Building Baby's Brain: Parenting from Conception through Infancy

by Thomas R. Verny, M.D., and Pamela Weintraub

The news from the world-class laboratories at Yale, Princeton, Rockefeller and elsewhere is breathtaking in scope. Starting from the moment of conception, a child's brain is wired by his or her environment, which includes the thoughts, attitudes, and behavior of his or her parents.

Interaction with the environment is not merely one aspect of brain development, as had previously been thought. In fact, it is an absolute requirement, built into the process from our earliest days in the womb.

The notion that genes determine almost everything is incorrect. Every one of a child's early experiences, whether biological or psychological, will literally shape the child's brain. This stunning conclusion places new responsibilities on parents, but it also gives them an extraordinary new opportunity to influence their child's development for the better.

"From the journey down the birth canal to afternoons at the park, a child will register every experience in the circuitry of his or her brain. Whenever a mother strokes her baby, whenever a father plays with his daughter or son, those physiological acts will be instantly converted to neurohormonal processes that transform the body and wire the brain of the child.

Every time a child is traumatized or abused, the integrity of the circuitry is threatened; if the trauma is powerful enough, the architecture of the brain will be permanently damaged.

Everything the pregnant mother feels and thinks is communicated through neurohormones to her unborn child, just as surely as are alcohol and nicotine. Just as a computer virus gradually corrupts the software of any system it infects, so, too, maternal anxiety, depression or stress alters intelligence and personality by gradually rewiring the brain." [Tomorrow's Baby, p. 10]

Moreover, the new brain science proves that human emotion and the sense of self originate not in the first year after birth, as was commonly believed in the past, but significantly earlier in the womb.

When this concept was first suggested two decades ago, many scientists were skeptical. Yet over the past ten years, dozens of lines of evidence have validated Dr. Verny's original ideas: that pregnant women and unborn children can sense each other's thoughts and feelings; that it makes a difference whether we are conceived in love, haste, or hate, and whether a mother wants to be pregnant; that parents do better when they live in a calm and stable environment, free of addiction and supported by family and friends.

Furthermore, based on some remarkable new techniques, neuroscientists have also charted the biology of bonding and attachment. When a mother gazes longingly into the eyes of her newborn child, the infant's body is primed with hormones for socialization and empathy and his brain is programmed with the capacity to love.

Throughout the early years of life, the baby's brain is continuously tuned by its caregiver's brain to produce the correct neurotransmitters and hormones in the appropriate sequence. This tuning determines, to a large degree, the brain architecture the individual will have throughout life. If the tuning is appropriate, the child will be wired for health. But an incomplete or inappropriate tuning process may damage the neural networks of the prefrontal cortex, the seat of our most advanced human functions, producing an enduring vulnerability to psychological problems.

A New Paradigm for Parenting

The latest findings about the development of a child from the womb through the first few years -- still largely unknown to the general public and even most experts -- reveal how to transform the art of parenting. From this information, Dr. Verny provides a detailed plan for action at each stage of development, highlights of which include:

Pregnancy

•Emotional disturbances in the mother lead to increased production of stress hormones, which damage the baby's future ability to deal with stress. Surround yourself with people who will nurture, protect, and love you, so you can focus on loving your baby.
•Avoid fancy electronic devices or loud music to stimulate your unborn child. He needs peace, just like you.
•Don't attempt to teach the child anything before birth. It is enough if you communicate through touch, voice, and attitude that both of you love her and look forward to welcoming her into your family.

Labor and delivery

•Parents should, if possible, find a birth setting that is womb-like -- a warm, quiet, calm, and comfortable environment where mother and baby can relax and bond.
•Avoid unnecessary medical interventions as much as possible during pregnancy and labor, such as an ultrasound every week just to see the baby.

After birth

•Look for your baby's engagement and disengagement cues and make sure you respond in kind.
•If your baby has been exposed to stress or pain, hold, cuddle, and stroke him frequently. Massage, pediatric chiropractic adjustments, and soothing music will also help.

Adoption

•Adoptive parents must empathize with and tune in to the adopted infant's special state of shock and bewilderment, especially when she first arrives.
•The adoptee must be told, at an appropriate time but definitely before the age of five, that she is adopted.

Managing the day care experience

•At the absolute minimum, three to six months of direct parental care is necessary in the period after birth. This is the mandatory period anyone needs to develop parenting skills, to bond with the baby, and to influence the infant brain as only a parent can.
•Full-day childcare places the youngest children at risk for problems with attachment, signaled by withdrawal on the one hand and indiscriminate sociability on the other. Also, children exposed to too many caretakers are likelier to end up uncertain of their place in the world, and emotionally insecure.

The first few years

•The so-called quality time that working parents set aside for their children can do more harm than good. A couple of hours of intense stimulation can be damaging, but more natural rhythms set a pattern that will enhance the parent-child relationship and correctly wire the brain.
•Rational, reasoned explanations of why certain behaviors are or are not desirable should be delivered in a forceful, feeling way. The parent's message has to carry an emotional charge to have a lasting effect.

Overturning Outdated Concepts of Development

The new findings about prenatal and postnatal development emerge against erroneous concepts that have led us astray for years. For instance, the new brain science has mounted a staggering assault on the notion that learning is more or less constant through the first three years of life.

Instead, brain scans tell us, learning is actually explosive, occurring as different regions of the brain fire up, on schedule, for the acquisition of specific skills, from language to music to math. Teach something to your child when the learning window for that skill is open, and he or she will learn it well. Miss it, and the skill will be hard if not impossible to acquire later.

No longer can we invoke abstract developmental tables suggested by the likes of Freud and Piaget, who attributed scant perception or cognition to the child under three. No longer can we point to Darwin's theory of evolution as proof that humans are mindless automatons driven by their genes to mercilessly propagate the species and survive.

The social nature of brain building means this can't be so. And no longer can we view our children through the lens of economics -- asking how exposure to poverty or crime will affect their lives -- unless we factor in the more important elements of mothering and fathering, too.

In the past we knew that stimulation was good. But what kind is best, how much, and by whom? Does a mother's tone of voice make a difference, and what kind of music should a child be exposed to in the womb? When and how can parents sculpt the growing brain for something as seemingly elusive as basic goodness? When is it too late? Where do depression and violence start, and can parents extinguish the predispositions to these traits before they become self-fulfilling for life?

Until recently, we could answer these kinds of fundamental questions about infancy and early childhood development only intuitively. Today, parents can follow a road map based on definitive studies illuminating the complex web of influences essential for building a brain.

In Tomorrow's Baby, Dr. Thomas Verny reveals the truths about prenatal and early childhood development gleaned from cutting-edge science, while exposing the inadequacies of old ideas. As we now know, we can no longer separate the mind from the body, or nature from nurture. Even more important, Dr. Verny outlines how our new knowledge will change the way we parent and teach the young. He offers scientifically sound recommendations for optimizing an infant's potential in the areas of language, intelligence, and social skills, and for raising bright, healthy, and loving children.

Excerpted from Tomorrow's Baby: The Art and Science of Parenting from Conception through Infancy

Thomas R. Verny, M.D., D. Psych., FRCPC is the author of six books, including Tomorrow's Baby and thirty-five papers and articles. In 1998, he collaborated with Sandra Collier to create Love Chords, a compilation of classical music for pregnancy published by The Children's Group of Pickering, Ontario, Canada. Dr. Verny has lectured and given workshops on prenatal and perinatal psychology throughout the world. He has also discussed his research on many major radio and television programs, as well as in newspaper and magazine interviews. He lives in Toronto, Canada with his wife.

All content copyrighted © Thomas Verny. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.