Your Baby’s Brain Development

May 21, 2010 at 9:33 am 1 comment

Curious Mind of a BabySignificant advances have been made in the field of neuroscience since today’s new parents grew up.  It’s helpful to understand the basics of early brain development and how new scientific research is shedding light on the caregiver’s role in raising healthy, intelligent kids.

A child’s brain undergoes the greatest transformations from conception through the first two years, however brain development continues into the teen years and beyond.  There are various areas in the brain that develop at different times, with the more fundamental, lower-level brain functions largely developed by the time an infant is born (hence why proper prenatal care is so critical).   Thereafter, the brain develops in a sequential order that is genetically predetermined, with various more advanced areas building on the foundations already in place.  Consequently, getting the brain “wiring” properly established early on is necessary for optimal brain development.

The brain is comprised of billions of neurons and trillions of neural circuits: connections between brain cells. These connections are a result of both genetics and environment including diet and experiences in life.   For example, fat is necessary in order to establish high quality brain connections, so a child’s diet should include sufficient amounts of “good fat” such as DHA (ideally via breastmilk early on).   And while the brain develops massive quantities of circuits early in life, those connections that are “exercised” through stimulation will grow stronger while unused connections will fade away.   Stimulation occurs when young children interact with their world, and most importantly, responsive adults: when their sounds, expressions, and gestures are reciprocated with positive reactions.  Research shows that these interactions work best when they occur between a child and an adult with whom they have an ongoing, responsive relationship.

A child’s experiences in the womb and after birth have been shown to impact development of specific areas of the brain at specific times, referred to as “sensitive periods”.  The sensitive periods for different brain functions extend over different windows, hence it is vital to provide the appropriate stimuli and stable, loving relationships during these sensitive periods to maximize the creation of strong neural connections.  For example, critical periods have been identified for language, vision, and hearing.  Some of these windows close within the first year after birth, whereas others extend well into the school years.  Foundational brain functions such as sight and hearing develop quite early within the first year or two.  However, higher-level brain functions such as some cognitive, social, and emotional capacities mature beyond the first few years of life.  These critical periods offer opportunities for parents to improve their child’s intellectual capabilities with benefits that last a lifetime.

Recommendations for Parents

  • Recognize that you play a significant role in your child’s brain development, and provide the best environment possible through interactions, stimulation, good diet, and avoiding toxins .   Reading advice on this site is a great place to start!
  • Learn more about sensitive periods (e.g. months six through twelve for the sense of balance and motion) to ensure that you’re providing the best stimulation opportunities in those windows.

Resources

The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child publication: Science of Early Childhood Development, 2007.

For a much more in-depth look at the science behind a baby’s brain development, read What’s Going on in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life by Lise Eliot, PhD published in 2000.   While not “light reading”, her book contains many fascinating research findings about brain development relating to the major senses, motor skills, social-emotional growth, memory, language and more.  My only complaint is that frankly the descriptions of research at times border on macabre, particularly if you’re sensitive to animal testing.

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