If only babies came with instruction manuals.

A simple set of operating guidelines might help new parents navigate the necessity of naps, manage mealtimes, and teach a toddler to share.

While there are thousands of books and guides and websites, the situation is far from simple. Well-meaning childhood experts, doctors, and parents have blanketed early childhood with good, bad, and often conflicting advice. “The problem is, no one has time to read all that’s out there,” says Tracy Cutchlow ’97, a journalist, book editor, and (fairly) new mother.

Raising a baby can be confusing, confounding, and complicated, Cutchlow admits one afternoon over coffee in Seattle. Stealing away for an interview while her daughter Geneva naps at home, Cutchlow explains that she saw a need and a way to help. “As a new parent, I was overwhelmed by how much I needed to know. I thought there are all these other parents out there having to do their own research and make sense of it all. Why doesn’t someone put all this together?” Working with photojournalist Betty Udesen, she created Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science, an accessible, colorful book filled with basic bits of baby advice grounded in scientific findings.

Cutchlow does the homework for parents who lack the time and distills it into topics like choosing toys to stimulate a baby’s brain, nurturing a toddler’s creative instincts, and why you need to put down your technology, get on the floor, and interact directly with your child.

Over the past decade, Cutchlow has made a career of condensing complex information for a general readership. Her first jobs out of college put her at newspaper copy desks, editing the work of a variety of writers.

Cutchlow also freelanced in San Francisco and worked at Microsoft’s MSN Money as a personal finance editor—a job for which she found and edited stories to serve the needs of a broad audience.

While at The Seattle Times, she moonlighted as a copyeditor for a travel anthology. “I thought that sounded like fun,” she says. “It turns out it was completely doable on the side.” She came away from her first book with experience, confidence, and, as payment, a ton of frequent flier miles.

Then she stepped into a cookbook project with Bellevue-based Modernist Cuisine, helping edit a six-volume encyclopedia on the art and science of cooking. The effort was the vision of Nathan Myhrvold, a retired Microsoft technology officer with a doctorate in theoretical and mathematical physics and a passion for food. He is founder of the Cooking Lab in Bellevue.

The encyclopedia, which sells for $625, includes techniques, recipes, and illustrations. “It was an enormous, crazy project,” says Cutchlow. She followed it up by editing Myhrvold’s sequel, the much smaller Modernist Cuisine At Home.

But it took developing and editing a book with scientist and consultant John Medina ’88 PhD for Cutchlow to master bridging the gap between science and personal practice. “It was the first time I had ever been a development editor,” she says. Working with Medina’s outline and spending time with him in the little house he used as an office across from Seattle Pacific University, she found the science of brain development fascinating. In editing what became the New York Times bestseller Brain Rules, Cutchlow took Medina’s scientific perspective and real-life anecdotes to translate science’s technical findings for the average reader.

In the midst of it all Cutchlow and her husband, writer Luke Timmerman, had their daughter. The addition melded well with her work on Medina’s sequel Brain Rules for Baby.

But as a new parent, Cutchlow craved something even simpler and more accessible than what she’d encountered to that point. “After having the baby, there were a lot of questions,” she says. “I had to know how to do these things.”

Her book is a broader approach to parenting more simply delivered, “I think that comes through in the writing as well as the design.” She turned to Betty Udesen, a Seattle Times photographer, to illustrate the book with photographs of real parents and children doing things like playing, getting ready for bed, and sharing toys. “I knew the power of documentary photographs,” says Cutchlow. “I knew that’s what I wanted.”

Then she used her skills as a researcher, what she learned working on Medina’s brain books, and her talents and instincts as a parent to create the book she wished she had. “All the pieces in my background come together in this project,” she says. While she wrote it for parents, “I hope that teachers and caregivers will find it useful, too.”

Brains rule

John Medina ’88 PhD has a lifelong fascination with brains and learning. The scientist with a WSU doctorate in developmental molecular biology made a career out of exploring and explaining how humans can improve their brain function. A long-time private research consultant, Medina was also founding director of the Talaris Institute, a Seattle-based nonprofit to support parents and caregivers in raising healthy children, and for a time ran Seattle Pacific University’s Brain Center for Applied Learning Research.

In his best-selling book Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, he offers some clear advice for optimizing the performance of your brain. Everyone knows a good diet and training can help a body perform better athletically, but most don’t think about how to treat and train their brains to optimize functions like learning, remembering, and making decisions.

With 12 fairly simple rules, Medina debunks the myths (i.e. we only use 10 percent of our brains) to explain the science of brain study and offer practical guidance for applying what science has so far shown to be true. He bases his advice on peer-reviewed and published scientific studies from neuroscientists, experimental psychologists, and evolutionary biologists.

The first, and most important point, according to Medina, is that exercise improves cognition. Simply put, exercise “zaps” stress chemicals and boosts problem solving, planning, and attention. Aerobic exercise, in particular, offers clarity. “Tilt your behavior towards that end,” he tells his audience, and “improve your executive function.” He also spends some time exploring exercise and aging, noting that taking walks several times a week will benefit the brain. He cites work that shows aerobic exercise twice a week can cut your risk of dementia in half.

Medina’s chapters include how to improve short and long-term memories and an exploration of why stressed brains don’t do as well as un-stressed brains. The brain handles stress best if it lasts less than 30 seconds, notes Medina. It’s an evolutionary thing, providing us just enough time to react to and (hopefully) escape danger. But long-term stress, from a difficult office environment, perhaps, or an unhappy spouse, will damage cognition and affect memory, motor skills, and executive functions like planning, strategizing, and managing time and space.

Web extra

Brain rules and brain development: John Medina on how the brain sciences might influence the way we teach our children and the way we work.