There’s so much going on in your baby's head right now, it’s mind-blowing!
You might think that all your newborn baby does is eat, sleep and need her nappy changing.
But she’s busy doing something else incredibly important – she’s growing her brain at an incredible rate. These first days, weeks and months of your baby’s life are a vital time for her brain development. And what she learns – starting when she’s still in your womb – will shape her for the rest of her life.
Her brain works harder than yours
‘Over time, human beings have got smarter and that meant brains got bigger – until we reached a point where it would be tricky for babies to be born,’ explains Dr Suzanne Zeedyk, a research scientist and developmental psychologist (connectedbaby.net).
‘So human infants are born at an early stage in their development.’
The result is that your baby’s brain still has a lot of growing to do. ‘Her brain grows more rapidly between birth and the age of three than it ever will again,’ says Dr Suzanne.
‘It doubles in size in her first year and, by the age of three, it will have already reached around 80 per cent of the size it will be when she’s an adult. And during this time it’s more active than an adult’s brain.’
During every second of your baby’s early months, a thousand neural synapses – the pathways that are formed from memories of experience – grow in her brain.
She’s born with a memory
‘Mums often don’t realise that their baby arrives in the world already connected to her,’ says Dr Suzanne.
‘Her brain has been developing in your womb and she can hear the world around you both from the third trimester. This means she arrives knowing your voice and that of whoever else is in your world on an everyday basis.’
So although she can only see a distance of around 30cm at birth, she’ll know your voice and find it comforting to hear you chatting when she can’t see you.
She can’t tune anything out
Ever wondered why your baby is so easily over-stimulated? In her bid to grow all those synapses, until she’s three, she’ll notice every single thing around her.
‘Your baby doesn’t know what to tune out because she doesn’t know how the world works yet,’ says Dr Suzanne. ‘Right now she needs to notice everything to form all those synapses.’
So while you’re enjoying a cuppa in a café with her, she’ll be taking in the other customers, the coffee machines, the pictures on the wall… the list goes on.
And you’d be over-stimulated if you did that all the time!
She’s a little language genius
For adults, learning a foreign language is hard work. But for your baby, it’s a doddle.
‘A brain goes through different developmental windows when it’s primed to notice particular things,’ says Dr Suzanne, ‘and the optimum period of time for learning languages is from three months before birth until around the age of five years.’
Right now, her brain is tuning into the rhythms and nuances of everything you say, and noticing different sounds, which we think of as words, being used in different ways.
She’s obsessed with you imitating her
Your baby is born anticipating a connection with the people around her, and she’ll use imitation to find it.
‘She’s born with a brain that’s already interested in other people’s faces: she’ll pay attention to them, reading and interpreting them,’ says Dr Suzanne.
‘And she’ll look for patterns from birth – for example, if she sticks her tongue out, she’ll notice if you reply by imitating her. She’ll experiment: if she widens her eyes, will anyone copy that? She’s always looking for a response from you, so if you copy her, you’ll soon find she starts “taking turns” with you.’
She won’t help you at first
Dropped something on the floor? Well, don’t expect your little one to pick it up for you – the idea won’t even cross her brain! It’s not until she reaches the age of 14 months that her capacity for reading the meaning in your actions begins.
But once it does, she’ll be increasingly able to read what your intention or your goal is, and start helping you, for example by lifting her bum as you take her nappy off.
Her brain is slow to control her body
The first time your baby rolls over is a magical moment… but she might not roll again for weeks!
An area at the back of her brain, the cerebellum, is responsible for movement and muscle coordination.
Until it’s sufficiently developed, she doesn’t have the sort of control an older child has.
‘Your baby needs to learn how to use her body,’ explains Dr Suzanne.
‘She doesn’t consciously learn how to roll, reach, crawl, walk or use her vocal chords. As the muscles in her body develop, she’ll naturally start to do these.
Her brain then tracks the patterns of her body and the sensations, and neural pathways develop to give her control over her body.’
Her meltdowns are just part of the learning curve
The next time your little one has a meltdown or a tantrum, remember that she doesn’t have a complete brain until she’s two – and the bit she needs to avoid that tantrum in the first place just hasn’t finished growing yet.
‘Around the age of two, the frontal cortex of her brain starts to develop,’ explains Dr Suzanne.
‘That’s the part in her forehead that helps her manage conflicting emotions and behaviour. And until it’s developed, she simply doesn’t have the necessary neural pathways in her brain to manage lots of emotions at the same time.’
Brain growth burns half her calories
With all this activity and rapid growth, is it any wonder? Her brain growth uses half her energy until she’s about five years old, while yours, in comparison, uses only about a quarter of your energy.
She has no idea it’s you tickling her
It’s a favourite game for lots of toddlers, but tickling can be confusing for your baby in the early days.
‘Scientists have worked out that before the age of four months, when you tickle your baby, she doesn’t know where that sensation is coming from,’ says Dr Suzanne.
This is in part due to her limited eyesight. ‘She can’t even see her toes well yet,’ says Suzanne.
‘So when you go to tickle them, she simply feels it and associates it with your voice. She doesn’t yet have the brain patterns in place to realise that your voice is attached to the hands touching her toes that are giving the sensation of being tickled. In time, she’ll put all that together and grow the synapses that let her learn how the tickling game is played. And that predictability and anticipation is what eventually makes it fun.’