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Can I help my baby’s brain to develop?

Absolutely! From the time a baby is born, he or she is ready to learn about their world. A newborn is blanketed with novel sensory information from everywhere. Babies are not simply passive observers; they are actively taking in everything around them and their brains are working to make sense of it all.

What exactly happens when your baby’s brain is developing? At birth, your baby is born with approximately 100 billion brain cells called neurons. This is about how many stars there are in the Milky Way. What changes the fastest as your baby ages is the number of connections or synapses between neurons. A synapse is a connection between two neurons that allows one neuron to transmit information to the other, just like a telephone wire between two cities. Synapses are what we refer to when we say a brain is “wired.” Indeed, in the first year of life, more than one million new neural connections are forming every second within your baby’s brain. The formation of new connections, or synapses, is called synaptogenesis. What synaptogenesis means is that each time your child interacts with his or her environment — for example, taking in the tone of your voice or gazing at your smiling face — signals race along the neurons in their brain to activate more connections and pathways. Essentially, your child’s brain is adapting to their unique environment, and learning to process it more efficiently.

Two neurons (left, top and bottom) connected by a synapse (inside the black square and zoomed in on the right). // diagram by Sabar

By the time your child is six years old, the connectivity in their brains will be extremely dense: too dense, in fact! At around this age, your baby’s brain will clean up and eliminate old and less important neural connections in favor of high-quality and frequently used ones in a process called synaptic pruning. As the saying goes, “Use it or lose it.” What this rapid and dynamic brain change in the beginning of life means is that this is a valuable time for you to help your child’s brain to develop. You might sometimes hear it referred to as the development of brain architecture. Just as any architect designing a building must create a strong foundation in the beginning, so you can support and scaffold the development of your child’s brain!

A special type of brain scan called diffusion tensor imaging, depicting the dense and complex connectivity of neurons in a human brain. As synaptic pruning occurs, these connections will change over time — becoming denser, less dense, or more streamlined as your child grows up! // source: pixabay

Though it might be tempting to assume that factors such as intelligence and success are genetic, genetics is simply not the full story. We now know that babies learn both flexibly and efficiently, and that their brains are rapidly changing in response to experience. Moreover, the most important elements in a child’s environment are their parents, family members, and other caring adults to whom the child can begin to form attachments. By being responsive to your child’s needs, talking to your child, and providing a nurturing and exciting environment, you can positively shape the way your child’s brain develops.

Supplementary Material

For additional information and resources, take a look at the following.

1. Synaptic pruning, as discussed above, has many incredible and thought-provoking implications. Think about carving a statue out of stone. You start with more stone than you ever need, but then you sculpt it into something much more useful. The connectivity in your brain works the same way; babies are born with more connections than they need, before it subsequently gets “sculpted!” But what does it mean for your baby to have more connections than an adult? Does that mean that babies might be better than us at some things?

Believe it or not, the answer is yes. Read this article from the Science News blog on how young infants have “perceptual superpowers.”

2. We cannot emphasize enough how important your role is, as a parent, in helping your baby’s brain to develop. In the following video, watch Dr. Chaya Kulkarni, Director of Infant Mental Health Promotion at a children’s hospital in Toronto, discuss why it is important to nurture your child’s early brain development, and ways you can go about doing it.

3. Want to learn more about the neurobiology behind your child’s brain development? Read this article by the Urban Child Institute for a more comprehensive description of the neuroscientific evidence that has brought us closer to our understanding of the developing brain!

4. What activities can you do to help your baby’s brain develop? Nurturing your baby’s brain development doesn’t have to be buying your baby expensive toys or fancy videos! It may be simpler than you think: ranging from reading and singing to your baby, to tickling your baby. Get more perspective in this article by WebMD, which emphasizes building a trusting relationship with your child.

Center on the Developing Child (2009). Five Numbers to Remember About Early Childhood Development (Brief). Retrieved September 21, 2017 from www.developingchild.harvard.edu.
Neville, H.J. and Bavelier, D. (2000). Specificity and plasticity in neurocognitive development in humans. In Gazzaniga, M.S. (Ed). The New Cognitive Neurosciences. (2nd ed.), Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, pp. 83-99.
Sousa, D.A. (2001). How the Brain Learns (2nd ed.), Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, Inc.


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