What is going on inside this beautiful baby’s little head? Can you believe that there was a time when babies were thought to be inert and non-responsive? There was also an assumption that by a fairly early age, the brain was fixed and there wasn’t much that could change or grow after that. Whether good or bad, a child’s foundation was thought to be set in stone for life.
These thoughts are a sharp contrast to what we know now! It is clear that even in the first few weeks of life, a tiny human has amazing capacities! They can:
- Recognize and show a preference for a human face
- Recognize their mother’s face at one day of age.
- Initiate a parent’s facial expressions and behaviors.
- Distinguish both by hearing and, amazingly by watching, a preference for their own native language.
- Recognize their mother’s breast-milk just by smell.
- They are particularly attuned to looking into somebody’s eyes.
- Within two months they have learned that they need to scan between the eyes and the mouth to figure out what that person means, or is thinking, or is doing.
- If you give a new baby a sweet taste, you will see that they express pleasure and water will generate a neutral expression. But a bitter taste will cause them to purse their lips, and stick out their tongue as though to say, “Yuk.” [i]
Babies are certainly very present and alert!
Back to the brain in general: W. Thomas Boyce gives a great summary of the brain in this short quote:
The brain is an extraordinary organ, which contains 100 billion cells, equal, by the way, to the number of stars in the galaxy in which we reside. Each of these neurons has approximately 10,000 synapses, points of connections between them and another neuron.[ii]
Do you ever wonder how much a baby’s brain works? Here is an amazing piece of information for you as a parent:
A young brain, up to three years of age processes
1 MILLION new synaptic connections per SECOND [iii]!
That gives a whole new bundle of insight into a baby’s and young child’s brain!
It can be so helpful to have a basic understanding of your baby’s or young child’s brain and because it is so important, I’d like to share three things with you:
- Brain Architecture,
- Three Types of Stress, and something called
- Serve & Return.
Today, I will talk about Brain Architecture and I’ll cover Three Types of Stress and Serve & Return in the next two blog posts.
People studying the brain and how it develops, especially in the realm of very young brains, found that architecture – that being the design and construction of a building – was a good reference to help to explain the structural development of a brain.
Let’s say that you are building a house, and early in the process while you are working on the foundation or framing, you realize that you don’t have the right material, or the right material is not available, but you have a timeline to stick to so, you have work with what you have.
This can lead to a compromised or weakened foundation and that can affect the strength and stability of all the construction and development that follows.
Now consider an infant’s brain. This little one can’t wait for all the right things to fall into place for optimal development. Today’s experiences are all they have to work with, no matter what the day holds.
Just as a house needs a sturdy foundation to support the walls and roof, a brain needs a good base to support all future development.
If a child’s life includes a lot of negative experiences such as abuse or neglect, and if no caregiver is there to provide support, a sturdy brain foundation may never develop. We now know is that this can lead to lifelong learning difficulties such as addiction and mental illness, and serious health problems even decades later.
This means that early years matter:
This is a time when a young child has a very high level of responsiveness to their environment. Do you remember the million connections per second? Those connections represent an indiscriminate gathering of information, which really means that it takes in anything and everything. Why does the brain gather so much information? Charles Nelson from Harvard University suggests that it is to “capture experience” – all of it: the good, the bad, and everything in between.[iv]
Its easy to hear this and get worried!
But don’t panic if your child’s life is not perfect!
No one’s life is perfect! And around age three, the brain starts to prune away connections that are less used. We’ll talk about that in a minute, but first let’s summarize the architectural building.
Here is a summary of what’s going on in the brain:
- During this important period of brain development, billions of brain cells called neurons send electrical signals to communicate with each other.
- These connections form circuits that become the basic foundations of brain architecture.
- Simple circuits form first, providing a foundation for more complex circuits to build on later.
- Through this process, neurons form strong circuits and connections for emotions, motor skills, behavioral control, logic, language, and memory during the early critical period of development.
- With repeated use, these circuits become more efficient in themselves and with connecting to other areas of the brain more rapidly.
- Circuits and connections form very quickly, and they are reinforced through repeated use (this is super-important to remember!).
- Connections that are used more grow stronger and more permanent, while connections that are used less fade away through a normal process called pruning. Again, we’ll talk about that in a minute.
- Well used circuits create lightning fast pathways for neural signals to travel across regions of the brain, and then they are coated with something called myelin – a substance that coats, protects and strengthens the connections allowing them to work even faster!
And then comes the pruning that we just mentioned!
This part is really cool! Remember the indiscriminate gathering of information – picking up anything and everything, good, bad, and everything in between? Around age three, the brain starts to prune away connections that are not used.
Earlier I said, “DON’T PANIC” and here is why:
If your little one has a pretty good life, those good connections are the ones that will be kept and made stronger and the others connections from experiences that you wish hadn’t happened will be pruned away if they don’t get much use.
I like to think of these early years as a period of grace for the parents while they practice being consistent with they way they really want to parent.
Here is another reason to not panic if your child’s life has some stress:
Life is not perfect! As parents we are responsible to give our best. But this is important:
We are not responsible to be perfect. Perfect isn’t even possible!
We are responsible to:
- give the best that we know how,
- to make the best of things that go wrong, and
- overall, to find ways to show our children that we love them, and that we are in their court, standing with them, no matter what it is or how little or big they are.
If you would like too see a short video about Brain Architecture, copy and paste this link. https://www.albertafamilywellness.org/resources/video/brain-story-concepts-brain-architecture. It is two and a half minutes long (and you will also see where I get a lot of my info from!)
Next time, in Part Two of Your Baby’s Brain we will talk about three different kinds of stress that can happen in anyone’s life, how it impacts your child, and how you can turn it around and make it work for your child’s good.
This is really important information for parents and I would love it if you would share this on your social media connections!
[i]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
[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
[iv] Nelson, Chuck. “Embryonic & Neural Development: Setting the Stage for the Lifespan.” Calgary, 2010, Palix Foundation. Retrieved from: https://www.albertafamilywellness.org/resources/results?searchterm=nelson&type_filter=Video
*Please contact me if you would like more citations. Most of my information is from The Brain Story, a body of knowledge which represents a large group of professionals that study and advocate for best mental health practices for people of all ages, but it always starts in childhood. The Brain Story is a program that is offered free of charge. I would be happy to speak with you if you would like to hear more about it!