Of all the things I study, research, write about, and teach, I don’t know if there’s anything that intrigues me as much as prenatal development does. How a blastocyst—seemingly nothing more than a ball of cells—differentiates into a 10-trillion cell baby in 40 weeks astonishes me.
And prenatal brain development…there aren’t enough verbs to describe how astounded I am when I sit down and try to write about the processes for textbooks or to put a lecture together.
Did you know that the full physical basis for the potential for ALL learning, intelligence, memory, language, creativity (you name it!) is put into place by the time your child is two years old?
And it all begins with Phase I of brain development. In essence, your child’s brain has one chance to grow—during the prenatal period of development.
Phase I of Your Child’s Brain Development
Brain development begins about 3 weeks after fertilization of the egg by the sperm. The critical period for the Central Nervous System (including the brain) is from about Week 3 of pregnancy through about Week 16—this is when the fundamental structures of your baby’s brain are being formed and begin to function.
But brain development doesn’t stop there. It continues through pregnancy, and develops at a rapid rate through about age 2.
There are three prenatal biological processes that work together to grow your baby’s brain:
- Cell Production: Are you sitting down for this one? Your developing baby’s brain creates about 250,000 brain cells per minute. 250,000 brain cells per minute! Per. Minute. Can you even begin to wrap your head around that one?!
At birth, your baby will have 90% of all of the brain cells she will ever have.
~Research shows that if a fetus is undernourished, she will have about 20% fewer brain cells at birth than her well-nourished counterparts.
~If the infant is undernourished the first 6 months of life, research indicates that she will lose about another 20% of her brain neurons.
~If she is undernourished in the womb and in the first 6 months of life, she will have only about 60% of her brain neurons.
THIS is one reason why prenatal care and nutrition are so important: A healthy prenatal period is essential for human growth and development across the entire lifespan!
We cannot rewind pregnancy, go back, and get another chance to grow brain cells in our child. We get one shot at this. One. Opportunity.
250,000 cells per minute in the fetal brain. 90%.
Your job as a mom in the prenatal period is to create an optimal environment in the womb that will help your little one grow a brain like Einstein’s.
- Cell Migration: The brain neurons being produced at a rate of 250,000 per minute (I know, I just can’t say it enough!) are produced in the center of the baby’s brain. These cells then migrate—move—to their genetically determined locations within the brain and begin to function. Cell migration is complete by about the 7th month of pregnancy.
- Cell Elaboration: Cell elaboration involves the biological processes in which the dendrites (the part of the brain cell that receives information) and the axons (the part of the brain cell that carries information away from one brain cell to another one) grow and form connections with other cells.
During the prenatal period, just a little bit of cell elaboration takes place. This is why your baby, at birth, is only a reflexive being and can’t do anything on purpose (this is HUGE, and I’ll be writing a lot more about this in other posts) and why his vision is so poor.
Cell elaboration continues for years after birth—and it is largely dependent upon the type of environment and nutrition you provide for your child! I refer to cell elaboration as Phase II of brain development. (Stick around this blog and I’ll eventually show you how ALL of this brain development stuff changes during adolescence and is responsible for that sassy teen of yours!)
Can you picture it? Can you picture the development your unborn child’s brain is undergoing?
Here’s a Reader’s Digest version of Phase I of Prenatal Brain Development and what it takes to grow an Einstein:
- Through genetics and with the help of an excellent prenatal environment (the womb and Mom’s fantastic lifestyle habits), the prenatal brain generates 250,000 brain cells per minute…90% of all the brain neurons the baby will ever have are present at the moment of birth. This is cell production.
- During pregnancy, these brain cells travel from the center of the brain where they are produced, to different areas of the brain. There the brain cells will carry out their genetically determined functions. A healthy prenatal environment is essential to this process. This is cell migration.
- At birth, a baby is born with gazillions of brain neurons. Only some of the neurons are connected—enough to sustain the baby’s survival reflexes (breathing, feeding, and the ability to maintain body temperature). The connection of the dendrites rests on the shoulders of the baby’s parents—through stimulation, love, care, touch, affection, and excellent nutrition. This is Phase II of Brain Development, or cell elaboration.
YOUR BABY IS BORN TO LEARN!