Brain Gain

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Babies are born with more brain cells than stars in the Milky Way, but these cells require ‘wiring’. Rachel Winston explains how parents can help grow their baby’s brain

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The first few years of life are pretty active in terms of brain development. Did you know that the average human brain undergoes 85 per cent of its growth in the first three years of life? These first few years are very dynamic, providing a great window of opportunity to help set up our children’s brain for future health and happiness.

Babies are pretty impressive. They are born into the world with the majority of the brain cells they will need. That is 100 billion brain cells, 10 times the number of stars in the Milky Way. However, the vast majority of the “wiring” of the brain takes place after birth, through experiences, and this wiring needs our help.

Babies are hardwired to want to connect with others and have interaction. Early on, infants show a preference for our faces, voices and smell. Babies have shown preferences for their mother’s voice as early as 30 weeks of pregnancy. They are actively trying to make sense of the world and survive, through loving connection.

Heartbreaking studies where babies have been neglected and deprived of the basic human need for connection and playful interaction show severely stunted brain development, in comparison to babies who experience regular interactions and play with a loving parent or carer.

What this shows is that love and playful interactions matter. When you give your child face-to-face time, lovingly respond to your baby’s cues and sing songs, you’re actually helping to grow his brain.

For optimal brain development, babies first need to establish their safety, love and comfort needs. Letting the baby know that these needs will be met lays the foundation for future higher functioning and learning to take place.

The most pertinent questions to an infant’s developing brain are questions such as

“Am I safe?”, “Am I lovable?”, “Can I depend on help when I need it?”.

Naturally these connections to safety and inner security are built through their early relationships with their main caregivers. When these relationships are sensitive and consistent, that special loved one can be the safe base for the baby to go explore the world!

When babies play, repeatedly do trial and error, and discover new things, they are building thousands of new brain connections. It is estimated that approximately one million brain connections (or synapses) per second are formed for the first 1001 days of life.

In fact, babies are much faster at making new brain connections than adults. By the time a child is two-years-old, he or she will have double the amount of brain connections as an adult. After that the brain undergoes “pruning” of the weaker connections. The connections that are repeated the most are strongest and will survive. So the first few years are a key window for setting up a brain with lots of positive connections that can last a lifetime.

So how can you build this positive foundation for your baby?

  1. Tune in your radio – Try to tune into your infant’s signals and respond sensitively. If they could talk, what might they be telling you about how they feel? You can show them you know how they feel with a sensitive action, some words, or even a facial expression.
  2. Engage in tennis – Well, engage in the back and forth action that happens in tennis. Perhaps your child makes a noise. Think of this as them “serving a ball” to you. Wait and then it’s your turn to return the “ball”. Perhaps mimic the noise or tell them, “that was a loud noise!”
  3. Take half a step back – Allow them a little bit of struggling in a safe environment. A little bit of stress is actually good for brain development. Allow your baby small challenges in everyday life and stop yourself from stepping in too early. “Wait, watch and wonder” before rescuing their attempts at overcoming a new challenge. Mastering new challenges (E.g., grasping an object, sitting up, pressing a button) builds self-confidence and motivation. Think of yourself as a coach supporting them through their stress.
  4. Get chatty – Research shows that babies who are regularly talked to and read to by their parents develop better language skills later in life. Language is the basis to most cognitive development, so it’s not silly to talk to a baby – or a mature bump for that matter.
  5. Loving touch – One of the first ways we feel love is through touch. Try some baby massage strokes to see what your baby likes. And when. A simple stroke to start out with is “the velvet cloak”. First tell your baby what you’re going to do and leave a little pause. Then gently rest your warm palms on baby’s chest and slowly move down his or her body like your hands are a heavy blanket.
  6. Sing like a bird – or not. You don’t have to be a good singer. Remember babies already love the sound of your voice. Songs mimic and exaggerate patterns of speech so it helps early language development as well as early social-emotional development.

All these activities help build positive neural pathways or connections in your child’s brain. Positive connections that carry messages such as “You are loved”, “You are safe”, “I’ll be here for you”, “You can do new things”, “You are understood”, “You are important “, “You deserve to be respected and listened to”, “You are an important part of this family” and so much more!

Remember the more these experiences are repeated, the stronger the neural pathways in the brain.

Licensed baby-bonding classes are a great way to practice these skills to boost your child’s brain development, at the same time strengthening your bond with your baby, setting you both up for the best possible start.

Rachel Winston is a registered play therapist, licensed baby-bonding practitioner and the founder of Full Cup Play Therapy.

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