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PARENTS CORNER • Last updated April 15, 2017

A Parent’s Guide to Early Brain Development

By Debbie Sharp, Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service

Have you ever looked at a baby and wondered what he was thinking? New technologies, including powerful brain scans, enable scientists to form a much clearer picture of the brain’s inner workings. According to the newest brain research, babies’ brains begin crackling with activity before they’re even born.

Parents affect brain development

The brain is made up of cells. Before birth, a baby’s brain cells multiply at an astonishing rate. Connections or synapses between the cells form as the baby experiences her surroundings. This network of neurons and synapses controls various functions, such as seeing, hearing, and moving. By the age of three, a child’s brain has twice as many synapses as an adult brain. If a child’s brain is not stimulated from birth, these synapses don’t develop, impairing the child’s ability to learn and grow.

Babies experience the way you look into their eyes. They see the expressions on your face. They hear you cooing, singing, talking and reading. They feel you holding and rocking. Babies take in familiar smells. They often experience the taste of your skin as well as their own. Touch is important: holding and stroking an infant stimulates the brain to release important hormones that allow him to grow. Your love for your child is between the two of you. It is the expression of your love that affects the way his brain forms connections.

How brains form connections

Brains cells are perfectly designed for making connections. Each cell sends signals to other brains cells and receives input from other cells. The signals, in the form of electrical impulses, travel down the length of the nerve cell. With the help of special chemicals they travel from cell to cell, creating connections. Repeated activation of neuron networks strengthens the connections.

These connections are miracles of the human body. A single cell can connect with as many as 15,000 other cells. The complex network of connections that results often is referred to as the brain’s ‘wiring’ or ‘circuitry’. Experience shapes the way circuits are made in the brain.

From birth, the brain is rapidly making these connections. A baby’s brain is super-dense and will stay that way throughout the first 10 years of life. Beginning at about age 11, a child’s brain gets rid of extra connections, gradually making order out of a thick tangle of ‘wires’. The resulting circuitry is more powerful and efficient.

The brain knows which connections to keep

When a connection is used repeatedly in the early years, it becomes permanent. A connection that is not used at all, or often enough, is unlikely to survive. A child who is rarely spoken to or read to in the first three years may later have difficulty mastering language skills. A child who is rarely played with may have difficulty with social adjustment.

Does is matter when connections are formed?

Complex construction processes cannot happen all at once. Different parts of the job get top priority at different times. This also applies to brain development. During certain days in early pregnancy, the cells that will make up the cortex, which is the part of the brain that allows thinking, must travel to exactly the right place at the right time. This is an important time for brain development. It is always risky for an expectant mother to take drugs or be exposed to radiation. During this critical time for brain development, it is especially dangerous. If cells get sidetracked in their journey up the cortex wall, the baby’s brain development may be jeopardized.

My relationship with my child

Here are ten basic parenting practices that will help ensure a child’s healthy brain development:
1. Be warm, loving and responsive.
2. Respond to the child’s cues and clues.
3. Talk, read and sing to your child.
4. Establish routines and rituals.
5. Encourage safe exploration and play.
6. Be selective about TV programs your child will watch.
7. Use discipline as an opportunity to teach.
8. Choose quality childcare and stay involved.
9. Recognize that each child is unique.
10. Take care of yourself.

Ensuring my child’s healthy development while I am at work

Brain development occurs when you are with your child and during the times when you are away. This is why high quality childcare is so important. The person responsible for taking care of your child while you’re at work is helping to shape the experiences which allow the brain to develop. Every important caregiver is a potential source of love and learning, comfort and stimulation. Children need experiences with important caregivers that are sensitive to their emotional and physical needs. By providing consistent and responsive care giving, you can ensure that your child will have the best opportunity for healthy emotional and social development.

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Last modified: April 15, 2017