Baby Brain Development

Baby and child brain development: good to know

From your child's first word to grasping a crayon, your baby turns their head in response to your voice. All of these examples clearly indicate your baby’s grown and development. Your baby will develop more rapidly in the first year of life than at any other time.

The development of your baby’s brain transformative development facilitates emotional attachment, communication, crawling, talking, eating, drinking, laughing and even walking for some in those early months of life. Crucial to their development, is the interactions that your baby has with parents and caregivers.

You may remember some recent instances where your baby or toddler:

✔ The gazing moments between mother and baby during a milk feed or meal

✔ A parent talks softly and loving as a toddler rests comfortably on a lap for a bedtime story

✔ A caregiver sings a lullaby or nursery rhyme and baby or toddler engages with joy

These very important events, although simple and part of the journey of parenting babies and toddlers, are integral to the healthy growth, development and emotional well-being of your child.

So, what do we know about brain development?

As we learn more about how baby brain development, the more focus there is on early interaction and attachment. Some of the myths we believed true previously are now being challenged and replaced with new facts and understanding based on the latest research.

We now know that the baby brain is not yet fully developed at birth. Unlike the lungs, heart or stomach, your baby’s brain will continue to grow after birth and it is the close stimulating interactions touched on previously, that promote this continued growth.

While the majority of baby’s brain cells are formed prior to birth, the connections between the cells are made during early infancy and into toddlerhood. Brain development is not necessarily based on gene factors. While these may have some significance in certain instances, early interaction, positive stimulus and secure attachment with a caregiver. The environment your baby is exposed to in relation to these interactions will have the most significant influence on your baby’s brain development.

When considering a toddler's brain, we know that they are very active, more so than the brain of an adult.

Talking to your baby, from birth, is important. You can start to do this by reading stories, talking about activities and interactions you are having with your baby and continue to do so as your baby develops into childhood. Talking to your baby may seem silly at first but research shows that while he or she may not understand what you are saying, the sound of your voice and the tone you use will convey affection and familiarity. Your bond begins to strengthen and you are helping your baby to develop their own set of communication skills and language skills.

As you baby grows into toddlerhood and early childhood, you are helping to lay the foundations of early language at a time when your child is sponge-like in their learning ability. Talking to your child often and using soft, reassuring, encouraging and happy tones will help your baby to develop these crucial life skills.

As we know, there is a plethora of infant and children’s today available to help stimulate, entertain and educate. That said, these are not as essential as interaction with a primary caregiver in a loving and supportive way. As they get older, these toys and games can help to facilitate and expand on prior learning and skills but the foundations of good attachment and early interaction are what will really enhance your child’s learning and development from early infancy.

More than anything, children need loving care and attention. Interactions such as singing, talking, reading and playing are the key foundation activities that contribute to healthy brain development that translates into emotionally stable children and adults in later life.

How does my baby’s brain develop?

There are a range of factors that influence brain development during infancy. These include to a certain degree, genetics and other elements such as food, nutrition, interaction, daily routine experiences, response of parent or primary caregiver, a loving environment, physical activity and external stimulus such as caring touch and play. Positive interaction and feedback is also important as this helps to open up the channels for two way communication.

Previously, researchers believed that the baby’s brain developed genetically and was predetermined. We know now that the opposite is true. Early experiences have a massive impact on the growth and development of baby’s brain. These experiences influence the way in which the baby’s brain cells or pathway, connect. In other words, their brain is a work in progress. The external environment also has an influence on baby’s development, their senses such as smell, touch, taste, hearing and vision are all stimulated through early interactions.

Consider some of the following early senses in the context of infancy:

• Taste - an early experience of breast or bottle feeding.

• Hearing - a mother or fathers voice that is familiar from the womb to the world

• A smell - such as that of a mother’s skin

• Sight – the early shapes and monochrome images that a baby sees before their sight develops into clear vision

• Touch – the loving cradle that a father envelops his child in when holding baby for the first time

All of these experiences take the five senses into focus. These help to build the connections that guide brain formation and healthy development. As these early infant experiences occur, they have a decisive impact on the blueprint of baby’s brain. More recently, state of the art equipment and advances in technology have supported more in-depth research into the workings of the human brain.

We know now that experience based learning is what helps the brain to continue developing after birth, the infants mind is prepped for a life of learning. Regardless of this, remember that while most children grow up to experience a long and full life, the early experiences are what shape their neural pathways and perception of life in the future.

To put this into perspective, you could imagine your baby’s brain as a playhouse. It has just been built – the walls have gone up and the roof is on, you’ve put the windows in and the front door is in place. After baby is born, it’s time to furnish the playhouse.

You may be buying some kitchen equipment, perhaps some dolls or other toys and games to enhance the experience of play in the house. The same is true for baby. The structure is there but it’s up to you to fill it with wonderful things and to reinforce it so that it is strong and sturdy able to cope with whatever weather lies ahead.

This means that the brain has all the basics but it requires specialist input to reach it’s potential. Those specialists are parents and primary caregivers. The sensory experiences, loving interactions and basic need for nourishment are what will help your baby to make the most of brain development. The more you put in early on, the more your baby will thrive as he or she develops through childhood.

These basic sensory experiences give the brain the instructions which impact at a cellular level. We have over 100 billion brain cells at birth and we will not gain more as we grow. This is why it is so important to care for and nourish the brain cells we are born with. Just as a plan needs nourishment and care to grow, so does your baby to reach his or her full potential.

Our incredibly complex network of pathways in the brain allows your baby’s brain to turn the experiences they have each day into the way their brain is shaped and developed. There is a massive increase in the synapses that take place in the early months of life. An example of this may be, when a parent repeatedly calls a baby’s name, the connections will form, allowing the child to recognize that name over and will eventually learn to respond.

By age three, over 1000 trillion brain connects have formed, that is around twice as many as adults have. Babies’ brains are dense and stay that way for the first decade of life. Once your child moves into the pre-teen years, the extra connections no longer needed are eliminated or pruned to make way for a thicker pathway of cell connection.

This remaining network of ‘wires’ in the brain are more powerful and effective. Going back to a parenting role, it is the early interactions that help to grow and strengthen these many connections that will eventually form the brain pathways in adulthood.

The connections in your baby’s brain are strengthened through repeated experiences. Connections and pathways are formed that structure the way your baby develops and learns. If a particular pathway is not made use of it is eliminated based on the "use it or lose it" rule. The things you do once or twice are less likely to have an effect on brain development when compared to repeated experiences.

Connections are formed through repetition, an example of this is when an adult speaks to a baby in a particular language, eventually this form of communication is understood and baby begins to understand speech and language, communicating more and more as they grow.

Building blocks

Having explored brain development at a cellular level, it can be useful to have an understanding the different parts of the brain and how it develops from birth and through the early years of toddlerhood, into the preschool years and beyond.

The brain grows in progressive way, from the least complex part or the brain stem, to the most complex part, the cortex. The brainstem can be found at the base of the skull and is responsible for the basics of life sustaining processes such as core body temperature and blood pressure. We also know about the midbrain area which is located at the top of the brainstem and it controls things like sleep, motor skills and appetite.

The cerebellum on the other hand sits behind the brainstem and it coordinates balance and movement. We then find the limbic system which is in the central part of the brain, controlling attachment, memory and our emotions. The most complex area, the cortex is the top layer of the brain which regulates our processes such as reasoning, decision making and language.

Crucial periods for baby’s brain development

Different parts of the brain become active at different times. Baby’s ability to respond to experiences as they grown, presents exciting opportunities for development. We know that your baby’s development and learning will continue throughout life but we also know, as discussed before, that there are ‘prime times’ of development.

The brain is more open to absorbing and processing information that will begin to create fixed pathways for life. Later learning is of course possible but it is slower and much more difficult as a process.

Your baby’s vision and hearing

The "prime time" for this is from birth until your child is around age five. Your child’s sensory capacity allows it to perceive and learn from its surrounding environment. Babies initially see shapes, these eventually develop into more obvious lines of vision. Black and white is easier to see than colour, this again will come with time.

If you move quickly, your baby may initially see blurred lines making it difficult for them to understand what is going on around them. Moving slowly and calmly will help your baby to adjust more easily although regardless, this sense develops with time.

By exposing your baby to a variety of sounds, they are able to learn to process different forms of information meaning they can learn how to respond appropriately as they develop.

Fine and gross motor skills

The key stages for physical and motor development in children is from birth to twelve. Your child will become more physically able, ready for the different aspects of motor development. The gross motor skills such as walking and running come before the fine motor skills which will increase as the years go by, for example the skill of drawing and writing.

A child needs several years to develop the coordination skills to play catch with a ball easily, and even then refinement of such skills continues into a child's early adolescence. Monitor your child’s motor development and if you’re at all worried, seek professional support and advice.

Language development

The "prime time" for language development and learning to talk is from birth to 10 years of age. Children are learning language during this entire period. However, the "prime time" for language learning is the first few years of life. Children need to hear you constantly talk, sing and read to them during these early years. Respond to their babbling and language efforts.

All babies and young children will vary in their abilities. Language and motor skill development comes at different times for different children so it can be good not to compare your baby or child to the next. The key indicators will be assessed during your child’s development reviews with your health visitors or doctors. The same is true for your child’s social and emotional development.

Social and emotional development

Your baby or young child will develop social skills and emotional responses from birth through childhood. The initial building blocks that contribute to stable emotional and healthy social development are again important in developing your child’s life-long social and emotional well-being. When we consider social and emotional well-being, things like trust, awareness of others, emotive responses to situations, empathy and sympathy.

Emotional attachment develops from as a baby bonds with a parent or primary caregiver. Another element is emotional intelligence which is crucial to life success. The part of the brain that regulates emotion, the amygdala, forms early on through experiences, forming the brain’s emotional ‘wiring’. Early love and a nurturing environment is important for developing good skills in emotional resilience, empathy, hope and happiness.

Your baby’s social development will involve not only self-awareness but also the ability to interact with other people in an acceptable way. This occurs in stages, as with all forms of development. A newborn baby will not comprehend the action of sharing, but a two year old will begin to understand the concept and will also being to experiment with the opposite experiences of what happens if they don’t share.

As the parent or primary caregiver teachers the toddler to share and the reasons why we share, the toddler will slowly begin to understand the concept and will being to share, if the experience occurs often enough.

Keep going

As with all aspects of raising babies and young children, brain development shapes the future life experiences your child will have. All babies are different and develop at different rates. Premature babies may not meet all of the milestones that full term babies meet, but they should in time, catch up unless there are serious cognitive and or physical limitations.

Equally, if your baby has not been well, delays may occur. It is important to remain patient and be assured that your baby is likely to meet his or her milestones in his own time. On average, by about nine months, the majority of babies will be sitting unaided. Don’t panic if this is not the case, ask for advice and monitor progress. The same is true for your babies’ emotional development. If you have concerns, seek the advice and guidance of your health visitor or GP. Try not to push your baby to achieve milestones before they are ready to do so and showing signs of being ready to do so.

Help your baby to grow and develop through talking, touching, interacting, smiling and playing a loving and caring way. This will feel good for baby but you as a parent will also gain more from the experience and the memories you will make will last forever.

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