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Your Baby's Brain Development Through Age 1

Katlyn Joy | 5, November 2014


Babies are more than just a cute face; they have a lot going on in those adorable heads than you may know. From the time of conception until baby blows out that first candle on the birthday cake, so much has occurred and is continuing to happen in those amazing brains.

How it All Begins

According to Zero to Three: The National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families, the origin of the brain begins with the development of the neural plate. This starts on about the 16th day after conception. The neural plate lengthens, folds up and fuses into a neural tube by day 22. By day 27, the neural tube is closed the actual brain and spinal cord begin their development. The brain starts operating in the fifth week with the development of the synapses, and the next week, the brain allows for the first movements of the fetus, arches and curls of the body. At 8 weeks, those movements will now include limbs, and by 10 weeks, fingers and perhaps even more coordinated movements like hiccups, swallowing, sucking, grasping, stretching, and yawning.

By the end of the second trimester, the brainstem operates reflexes and important functions such as continuous breathing, coordinated swallowing and sucking, blood pressure and heart rate. This is why a baby born at this time is capable of survival.

The last part of the brain to mature and develop is the cerebral cortex, which controls voluntary actions, thinking, remembering, feeling and conscious experience.

The Brain at Birth

When a baby is born, the brain is only a bit more than a quarter of its adult size. The brain will have most of the neurons a person will get for a lifetime; about 100 billion of them. However, the connections of those neurons to one another requires synapses. At birth the number of synapses for each neuron is 2500, but by age 2 or so it will be a remarkable 15,000 per neuron. Few synapses are developed at birth, and of those, they are primarily in the lower part of the brain. This is the area controlling basic functions such as crying, sleeping, breathing, eating and heart rate.

Experience changes a brain. Brain development is "activity dependent," or as neuroscientists say, "Cells that fire together, wire together." Areas of the brain that are used frequently are more developed while unused areas will be eliminated, a process called pruning. This pruning streamlines the process of neurons firing, so it's a healthy thing overall that enables a child to walk and talk, for example.

What Influences Brain Development

Genetics do matter. For instance, the basic number of brain cells and their initial arrangement are determined by heredity. However, how the brain develops through experience and the connections between neurons are developed will change those patterns.

Many things affect brain development. Before birth, things such as good nutrition are vital. But just as important as healthy eating by mother, is protecting the brain from negative factors such as drug exposure, cigarette smoke, alcohol, toxic materials and infection.

How to Encourage Your Baby's Brain Development

Zero to Three recommends two general ways to help baby's brain development. The first is a happy, nurturing and responsive environment. The second is to read to baby, as well as talk and listen to baby every day.

You don't need to buy expensive computer programs, hire a trilingual nanny or invest in super-vitamins to help baby grow. Here are some tips from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension:

  • Keep your baby healthy and safe.
  • Love your baby. Show affection and give attention.
  • Respond to your baby's cues. If your baby shows a desire to play, play with him/her. If your baby wants to be cuddled, cuddle baby.
  • Recognize that your baby is an individual and will develop at his or her own pace.
  • Talk, read and sing to your baby. Doesn't matter what you read, can be a newspaper, doesn't matter is you can sing a note in tune, and doesn't matter what you talk about. Just keep the flow going.
  • Maintain an environment that makes exploring, and therefore, learning, safe.
  • Establish routines and discipline early. This is not punishment, but rather a set of expectations and limits.
  • Stay on top of school and daycare, and limit the exposure to TV.
  • Take care of yourself, as well. Modeling good health and a good technique for handling stress helps baby learn the same.

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