No, your baby doesn’t need flash cards and Mozart to grow smarter. Very simple things actually help build your baby’s brain — things like touch, play and exposure to lots of stimulating experiences.
Your baby’s brain is still developing long after birth. In fact, some specialists refer to the first 3 months of life as the “fourth trimester” because so much of the brain is still developing during this time. The brain continues to grow and change at a rapid pace for the first two to three years, and then is not fully finished developing until the teen years.
Infancy is the most crucial time for brain development, however, and a lot is happening during this time.
Brain development in babies consists of five types of development that take place both before and after birth. The University of Georgia’s Better Brains for Babies sums them up as:
- Neurogenesis is the process of forming neurons. This is the first process to occur in brain development, and is completed before a baby is born.
- Neural migration is the process of organizing the brain by moving neurons to specific areas based on the functions these cells will perform. Migration begins prenatally, but continues for at least 8 to 10 months after a baby is born.
- Myelination is the process of coating the axon of each neuron with a fatty coating called myelin, which protects the neuron and helps it conduct signals more efficiently. Myelination begins in the brain stem and cerebellum before birth, but is not completed in the frontal cortex until late in adolescence. Breast feeding contributes to more rapid myelination in the brain.
- Synaptogenesis is the process of forming networks of connections in the brain. Synapses begin forming prenatally, but the process continues throughout life.
- Pruning is the process of weeding out unnecessary connections and strengthening the important ones, based on the child’s experiences. Some pruning begins very early in development, but the most rapid pruning happens between about age 3 and age 16. Different areas of the brain undergo pruning during different sensitive periods.
Of these, three types of brain development are especially important in infancy. Bright Hub sums these up as dendrite formation, pruning and myelin production.
During dendrite formation, stimulating baby is crucially important:
During the first three years of life, your baby’s brain is going into overdrive in forming these dendrites. To do this, it takes in information from the world. When you stimulate your baby – through talking to her, holding her, singing to her, massaging her, or affecting her senses in any other way, you are helping her brain to form these dendrites.
Repetition of these interactions is important for the next type of brain development, pruning:
During synaptic pruning, synapses that are rarely used are “pruned” from the brain, leaving behind only the more important synapses. This enables the synapses that remain to become stronger. If a certain synapse pathway is used very often, the synapses are strengthened. Therefore, if you continually provide your baby with important stimuli, such as shapes, pictures, or spoken language, then they will be more easily able to retrieve the information when they need it.
The third type of brain development, myelin coating, helps babies think faster and better:
Myelin is a fatty material that coats neurons and helps to speed up the electrical impulses that flow through the neurons. In other words, neurons that are coated in myelin work more quickly and effectively than neurons that are not coated in myelin. Infants and then children, who are shown love, both verbally and physically, produce more myelin to coat their neurons.
The biggest way to help with this type of brain development? Breastfeed your baby. Breastfeeding contributes to more rapid myelination in the brain.
Dendrite formation, synaptic pruning, and myelination work together to help your baby’s brain develop. Remember: research shows that giving your baby love and stimulation can actually improve her brain development.
Attachment Parenting is crucial for optimal brain development, because it allows babies’ needs to be met so they can focus on other things like their environments. Peek-a-boo Parenting explains:
If the adults in their lives respond predictably to their cries and provide for their needs, infants will be more likely to use these adults as sources of safety and security. With safety taken care of, they can focus attention on exploring, allowing their brain to take in all the wonders of the world around them. If their needs are met only sporadically and pleas for comfort are usually ignored or met with harsh words and rough handling, infants will focus their energies on ensuring that their needs are met. They will have more difficulty interacting with people and objects in their environment, and their brain will shut out the stimulation it needs to develop healthy cognitive and social skills (Lieberman & Zeanah, 1995).
Obviously, babies should not be overstimulated. They need time to rest and they won’t be receptive to stimulation when they are sleepy, fussy or uncomfortable. That said, there will be many times when they are alert and curious about their worlds, and the more you can lovingly respond to that the stronger and faster their brains will become.
Read on for 50 simple ways to build your baby’s brain.