By Dr Melodie de Jager
The first 1,000 days between pregnancy and your child’s 2nd birthday, offer a unique window of opportunity to build healthier brains and happier hearts.
Research also shows that nutrition during pregnancy and in the first years of a child’s life provides the essential building blocks for brain development, healthy growth and a strong immune system. In fact, evidence shows that the foundations of a person’s lifelong health—including their predisposition to obesity and certain chronic diseases—are largely set during this 1,000 day window. Malnutrition early in life can cause irreversible damage to children’s brain development and their physical growth, leading to a diminished capacity to learn, poorer performance in school, greater susceptibility to infection and disease and a lifetime of lost earning potential. http://thousanddays.org/the-issue/why-1000-days/
The brain is an amazing organ and the growing body of research urges us to make the most of the malleable first 1000 days to develop the wiring of the brain. Wiring the brain is similar to wiring a house, it makes the lights come on. But, no matter how wonderful the brain is, it is absolutely vulnerable to quality input from the senses to fill it with impressions, words and feelings. In a way we can say a baby’s senses of touch, movement, smell, taste, hearing and sight are the doorways to switch on the brain.
The ‘brain’ is actually three-brains-in-one – a survival brain, an emotional brain and a thinking brain. Each one of the senses help to develop a different part of the brain and that is why we focus on the systematic development of each of the senses at the BabyGym Institute. We have found, when the senses unfold gradually and systematically, a baby’s brain developmental milestones unfold simultaneously.
Of all the senses, the sense of smell is the most primal and has the biggest impact on the emotional brain. Candice Pert clearly illustrates this in her book Molecules of Emotions, where she states there are three synapses between the ears and the brain, five synapses between the eyes and the brain and none between the nose and the brain. If you think of the senses and brain as roads with tollgates – there are three ‘tollgates’ between the ears and the thinking brain and five ‘tollgates’ between the eyes and the thinking brain, but zero ‘tollgates’ between the nose and the emotional brain.
This means the sense of smell has the most direct access to the brain. Nature knows that and it is the reason why Baby was surrounded by mom’s natural body smell from the moment of conception.
Nature uses Baby’s sense of smell to prepare her to feel safe and secure after birth, when she recognises her mom by smell, not by sight.
Moms’ choice of diet influences her body smell and also the taste of her amniotic fluid and later her breast milk. Think of garlic and how it influences body smell. It is as though nature primes a baby to feel close to his mom and to sense that he belongs to a culture that eats similar food. The nose bonds Baby with mom and with her people. As the traditional African proverb goes – ‘it takes a village to raise a child’, it is the food and smells of her culture that create a sense of belonging.
Breast feeding, Kangaroo care, massage, bottle feeding in mom’s arms, are all natural ways to build an emotional bridge between the world in utero and the world after birth. It is when Baby is close to mom that the sense of smell helps Baby:
When Baby and mom are separated, the separation is easier if mom’s natural smell still envelopes Baby. When the shirt that mom slept in last night is rolled up and placed close to Baby’s face, it helps Baby to relax, feel safe and secure, feed rhythmically and sleep deeply, because sameness soothes.
When mom and Baby are planning to head out to a crowded place, mom can sleep on Baby’s blanket and then cover the stroller with that same blanket or she can wrap his body, and surround the little face, with her smell to keep him calm.
During the first few weeks after birth the key to a happy baby is mom’s natural body smell, while in the weeks to come, gradual exposure to fragrant body products and a variety of other smells have been found to stimulate Baby’s emotional and social development.
At birth Baby doesn’t know dad’s natural body smell yet, but recognises it within a short while when dad holds his baby, massages or plays with his baby skin on skin. The smell, taste and texture of dad’s skin is very different from mom’s, and while sameness soothes, difference develops. Discovering dad’s natural smell is a huge step towards socialisation and brain development, as a difference in smell, taste, temperature, texture, sound of voice, movement, etc. are all great brain boosters. Dads are so important!
A word of caution – watch out for your baby’s ‘HELP ME!’ signals – crying, erratic movements and splayed fingers that show STOP, I have had enough! My senses are exhausted and my brain is full! I need sameness to be soothed.
De Jager, M. 2016. one + one = three – the wondrous journey from conception to birth. Johannesburg: Mind Moves Publishing.
Pert, C. 1999. Molecules of emotions. Londen: Simon and Schuster.