelm them. When we can safely express our feelings to another person, together we can process them and move on.

• When your child is hurt or upset show that you understand. Use words to describe what is happening to them. “Oh, you fell over. Is your knee sore? Let me kiss it better. Does that feel better now?”

• Children can quickly be overwhelmed by too much going on around them. Turn off the TV and loud music and limit the number of toys on offer. When they have only a few things to focus on you are helping them to learn to concentrate. It’s also less to pack up!

• Turn packing up into a game. How quickly can they do it? Can they put all the soft toys in first or the green toys in last? Reward them with a hug or a high five


You are not alone as a parent. Think of who in your family and community can help you to keep moving forward. We all need to feel like we belong – babies, children and adults. There are lots of people who have been there before us. Some suggestions include:

• Join a Mums & Bubs, or Dads group or a playgroup. Ask your Child Health Nurse or visit your local community centre or library.

• Have playdates with other families of young children.

• Ask your family members about their experiences and what they have learnt.

• Introduce yourself to another parent at the local park.

• Have a simple street party to get to know your neighbours.

Lorraine Thomas
by Lorraine Thomas
Lorraine is an experienced strategy and policy professional with 15 years’ experience in both the private and public sector. Her expertise includes strategic policy and reform, program design, government and non-government collaboration and inter-governmental relations. Lorraine is responsible for Minderoo’s Early Childhood Portfolio investments, various flagship projects through CoLab and the Early Years Initiative and driving broader system reform through advocacy and policy. Her approach is to blend innovation and creativity with pragmatism.
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