baby brain development

Baby Brain Development

The more you know about baby brain development, including the functions of your baby’s mind, the more you can aid your child in mental skills and learning. Babies’ brains are constantly active, even during sleep when they experience dreams and growth takes place.  They prefer to be active learners and like to experiment. Boredom is the worst thing that they can experience in some respects as their brain is so active and curious it needs stimulation constantly. Scientists have learned a lot about baby brain development, the workings of the mind and the neural pathways that are created as infants learn to figure out their environments. Parents can take this information and apply it to their children in ways that make learning fun and efficient.


baby brain development


The brain is infinitely more complex than the most advanced computer man has managed to invent. It has a definite structure where certain cells are assigned to specific activities and respond to specific inputs from the various sense organs. Sense stimulation is crucual to baby brain development. Within the areas of the brain responsible for vision, for example, there are many subdivisions. These are ready to take in specific information concerning types of objects such as faces, landscapes, shadows and colour. Millions of chemical and electrical reactions take place every second as a baby investigates her surroundings. When observing a face for instance, the brain cells in the visual cortex work in conjunction with the eyes and process the image before her. This visual stimulus encourages the baby to communicate, which is essential for baby brain development. If you watch a newborn baby carefully, close up, you will see her scanning your face and following every movement you make. Intense curiosity motivates them and they like to focus on anything that they possibly can. Almost immediately following birth, a baby is ready to take in the untold billions of light photons bouncing about in space. This gives you an indication of the immense power of the brain even at this early stage.


Fetus Brain development – Making Sense of the Senses


Approximately six weeks following conception, a baby’s brain begins to develop rapidly. It consists of hundreds of millions of brain cells or neurones which divide and multiply at an astounding rate. Here are some mind boggling figures: from six weeks onwards following conception, approximately 600,000 neurones are created every single minute. About 12 weeks prior to birth the brain of the baby contains over 100 billion neurones. There then forms an astounding array of combinations of links between these neurones as the brain processes and makes sense of incoming data from all the sense organs simultaneously. This interlinking of neurones is the foundation of baby brain development.


Each of these neurons has a component known as an axon which sends electrical impulses to other brain cells and has a number of antenna like branches called dendrites which takes in information sent by other neurones. Each neurone is capable of processing hundreds of messages every second. Take into account now, that there are millions of neurones firing at any instant. This is a continual process of baby brain development that occurs even months before birth.


Babies Brain Development Following Birth


Once the baby is born, the rate of formation of nerve cell connections rapidly accelerates to over a million per second. This is due to the massive increase in stimulation the through its new surroundings. This is where baby brain development is kick started into overdrive. The new links that have formed within the brain cause it to grow and it will increase in size by 400% from the time of birth to the age of three.


The pathways between the nerve cells are known as synapses and the electrical impulses that are sent by the neurones are converted into chemical messages. The process of continual neurone firing forms permanent pathways between the brain cells. It is like software becoming hardware. A protective sheath called myelin surrounds the axons and dendrites in a similar way that household electrical appliances have their leads coated in plastic. This myelin coating is formed gradually as neurones link one to another. Baby brain development continues apace in both internal connections numbers and increased size.


Genetics and Behaviour Affect Babies Brain Development


Some of these pathways are formed through choices of behaviour and according to the baby’s own specific circumstances. Others are genetically determined. For instance, the auditory cortex will connect to the ears. The same goes for the eyes, optic nerves and visual cortex. But billions of connections are formed according to activity and stimulation that can vary from child to child.

Permanent Neural Pathways


Permanent pathways are formed through repetition and learning. Everything in the world around her will have a bearing on baby brain development and the permanent, or hard wiring, in the brain. Sounds, shapes, patterns of movement, and colors that stimulate your baby’s brain cause it to form connections and grow. The cerebral cortex is where external data gathered from the sense organs is processed and where decisions are then made. The links that have formed here are reliant on your baby’s activities. The various ways that you can stimulate your baby all have a bearing on her mental development. Giving her objects to touch and play with, bringing her close to your face and letting her watch your facial expressions and letting her try different foods, all enable her and her brain to develop optimally.


Brain and Body Growth Rates


Even though the baby’s body grows at a rapid rate following birth, its head will still seem to be much larger in proportion. This just shows you how much the brain is growing as it outpaces the body. Not until the age of three will the head have adult like proportions in comparison with the body. A baby’s brain development does not stop at this point but the growth of head and body are now in step. Mental development continues as each new experience stimulates the firing of neurones. Each time these electrical impulses are sent and received new connections are formed and the characteristics of each individual neurone alters to some extent.


Baby Brain Function and Growth


There are several basic operating principles that govern brain function. Growth and the creation of connections rely on repeated stimulus for those connections to become hard wired. The brain is very efficient at taking no notice of nonessential stimulation or skills that are already learned.


Connections are formed through stimulation, but if a baby has been accustomed to a repeated stimulus new links are no longer formed as the brain decides it has already processed that information. As the number of neurone links multiplies into the billions, the baby’s brain can make much more sense of the world around it through these connections that already exist.


Baby Brain Development at 9 Months


There is a specific change that occurs in the creation of nerve cell connections at about 9 months onwards. Strong connections that have been formed through repeated experience are stored permanently. Those situations that may have only been experienced once or twice and that have not formed strong connections are phased out. The brain has an amazing ability to evolve according to its surroundings and to adapt as the baby learns. Your child will develop specific and set patterns of behaviour but at the same time remain flexible enough to relearn those behaviours and add on new ones. The brain is constantly changing according to experience and is very flexible. This characteristic is known as plasticity.


Babies Brain Development in the Auditory Cortex


To illustrate how the brain deals with redundant information we can look to the auditory cortex. This is the area of the brain that processes sound. Soon after birth, a baby has the ability to hear all types of speech and phonetics. It doesn’t matter if it is born in Korea, Venezuela, Germany or the United States. Every single baby regardless of its genetic heritage could be put into any culture and immediately distinguish every single vowel, syllable and inflection.


The way that humans process the noise generated by the vocal cords is similar to voice recognition software in that it listens out for familiar and previously repeated sounds. At nine months old a child loses its capacity to distinguish unfamiliar patterns of sound in the non native languages because most of the connections made in the brain have been based on its parents language and it is fully accustomed to those sounds by now. Granted, it has not learned to speak yet or understand everything that is said. But the actual physical sound waves are very familiar to the brain.


How a Baby’s Brain Develops in Relation to Language


The brain now decides to make some efficiency savings. It shuts down this ability and concentrates on making sense of what it has already stored listening to this now familiar language, whatever that may be. To give an example of how this works, a Chinese baby is quite capable of distinguishing between similar sounding words in English such as heart and hurt, even though its parents would not have this ability. A Japanese newborn can distinguish between the words race and lace, but this would be impossible for its parents as Japanese does not contain the sounds.


As babies continue to be exposed to the language of their parents, brain cells in the auditory cortex make ever increasing reference based connections to these familiar sounds until they have heard enough. At 12 months old the Japanese child will no longer be able to distinguish between race and lace. For all practical purposes, it does not need to as these words do not occur in its native tongue. That ability is no longer required by the brain and would be a waste of mental resources. At 4 months old a baby just about has the ability to distinguish between different languages, but by 10 months old this skill has almost passed. This trait is not preprogrammed into the brain, but through constant exposure to familiar sounds, it is able to make the decision to cut that skill and focus on new skills or develop pre-existing ones further.  It is as if the baby has learnt all the words in the dictionary and now decides to focus on grammar and how to combine those words in order to communicate.


How New and Old Surroundings Affect Baby Brain Development


When we are confronted with the circumstances and surroundings that are new to us we tend to take conscious notice of them. Once we are very familiar with an environment, such as our own house, we tend after this point to only take conscious notice of things that do not normally appear. Things out of the ordinary grab our attention but the familiar does not.


Familiarisation – Habituation and Baby Behaviour Patterns


This process of familiarisation is known as habituation and babies undergo this at an early stage of their development. There are pros and cons as far as parents are concerned with habituation. It is efficient in terms of brain usage as no energy is wasted on creating new synapses and neural connections which are not needed for familiar environments. But as the baby becomes familiar with situations, experiences and surroundings, it can also get bored. Babies exhibit boredom by looking for new things to stimulate their minds. If the baby is sat down in its high-chair, and continues to pay little attention to the food, but keeps looking around the room, you can be sure that it is undergoing a period of boredom. Boredom will often produce crying in babies and other patterns of behaviour such as kicking out and fidgeting. Having a short attention span, a child in its first few months can lose interest very quickly. They’re always looking for new sensations. As they grow older they will be more content to adhere to a routine and familiar surroundings.


Some things seem to entertain babies for longer than others. Your face, for example, is a constant source of fascination, probably because facial features are a key element of communication. Babies are always eager to communicate and understand people.  Reading into the subtleties of the workings of facial muscles is a tall order. As adults we take it for granted that certain expressions relate to certain moods, emotions and intentions. But the baby has to learn all of this from scratch. It is a priority.


Memory and Baby Brain Development


Believe it or not it is impossible to hold a single unique thought for more than a fraction of a second.  If I told you now to think of the sun and nothing else, that thought would change about 10,000 times per second to some degree. The initial thought that you held for that one 10,000th of the second concerning the sun is not the same as the one the you’re thinking of a fraction of time later. For starters, you’ll be thinking about ‘thinking about‘ the sun if you understand what I mean. You will react to your own state of mind as you try to focus on an image, possibly of the sun, or maybe the way its heat makes you feel.  Your thoughts will not be constant and unique.  They will be constantly changing. This brings us to the subject of memory and how a baby processes and stores thoughts.


How a Baby’s Brain Develops as it Stores Memories


Each one of those 10,000 different thoughts creates a memory. The brain has a specific way of processing these memories. Even though it is continually forming them it is not continually storing them permanently.  It prioritises memory storage in relation to the usefulness of the experience that created the thoughts.  One of its priorities is storing and recalling memories relating to physical movements and how to coordinate arms and legs, shoulders and arms, head and neck etc.  A baby will try to move its limbs in the direction of an object that it has an interest in but initially failed to make contact with.  It will remember that for future reference and gradually alter the way tries to do it next time based on previous failures stored as memories. Each memory builds on the next until eventually a pattern of movement is deduced that will achieve its target. This is a key process in baby brain development. The millions upon millions of memories that enabled the baby to reach out and grab the toy are no longer needed. They were merely stepping stones that helped to create the final result, namely the ability to control movement. It is a process of elimination.  As an adult, I doubt if you remember your first steps.  No need now that you can walk!


Recognition and Recall – Keys to Baby Brain Development


Memory aids the baby in understanding familiar objects and then enables it to recognise them in the future. This process of recognition and memory storage starts well before birth when your baby is in the womb and learns the sound of your voice, the feel of the amniotic fluid it floats in and the sound of your heart. Memory is what enables us to recognise people by their faces. The newborn has this ability immediately and makes a note of the subtle differences between the contours of people’s faces, which may seem obvious to us as adults but in reality the actual physical measurements involved are not so apparent being quite small.


It takes a lot of repeated experience for a baby’s recall mechanisms to operate beyond half an hour to begin with. Not until they are two months old do they have the ability to remember the day before.  A seemingly simple memory such as the colour of a toy is interconnected with many other factors such as its shape, its setting, weight and feel. The brain has to categorise all of these different inputs for a true memory to be formed. Baby brain development is a constant process of memory storage choices, based on repeated experiences.


Memory and Brain Structure


Memory is a complex collection of neural pathways, in a sense similar to the Internet. This network can be accessed by the brain in a fraction of a second. The ability to recall is based on the number of links and how repeated they are across the synaptic network.  If a certain pathway has not been used for some length of time, the memory based on it may become hazy and a lot less clear – and consequently less easy to recall.  Baby brain development is spurred on by increasingly useful associations.  Memory relies on the power of association to reinforce it.  Thoughts held in isolation rarely make it to permanent storage in the memory banks. The power of association can be easily demonstrated by everybody’s ability to remember familiar songs. Each word and note triggers the recall of the next part of the tune. This is how our brains work.  A baby’s brain lights up in reaction to certain stimuli, for example the sound of a toy being shaken or the smell of a certain type of food. The smell of the food triggers the associated memory of its taste, and also the memories associated with whether or not the food was palatable to the baby. All these interrelated memories reinforce a further memory, namely an opinion or preference. Everything is interconnected.


Long Term and Short Term Memory in Babies


Long term memory is not always upfront and in a face but rather stored away in the subconscious ready for recall at a later time when called upon. Short term memory is the here and now – how you react to reading this sentence for example. You might remember this sentence for years to come if it makes enough of an impact. Otherwise, you will use it for what you need it for and it will gradually fade away as will the rest of this paragraph. Only if you need it for future reference, and only if the ideas contained within it are repeated or experienced by you several times in the future, will it have become a long-term memory. Baby brain development proceeds according this same principle.


In the brain of a baby just like the brain of an adult, the area of the brain responsible for short term memory is known as the Prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain can be compared to a white board where notes are stored temporarily and then wiped off. The Prefrontal cortex is where thoughts of the present are held in focus and concentrated on. It is a processing plant that filters all experiences either into the rubbish bin or long-term memory. Its abilities are based on attention span, an adult being able to hold no more than one or two thoughts at the same time believe it or not. Those thoughts can be subdivided into categories such as numbers or place names but the maximum is usually two for most individuals. The short term memory of a baby is much more restricted and cannot contain as much detailed information in the present as an adult. The short term memory of a baby also enables it to remember one or two physical objects at once.


Memory Duration of Babies


Scientific research into baby brain development has demonstrated that a newborn baby has the ability to remember something for about a minute. For instance, if exposed to a new sound, that it hears only once, and out again, it will be forgotten about 60 seconds later and impossible for the baby to recall. Once the baby has reached two months they have the ability to remember an object or an experience for a couple of weeks without it being repeated. By the time they are nine months they will be able to process the information more efficiently and recall it at a much later stage, weeks or even months. Babies can remember games that family members play with them only once for ages if enough stimulation was triggered. It is the intensity of the experience that makes a memory last and stimulates even more baby brain development.


Experiences that are mainly sensual, involving sight, sound, touch and smell for example – are always imprinted into the memory banks much more strongly. Babies want to improve their memories and instinctively know how to do it. For example they will not only want to look at a toy, but touch it and taste it as well. Most babies will also want to hear it and that is why they shake objects. All of these sensual experiences enable it to create strong memories with several associations.


Memories create expectations and a baby will be able to predict the noise a toy will make if it is similar in structure to one she has already had an experience with. Babies brain development moves forward through re-connecting memory and present experiences. Your own behaviour and its various timings such as the morning routine, bath time etc., also create another dimension to the intricate process of memory construction, as the fourth dimension, time, is added to the sensual mix.


Baby brain development is also dependent on learning by imitation based on memories of the activities of those around them. A repetitive action such as talking, where the same words are spoken thousands of times in the course of a day for example, reinforce the ability of a child to mimic its parents. Neuroscientists have demonstrated that these processes of memory creation in the brain begin at an early stage in the womb. Babys brain development really gets going about 6 weeks after conception.


Baby Brain Development and Emotions


It has been said that all emotions can be boiled down to two: pleasure and pain. A baby processes almost every experience based on these two fundamental factors. The emotional side of the brain develops at a faster pace than the intellectual. In fact, the two are linked. But first and foremost, it is emotion that forms the basis of character, preferences and most behaviour patterns.


Everything that a baby learns is filtered through emotions. The feeling of security upon birth when you hold your baby is a pleasurable one for her. The physical feelings of warmth make her happy and this emotion leads to your child trusting you as a source of comfort and security. I doubt this bond would be formed if you were ice cold! The baby would be more likely to scream and cry and not want to come to you the next time round.  All these early memories make a powerful inprint on the baby’s brain and how she develops as a person in later life. Emotional memories are usually stored a lot longer than memories based on logical deduction and intellectual experience.


Developing Self Confidence in a Baby – Parents Behaviour is Crucial


Self confidence can be developed in a child through the positive input of parents by way of hugs, kisses and cuddles at an early stage. None of this is wasted. A kind smile reinforces the early bond of trust that was initially triggered by body heat as each successive emotional experience builds on the preceding ones. Your own character and sense of emotional wellbeing has a huge impact on your baby’s brain development. The self confidence and happiness of your child is closely linked to your own, as they tend to mimic not only actions that they see in adults but emotions too. The way that you deal with problems is likely to be mirrored in your baby as she develops and grows into a toddler.


So think carefully how you behave around your children and consciously go out of your way to remain calm in the face of provocation, happy as you can be in all circumstances and always ready to express kindness and warmth to those around you.


These qualities can have a tremendous influence on the psychological well being of your baby, even though you may think they are too young to appreciate what is going on around them in the emotional sphere. This aspect of baby brain development is probably the area that parents can have the most influence, for good or bad.


This is not to say that you should bottle up negative emotions. Far from it. But just make sure that you can express them in a way that is reasonable to those around you, not redirecting your frustration and anger at those that care for you. A baby will pick up on this behaviour and mimic it by kicking out in frustration whenever it does not get its own way. If this pattern of behaviour is continued an reinforced you are heading for big trouble and could have a problem child on your hands. Remember – baby brain development is based on actions, memories and experiences that are repeated and then become hard wired. Once learnt, and repeatedly so, negative patterns of behaviour can be hard to change in later years.


However, a baby that grows up in an environment where the fundamental values of love, respect, positive affirmation and also attention to physical health and wellbeing are nurtured, has a wonderful opportunity to develop as a fully rounded human being. What a responsibility parents have!