A baby's arrival is welcomed with excitement and apprehension. We prepare for it by buying tiny clothes, a mountain of nappies, furniture to fill an entire room and the boot of our cars — and this is just the beginning. Between antenatal classes and parenting books, no wonder there isn't any time left for extra information.
Neuroscientists, with the aid of brain-imaging tools, can study the changes that take place in the human brain when we think, read or learn. Their findings shine a new light on how the human brain actually works and how parents can help enhance their children's educational experiences and life achievements.
Baby Brain Fact #1: First Three Month Of Life Are Crucial For The Baby's Brain
The brain of a newborn baby birthed at full term is only a quarter of the total size of an adult brain. Therefore specialists consider the first three months of life as the fourth trimester of pregnancy. It is during these first three months of the newborn's life that his brain develops enough for the baby to become mature enough to adapt to his surroundings and to begin to socialise.
When infants are born before full term
Inductions were regarded as highly fashionable between the Eighties and until the end of the 20th century. As soon as a pregnancy reached its 37th week (with 40 weeks being full term), it was considered "close enough" and inductions and C-sections were being scheduled. It was the increased number of babies in the neonatal intensive care unit (ICU) that made obstetricians reconsider the meaning of "term pregnancy".
Researchers noted that the brains of the infants born at 37 weeks were 5 percent smaller than the average. By the third months of life, the difference between the preterm babies and the full-term babies became smaller, but the preterm babies hadn't fully caught up — their brain size remaining "2 percent smaller than the average" a neurology study showed.
Image above: The brain scan on the left is taken from a newborn, and the one on the right is taken 90 days later. Credit: Dominic Holland et al., University of California, San Diego School of Medicine
Baby Brain Fact #2: Talking To A Baby Stimulates Its Brain
Talking to babies and even reading to them helps boost their brain power, researchers say, and the differences begin to show as early as two years of age. Chatting with infants helps them pick up the rhythm and the rules of language, and repetition helps them learn vocabulary.
The same principles apply to using facial expressions to communicate with an infant, as this will help them decipher and understand human emotions. At such a young age the prefrontal cortex (implicated in behaviour and personality expression) is not fully developed, so the fear of "spoiling" an infant by giving them too much attention is unjustified.
Baby Brain Fact #3: The Brain Develops During Our Entire Life
The first birthday is an important milestone for the toddler's brain as well, as it would have reached 60 percent of its adult size. The circumference of the human head will reach 90 percent of its adult size by the age of six, yet the brain will only be fully matured at the age of 25.
Neuroscientists have discovered that the human brain continues to develop — forming new neural pathways and pruning old, weak ones throughout our lives. Also, due to the brain's plasticity, if an area of the human brain is lost the remaining brain area will, in time, develop to compensate for the missing sector.
Our genetic package provides the basic blueprint for brain development, but the stimulation an infant and child experiences provide the foundation for future learning.
Baby Brain Fact #4: Lantern vs Flashlight Awareness
Although a baby's brain has many more neural connections compared to the adult brain, to protect them in a harsh world their brain has less inhibitory neurotransmitters.
As a result, they perceive the main picture, but focus less on details, just like a lantern that illuminates the entire room in a diffuse way. By comparison, the adult brain will focus on details, very much like a flashlight that focuses its light on specific details.
Baby Brain Fact #5: DVDs Out, Experiences In
From birth, babies respond to some stimuli and ignore others. DVDs, flashcards — these leave baby unresponsive. What babies love is human interaction, and later on, first-hand experiences.
Keep in mind that babies get bored quickly, as they have a short attention span, so parents need to vary the games. Also, too much stimulation will soon tire the baby.
Interesting to notice is that babies don't hear as well as we do, which explains why crying is not bothering them!
Also, babies can't distinguish voices from background noise as well as adults do — so if you want your infant to pay attention to you, it is advised to switch off the TV.
And music? Yes, babies do love music, but this should be approached as an activity, limited by time and cued to baby's attention span.
* The information in this article is NOT intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified healthcare professional and is not intended as medical advice.