I like to think of your child’s brain development as occurring in two different phases:
Phase 1: In this phase, your baby’s prenatal brain generates 250,000 brain cells per minute. That’s astonishing!! At birth, your baby has 90% of all of the brain neurons he will ever have for his lifespan. You did your part during pregnancy to ensure his brain had the nutrition it needed to create these brain neurons. Now, you need to connect them and grow them.
Phase 2: During the first year of life, your baby’s brain cells grow in size and in complexity. The brain neurons are present at birth—but they are by no means sophisticated in their structures or functions.
Take a look at this illustration.
The illustration on the very left portrays the very limited brain neuron connections at birth. As you can see, very few brain neurons are connected. This is why at birth your baby is purely a reflexive creature—he cannot do anything on purpose.
He can’t stop crying on purpose.
He can’t delay his hunger on purpose.
He can’t settle in and go to sleep on purpose.
He can’t reach for a toy on purpose.
Phase 2 of brain development, then, is centered on getting those dendrites connected to other dendrites in the brain. This brain growth is referred to as dendritic (or dendrite) branching. This process is what accounts for the growth in the size of the baby’s brain (and his head circumference!). Your baby’s brain is ready and waiting to be developed! The “wiring” is there—it just needs to be connected.
Imagine that your new baby’s brain is a computer. EVERY bit of information that goes into her brain has to be processed and organized somehow. The information comes into her brain through the dendrites (these are the information-receiving structures in the brain). How? Through her 5 senses: Taste (yuumy breast milk!), Touch, Hearing, Smell, and Sound.
Stream, after stream, after stream, after steam, after stream of information bombards your new baby’s brain every second of every day! And her brain has no choice but to connect those dendrites, to grow that incredible brain of hers! Over the first 2 years of life, the amazing communication network is developed in her brain.
Your baby’s brain is literally WAITING for experiences to shape these connections! So, environmental experiences….music, reading, everyday conversation, touching, snuggling, cuddling, the every-changing tastes of breast milk, warmth, varying textures….all of these are CRUCIAL in shaping your baby’s brain. The picture on the right illustrates the number of neuron connections—dendritic branching—that is in place by age 15 months. Isn’t it amazing?! Look at the differences in the dendritic branching between birth and 15 months!
The axon is the part of the brain that carries information to other brain cells. At birth, the axon has very little coating present. This coating—the myelin sheath—insulates the axon and allows messages from the central nervous system to travel very quickly. (With your thumb, making a “clicking” motion. Do you see how quickly you can do that? That’s because you have ample myelin coating the axons—the better the myelin coating, the quicker our reaction times and greater muscle control we have. This is why aging people have slower muscle reactions…we tend to lose myelin as we age).
Not very much myelin coats the axons at birth: This is why your baby has very little muscle control and poor vision at birth. Your baby has just enough myelin to support her survival reflexes. And nothing more.
That’s why your new baby has trouble holding her head up. That’s why she can’t roll over. That’s why she can’t smile on purpose. That’s why she can’t sit up on her own until about 6 months of age. That’s why she won’t crawl until later in the first year. That’s why you can’t potty train her until she’s in her second year. And that’s why children who are being potty trained have so many accidents in the beginning (they need the myelin to be able to control their bladder and bowel functions).
Through environmental experiences, and through awesome nutrition like breast milk, the myelin sheath is formed.
Other than forming secure attachment bonds, the single greatest job of new parents is to GROW THEIR CHILD’S BRAIN!
YOUR BABY WAS BORN TO LEARN!