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Babies don’t come with a set of instructions but other parents - and medical professionals, marketing people and even well-meaning strangers - most certainly do.

When I was pregnant with my first child was born ten years ago, people were full of advice about how to maximise my newborn’s potential. Value adding to your child begins in utero, with a plethora of supplements available to improve your unborn child’s capacity to learn.

Once the child is out, the message gets even louder.

‘‘A baby’s brain is like a sponge,’’ was the common cry. ‘‘They absorb everything. It’s never too early to start boosting their brain development.’’

Indeed, mothers are encouraged to breastfeed as soon as the child is born to foster bonding but also to promote braininess.

A recent study from the US found that seven-year-olds breastfed for the first year of life had a higher verbal IQ than children who were bottle-fed.

Which is not to say that children who weren’t breastfed are condemned to a life at the bottom of the class. Besides, there are so many other things a parent can do to stimulate the synapses of their newborn.

Far from being squirming bundles who just wants to eat, sleep and do unspeakable things in their nappies, babies are potential geniuses and it’s up to parents to unlock their amazing abilities.

Parenting publications are full of advertisements for activities and products which promise to foster learning. There are exercise classes for babies which give nature a helping hand by stimulating their intellectual abilities. There are DVDs to teach your little one all about shapes, colours and even parts of the orchestra. Concerned your baby can’t talk? Check out a baby sign language program, designed to help you communicate with your youngster and fast track intellectual development. 

Once children hit the toddler years, there’s even more on offer. Foreign language classes, music lessons, dance programs and products which can be used at home such as flashcards and wall posters or placemats with numbers and letters on them.

It’s not just marketers eyeing an opportunity, though. As recent research from the University of NSW found, a government-funded website is driving similar emphasis on early learning. Parents can’t simply go out for a walk with their toddler anymore. They need to help the child identify the numbers on the letter boxes as they go. If you’re out for a drive, you can instruct your youngster about colours and numbers by asking them to count the blue cars. Every situation is a learning opportunity waiting to be exploited.

It’s natural for parents to want the best for their children but all this emphasis on cognitive development puts a huge amount of pressure on parents and the educational value of some products on offer is certainly questionable.

As UNSW researcher Ciara Smyth discovered in her interviews with parents, the expectation that ‘‘that they should be promoting their children’s learning in the preschool years was a source of anxiety and many were concerned that they their child could be out-classed by their more cognitively-prepared peers.’’

She also discovered that it was mainly mothers who were bearing the brunt of this pressure as they were more likely to be at home with their children.

And no one wants to feel like the bad mother who has denied her child a wealth of opportunities by refusing to engage in the relentless push of parenting products.

The parents in the research were particularly concerned about school readiness and the statistics show they are not alone. The trend of holding children back from starting kindergarten is a growing one with NSW Department of Education figures showing 19.5 per cent of kindy kids were already six when they started school last year, compared with 17.3 per cent in 2002.

While many parents believe that delaying kindergarten somehow gives children a competitive advantage, many academics say it makes no difference long term. No doubt kindergarten teachers can also find it a bit tricky when they they have some students who can already read and write while there are others who are unable to hold a pencil properly.

The concept of school readiness is a relatively new one. I’d hazard a guess that most people over the age of 30 never went through a retinue of enrichment programs before starting kindergarten and their parents most likely packed them off to school as soon as they were able to go.

So what’s changed? There is the rise of the two-income family for a start. Many of those parents are choosing to have only one or two children, meaning they have more money and time to devote to their offspring.

But there is also a sense that the world is a more competitive place. Children have to perform well in school to achieve the marks to get into their desired tertiary course and go on to get a decent job. And parents, who want the best for their children, are willing to give them a helping hand from their first breath.