By Melissa Zhu

All parents will tell you, there’s no universal handbook for raising a child.

As a newly initiated one, you might do your best to soak up all the parenting advice you can with sponge-like intensity. And at some point you might realise that, to your horror and confusion, the morsels of wisdom imparted by well-meaning family and friends seem to contradict each other.

If this is you: don’t despair. Science provides much encouragement to the new parent. Cue Singapore’s major and very detailed birth cohort study – Growing Up in Singapore Towards healthy Outcomes (GUSTO). Since 2009, GUSTO has tracked a pool of about 1,200 women throughout pregnancy, birth and the early years of their children’s lives. Its findings help provide an understanding of how parental well-being and behaviour (both during pregnancy and after birth) could affect your child’s development.

We share three tips, based on GUSTO’s research, to maximise your child’s potential for happiness and intelligence from pregnancy to early childhood:

Some children may go through their “terrible twos” and “horrible threes”. But do you know it’s also “critical fours” when it comes to your kid’s brain development? The brain actually doubles in volume in the first year, and by their fourth year, children’s brains reach 95% or more - of their total brain volume as adults.


If you’re pregnant or preparing to conceive, before you find yourself consumed with negative emotions, it may be good to seek out and strengthen your network of social support and focus your efforts on prevention. It is also important to get professional help when needed.


Parents often lament how families with children will face the period of “terrible twos” and “horrible threes”. What is less heard of is the “critical fours”, that is the first four crucial years when it comes to your kid’s brain development. Going by total brain volume, by the:

  • 1st year, babies brains almost double in size
  • 2nd year, there is a further 20% increase
  • 4th year, children's brains reach 95% or more - of their total brain volume as adults.

For this reason, a nurturing environment during the first four years is particularly important, according to Associate Professor Qiu Anqi, a GUSTO investigator in the Neurodevelopment Domain. You might want to bear our next point in mind during these “critical fours”


Or at least speak two languages around them.

GUSTO found that whether babies are spoken to in one or two languages - may affect their learning capacity.

Of the 114 six-month old infants in the study, it was observed that those spoken to in 2 languages (defined as having at least 25% exposure to a second language) demonstrated better learning and memory than their peers from monolingual homes i.e. where they had at least 90% exposure to a first language (English).

This happened regardless of which second language was spoken around the children.

“When we showed them pictures on a computer screen, [children brought up in bilingual families] learnt to recognise the pictures much faster.” – Associate Professor Chong Yap Seng, Lead Principal Investigator, GUSTO.

One explanation offered is that learning two languages requires more information-processing efficiency, which in turn spurs a child to develop stronger cognitive skills to make sense of the world around them.

In the same study, infants brought up in bilingual families were also seen to be more easily bored of old images.

A predisposition towards novelty has been also often been linked to superior cognition, language skills, and performance on IQ tests. So grab the chance to kick-start your child’s cognitive development by speaking a second language at home!

Did you know? A baby’s brain has 1,000 trillion synapses or twice that of an average adult.


While GUSTO tracks women from pregnancy onwards, doctors believe that a woman's health before pregnancy could indirectly impact her child’s development as well.

The Singapore PREconception Study of long-Term maternal and child Outcomes (S-PRESTO), a new study led by KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH), investigates how factors like nutrition, lifestyle and mental health before pregnancy may affect mothers and their babies.

Stay tuned for more findings.

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