Your Baby’s Brain – Part 3 of 3: Building Strong and Healthy Brains

I started this 3-part series by asking the question:

is it nature or nurture that makes a person who they are?

Well, the answer is: both, plus a third element, and there is science to back this up.

The things that shape and form a person’s brain are a mix of DNA & experience, and there is a third element: the unique responses of one particular individual.

This helps to explain why two or more people can have huge differences in their response to growing up in the same family: same genetic pool (although each with a unique DNA); same set of parents (who also can vary how they interact with each child); and an individual response to the whole package.

It can feel pretty complicated! But thanks to smart people who can come up with simplified explanations and images such as the people at The Brain Story (see the references below), we can start to grasp how these things work together.

A person’s DNA is what it is, but here is something amazing: an experience can turn a gene on and activate it … or not.

An experience can allow the gene to be expressed and active or suppressed and inactive.

One of the speakers with The Brain Story uses a simple image: He shows the audience that he has a wristwatch – it’s definitely there, but if it is covered by a sleeve, and it can’t be seen, it can’t give him the information that he wants. Without uncovering it, he can’t tell the time. [i]

Or, another example, a library might be filled with good books, but unless they are “activated”, that being taken off the shelf and read, there will be no expression of them in the life of the person who owns or has access to the books. [ii]

So how can you maximize the best gene activations or expressions within your child?

I’m going to start with a story of a study. You may have heard of it. It’s called The Still Face Experiment. You can watch it here. In this study, we see how much the baby expects to interact with the mother and how upset they become when the mother shows an expression-less face, or a still face.

Here’s why: babies are wired for connection right from the moment of birth and they need positive feedback to build a strong and healthy brain.

Here – in a nutshell – is what I hope you take away with you:

Brain growth is dependent upon a child’s give and take relationships with a human caretaker. [iii]

It’s called Serve and Return and it’s actually pretty easy. Imagine a tennis match between a caregiver and a child but instead of hitting a ball back and forth across the net, various forms of communication pass between the two. You can use:

  • eye contact
  • touch
  • singing
  • even simple games like peekaboo, and
  • babbling along with them.

When caregivers actively engage with the child, sturdy circuits are built in the child’s brain. Even just holding the child, as beneficial as that is, it does not replace the need for active interaction. Repeated Serve and Return interactions become the bricks that build a healthy foundation for all future development. [iv]

Your little one plays this game already. Babies instinctively initiate serve and return through babble, facial expressions, and gestures and you can return the communication by babbling, making funny faces, and waving. When you do this, new neural connections form in your little one’s brain that are good and strong and they get reinforced with use.

Here is a summary of our nature or nurture discussion:

  1. We each have our own DNA
  2. Our experiences can turn on or turn off various parts of our DNA,
  3. Our individual response to experiences also shapes our unique development as an individual, and
  4. We also now know that early experiences can impact our mental health, and our physical health even in later years. (See part 2)

Check out The Palix Foundation’s Brain Story Concepts: Serve & Return  video. It’s worth the 2 minutes and 42 seconds!

Why do I talk about these things?

One of the reasons that I have such a passion for this topic is because my start in life was difficult and many connections that were strengthened would have been better off pruned away (see part two).

As a result, and likely in conjunction with a genetic predisposition to depression, I struggled lifelong with profound feelings of little value and even less hope for change – especially with talk about the brain prevalent during my youth being that what happened in the first seven years was pretty much set in stone.

As an adult, I was excited and relieved to learn about brain plasticity and the capacity to change. It meant that I wasn’t stuck with what I had. The challenge is that change is easier with youth, but the same changes take a lot more work as we get older.

However, the biggest reason that I talk about early years and brain development and plasticity is that I love to engage with parents on this topic:

I want parents to know that they do not have to feel destined to repeat an unhappy, generational history.

I want to get the word out! Every person can learn to do well by their kids and give them the best that they are able.

If you are having a bad day, and nothing seems to go right, babble with your baby, read your child a book, and you will know with a certainty, that this part of your day is going well and that you are doing good!

If you’re are struggling to do this, send me an email and we can have a 15-20 minute chat that might help set you on a new path.


Please share with your social media community!


[i] Kolb, Bryan. “Factors Influencing Brain Development.” Calgary, 2010, Palix Foundation. Retrieved from: https://www.albertafamilywellness.org/resources/video/factors-influencing-brain-development

[ii] Boyce, W. Thomas. “Eight (Failed) Assumptions: What We Thought We Knew About Early Child Development.” Calgary, 2010, Palix Foundation. Retrieved from: https://www.albertafamilywellness.org/resources/video/resourcesvideoeight-failed-assumptions-what-wethought-we-knew-about-early-child-development

[iii] Boyce, W. Thomas. “Eight (Failed) Assumptions: What We Thought We Knew About Early Child Development.” Calgary, 2010, Palix Foundation. Retrieved from: https://www.albertafamilywellness.org/resources/video/resourcesvideoeight-failed-assumptions-what-wethought-we-knew-about-early-child-development

[iv] Cameron, Judy. “The Core Story of Brain Development.” Calgary, 2012, Palix Foundation. Retrieved from: https://www.albertafamilywellness.org/resources/video/the-core-story-of-brain-development

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