Birth and brain development – a flawless design

Jeugdige en positiewe veroudering
July 24, 2017
Exam Time Looms – get ready with Mind Moves®
September 20, 2017

By Dr Melodie de Jager

As vital as oxygen is to the brain, the brain does not develop without stimulation.

The brain – the power house of the human being, starts developing only a few weeks after conception, just as soon as nature has ensured sufficient oxygen supply. Oxygen and brain development are two dance partners – where the one leads, the other follows. And oxygen leads.


Brain development is reliant on sufficient oxygen supply for the wiring process in the brain and the entire body all the way from the top of the head to the tips of the toes. The tips of the toes are the furthest away from the brain and the reason why it takes longer for a baby to walk than to grasp an object. Nerve growth to the toes creates a form of intelligence in the feet that is needed before a baby rolls, sits or crawls. Massage and crawling are brilliant toe stimulation to improve toe intelligence in readiness for walking and a sense of gravitational security.

A baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on ~ Carl Sandburg


The brain does not develop without stimulation. Stimulation is what happens when something tickles the senses and the senses send a message to the brain to respond or to ignore stimulation. When the baby responds to stimulation baby instinctively starts moving either towards the stimulation (engage) because baby enjoys the stimulation, or away from stimulation (disengage) because it is too much, painful or simply scary. The away from response is normally accompanied by loud crying. Movement and a variety of cries are a baby’s first steps towards language development.

The towards response is normally accompanied by cooing and gurgling. The second step in brain development in preparation for speech and language, is proper feeding.

Stimulation wires the brain and body, and brain wiring normally happens in one of two ways: either through high-intensity experiences as when stung by a bee, or through repetition like when you teach a child 50 000 times to say please and thank you.


When thinking about birth we tend to think of mom, but what about baby? Birth is about team mom-and-baby.

Instinct: predetermined, inherited, motivated behavior

Birth triggers mom’s instinct to guide her with the wisdom of all ages to deliver baby safely into this world, but instinct is not found in the rational brain, it is the lower parts of the brain and exactly where a mom should be when baby is about to be born. Without the support of her dazzling critical-analytical-verbal-rational brain, mom is able to switch on her slow and dream-like mommy brain. According to French obstetrician Michel Odent the key to unlocking the mommy brain, is pain.(1)

South African poet and researcher Eugene Marais says where ‘pain is negligible, mother love and care is feeble.’(2)

But what about baby? Birth is probably one of the most intense sensory experiences a baby may ever experience. These hours and hours of intense contractions are not in vain, they prime baby’s brain to cope with the transition from life in fluid to life in air.

Contractions = reassuring brain developmental hugs.

Contractions are traumatic, but also reassuring like a comforting hug on a day when you really need one. When a baby is full term, contractions are the most intense lessons in development the brain can get:

  • Contractions around the crown of the head activate the sucking reflex in readiness for sucking for comfort and suckling for sustenance
  • Contractions around the face area stimulate the facial muscles and senses into alertness for the fluid-to-air transition
  • Contractions around the chest area help to expel lung surfactant ‘detergent-like molecules that are necessary for gas exchange through the lungs, tiny grapelike air cells, or alveoli’, says Neuroscientist Lise Eliot (3) while some stress hormones help to absorb excess liquid and contribute to lung maturation
  • Contractions boost the brain and nervous system by invigorating the primitive reflexes to enable baby to adapt to the birth process and make two major turns during their descent through the birth canal – stretch out and wriggle the bottom – to move towards life
  • Contractions result in an enormous rise in stress hormones in a baby that slows down heart rate and breathing activities, and even paralyses certain movements to support blood flow, energy and oxygen to the brain and heart

Hours and hours of intense contractions prime baby’s brain to cope with the transition from life in fluid to life in air

  • Contractions are as effective as a deep tissue massage to drain lymph and for priming the kidneys for urination after birth
  • Contractions activate ‘cameras’ (proprioceptors) in the skin, muscles, joints and tendons to forward info to the brain about where body parts are in relationship to the body in readiness for movement in an environment where the law of gravity rules and where muscle tone plays a vital role for survival
  • When baby is nearing the exit, stress hormones do an about turn and prompt the fight-or-flight response. This triggers baby’s alertness and speeds up the metabolic rate to enable baby to better regulate body temperature soon after birth.


Each time a contraction is experienced there is temporarily less blood flow to the placenta and to the baby. Because oxygen and brain development are two dance partners, nature has ensured that a baby’s brain can endure short periods of oxygen deprivation or hypoxia. Babies naturally compensate for this by releasing more stress hormones that redirect blood flow from the peripheral limbs and organs to the heart and brain.


Natural birth works with the high-intensity principle and assisted birth with the repetition principle. During an assisted birth mom or baby are helped through the use of drugs or procedures like an episiotomy, caesarean section, use of forceps or vacuum extraction.

A baby who has not had the benefit of a natural birth will benefit from:

  • Deep tissue massage to seek touch rather than avoid touch as a baby who has endured the insertion of tubes or removal of plasters may associate touch with pain which may subsequently impact on bonding and feeding.
  • Swaddling for the first few weeks if baby avoids touch. The firmness of swaddling provides the skin and proprioceptors with positive sensory input which triggers the brain to read the sensory input as positive and soothing. When a baby feels safe and secure, healthy feeding, digestion and sleep are re-established.


While oxygen is the most important factor in brain development, stimulation also plays a key role – Your smell, taste, touch, voice and heart beat are the best brain development a newborn baby can get.


  • Mom, eat well (not too much, definitely not too little); walk every day and breathe in lots of fresh air (oxygen); drink enough water (oxygen); be selective about what you watch, listen to and who you are with as baby shares your emotional chemistry
  • Dad, be sensitive to mom’s changing emotions and slower thinking and especially be sensitive to changes in her body
  • Massage baby every day from top of the crown to the smallest toe
  • Massage the palm of baby’s hand with your thumb while feeding to improve the flow of breast milk and baby’s sucking reflex
  • Do not feed an anxious or upset baby, first soothe by rhythmically tapping with two fingers on baby’s breast bone to calm down the heart and breathing rate
  • Save the toys for later. Lie back with your chest bare and your baby on her or his tummy on your chest.


  1. Odent, M. 2001. The scientification of love. London: Free Association Books.
  2. Marais, E. 1939. Soul of the white ant. London: Methuen and Co.
  3. Eliot, L. 2000. What’s going on in there. New York: Bantam books.

Further reading

  1. De Jager, M. 2011. Brain development MILESTONES & learning. Johannesburg: Mind Moves Institute.
  2. Otte, T. 2005. Pregnancy and birth. Cape Town: New Holland.


Lost your password?