How a baby's brain develops is not in many expectant parents' reading list. How to physically look after a baby (how to feed, change, bath, put to sleep) is more of a priority. Most of us think, "I'll learn about her brain when I need to." But once the baby is out, we never get a chance to stop and reflect on what we know and what we don't.
Knowledge about brain development = Higher quality parenting
A recent study found out that when parents have knowledge about baby brain development on baby's first week, they are able to offer a higher quality of parenting in the first year.
Unlike the development of most of its organs, baby's brain development is a visible phenomena. It shows itself as babies develop motor skills and learn to talk. Yet most parents lack the knowledge on how exactly the development takes place and how to support it.
The study found that parents knowledgable about brain development are able to:
- Be sensitive to the baby's cues when teaching her a task
- Communicate in a positive tone
- Create more opportunities for baby to learn
In routine checks, pediatricians usually inform new parents about feeding and weight gain. How a baby's brain develops is usually left unspoken as 99% of parents don't ask any questions about this topic.
Interaction directly effects brain development
Although genetics have a big role, a baby's intelligence hugely benefits from daily interactions with the world and caregivers.
Scientists call this Serve and Return. Baby "serves" by babbling, pointing or crying, and the parent "returns" by being supportive with contact, words or a smile. This interaction builds neural connections that support the development of communication and social skills.
If parents know that their baby's brain is ready to learn from day zero, they can interact better on day zero. Since the brain development is massive especially in the first year, applying knowledge on brain development right away can boost intelligence.
Understanding brain physiology helps make sense of the baby's internal world
A baby's brain is work in progress. To understand why, let's have a look at the book The Whole-Brain Child. The book describes our brain in two main units: upstairs and downstairs brain.
“The downstairs brain includes the brain stem and the limbic region, which are located in the lower parts of the brain.”
“Scientists talk about these lower areas as being more primitive because they are responsible for basic functions (like breathing and blinking), for innate reactions and impulses (like fight and flight), and for strong emotions (like anger and fear).”
“Your upstairs brain is completely different. It’s made up of the cerebral cortex and its various parts. Upstairs brain is where more intricate mental processes take place, like thinking, imagining, and planning.”
“While the downstairs brain is well developed even at birth, the upstairs brain isn’t fully mature until a person reaches his mid-twenties. In fact, it’s one of the last parts of the brain to develop. The upstairs brain remains under massive construction for the first few years of life, then during the teen years undergoes an extensive remodel that lasts into adulthood.”
When parents are aware of this work-in-progress, they become more understanding of a baby's unexplainable cries, mood swings and later in toddlerhood, emotion-drivenness, stubbornness and lack of empathy.
A parent who has the knowledge about brain physiology and how it evolves can provide more support and tolerance, as well as establishing a relationship that better engages the "upstairs brain" when the appropriate age arrives.
- Daily experiences like playing, being read to and interacting with others change your baby's brain wiring.
- The wiring affects her linguistic skills, problem-solving abilities and academic success.
- It can even influence her physical and mental health later in life, as well as social relationships.
- A responsive, nurturing and consistent relationship with at least one caregiver is key to building a healthy brain.