Developing the brain is similar to building a house, explains Dr Melodie de Jager, author of Play Learn Grow. The house comes with a plan: the genes your baby inherits that provide the initial connections in the brain, and a map of how the brain should develop. Your baby may be born with good “material” to build with if they inherit your brainy tendencies, but it’s the experiences and relationships that the child is exposed to that makes – or breaks – the quality of that “house”.
It literally shapes the growth of their brain. It’s a balance between biology and the environment they are raised in. This means you can do a whole lot to boost their brainpower!
A baby’s brain is full of specialised nerve cells called neurons (what you probably refer to as “brain cells”). They make up most of the brain and spinal cord. They transmit messages to and from the brain in chemical and electrical signals across links or synapses. Sounds daunting, but as a parent, all you need to know is that these “connections” or neural pathways are formed every time your baby experiences something new and are strengthened through repetition.
Between conception and age three, a child’s brain undergoes huge change, reports the Urban Child Institute, a non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting the health of children. At birth, a child’s brain already has most of the neurons it will ever have. It then doubles in size in the first year, and by age three has reached 80 percent of its adult size.
The synapses are also formed at a faster rate during these years than at any other time. So, input is everything. A child’s senses – what they feel, taste, hear and see – stimulate neural activity in the brain.
So, when you sing your baby a song the synapses in the language-related brain region are stimulated. Because a child’s brain develops through repeated experiences, repetition is important. The more times the baby hears the words, the more the synapses between neurons in that area will be activated. The more often a synapse is used, the stronger that synapse gets.
You may be over reading We’re Going on a Bear Hunt for the umpteenth time or singing Bah Bah Black Sheep to your tot, but every time you belt out the words, you’re actually helping to build your baby’s brain.
Different parts of the brain are also wired to develop at different stages, explains Dr de Jager. “In the same way a house is built in different phases, each layer of the brain becomes a developmental priority at a different age. This is true for boys and girls, rural and city babies,” she says. In other words, parts of the brain responsible for physical, emotional and mental development grow faster than others at different times during your child’s life.
From conception to about 14 months your baby’s physical development takes first priority. The part of the brain responsible for motor skills (cerebellum) triples in size in a baby’s first year, which is how they are able to progress from rolling over to crawling to walking in such a short space of time. The brain at this stage is prioritising building the connection between the brain and the senses and muscles, explains Dr de Jager. Therefore, at this stage exposing your baby to new textures, tastes, sounds and opportunities to move will support their brain development.
“Once the body is under the brain’s control, as in your baby has learnt to walk, emotional development takes the lead,” says Dr de Jager. Thanks to changes in the brain’s structure, nerve cells can receive and send messages faster at this stage – think of it as a “computer” that can process more data, more effectively. This is why toddlers seem to be learning new skills every day. Age three to four is a prime time for social and language development as well as more skillful gross motor body development in your child. “By the time your child reaches four, they are physically, emotionally and socially ready for a mental growth spurt in that their brain focuses on cognitive development,” she says.
Babies also “lose it if they don’t use it”. Neurons that are not used or stimulated to grow when the appropriate time for them to develop occurs are actually pruned by the brain. This is why infants who are discovered to have hearing loss lose out on the crucial time for language development, for example. The sequence of brain development is also important. A good foundation of brain circuitry is needed for the more complex “higher” ones to develop later.
The amount of sensory stimulation your baby receives also affects how many synapses are formed. Every time you speak to, make eye contact with, cuddle and interact in any way with your baby you are helping their brain develop. Some studies show that skin-to-skin contact with newborn babies can boost brain development.
A Baylor College of Medicine study shows that children who only experience restricted play, or are rarely touched, develop brains that are on average 20 to 30 percent smaller than normal brains. “Human beings are real, three dimensional, not flat, and connecting with what is real makes us come alive.
“One of the reasons literacy levels in some countries are declining is that pictures and movie clips are overtaking multi-sensory experiences during the early years – the focus is predominantly on seeing and hearing while touch, movement, smell and taste are underused,” Dr de Jager explains.
There’s a reason our children thrive mentally when they have proper nutrition. Their brains need lots of energy and nutrients to develop. Fats are needed to surround the nerve cells to protect them, and protein in the form of amino acids is needed to make
neurotransmitters, so the brain cells can communicate with each other.
Fortunately, everything your infant needs is delivered to them in your breast milk, but a healthy, balanced diet is essential throughout their developing years.
*This article first appeared in Your Baby Magazine.