Tuning into Your Baby's Brain

by Teresa J. Mitchell

Baby's BrainAt birth, your baby's brain contains about 100 billion neurons and during these first years, your child grows trillions of brain-cell connections, called synapses. It grows so fast that it reaches 60 percent of its adult size by the time your tot attacks that first birthday cake.

The brain has one rule for wiring -- use it or lose it. Synapses that aren't wired together by stimulation get pruned and lost in time. Let's take a look at your newborn baby's brain and see how experiences can help your child acquire rich language, reasoning and planning skills.

Baby's Sense of Vision

If you cup your hand on the back of your head, it covers the part of the brain that deals with vision. Your newborns vision is the least developed sense. A newborn can track and follow movements best at about 9 to 12 inches. Hold your baby about this far from your face when you're chatting. In just a few weeks you'll notice that your baby responds to exaggerated expressions and silly faces, like raising your eyebrows.

Babies need a break. Encourage your baby to follow an object as you move it slowing back and forth. Your tiny one might look away or become fussy, "saying" that it's time for a break. Listen to the baby's cue and be quiet for a minute.

At around a month old, babies can get "visually stuck" and cry because they can't stop staring at an object. Soon they'll learn to turn away and look at something different.

Baby's Sense of Hearing

The hearing section of the brain is located right above the ear. Your new baby can hear well, and comes hardwired to recognize the sounds of human speech. Your baby not only hears you talk, but turns in the direction of your voice.

Talking with your baby, even if you don't think they understand your words helps the brain develop connections to fine tune and understand language.

Communicating with your baby. Talk with your baby when you change a diaper or it's feeding time. Have you noticed how you naturally change your voice when you're talking with a young child? Baby talk -- high pitched voice and exaggerated, drawn out sounds -- help babies learn language.

Pretend you're carrying on a conversation with your baby and take turns talking. Leave a pause for baby's reply. Soon coos will fill those blank pauses. Your baby might look away to indicate it's time for a break. Stop for now and continue your visit when the baby looks back.

Baby's Sense of Touch

Touch is detected in the middle of the brain. Your baby's sense of touch is well developed at birth. It was the first sense to begin developing in the womb. Newborns are especially sensitive to touch around the mouth, palms and bottoms of their feet.

Hold and cuddle your baby. Your precious bundle might prefer hugs, rocking or gentle strokes or might simply enjoy being held gently against you in a sling.

Holding a newborn likely affects brain development. Your baby feels warmth, pressure and motion. All those actions provide sensory nourishment for the brain.

Why Do Babies Cry?

The section of the brain that initiates crying is located at the top front portion. Your baby cries to communicate feelings and needs. Hunger, a wet diaper or even a bright light can trigger crying.

Crying often follows a pattern. Babies tend to get fussier in the afternoon and evening. Crying increases between 6 and 12 weeks and then begins to decrease after that. If your baby is still crying non-stop, that could be a sign of colic.

Your response to crying builds baby's brain. For the first few months, crying seems to be your baby's quickest way to get your attention. Back and forth interactions -- holding, snuggling, taking and singing -- help the baby brain develop. We don't know exactly what the brain is learning, but research seems to indicate that kids grow up more secure and competent when their parents responded to their cries with loving attention.

What's Happening When Feeding Baby

An arc shaped area in the top middle of the brain deals with feeding. Breastfeeding is a brain booster, according to John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist and author of "Brain Rules for Babies." He calls breast milk the nutritional equivalent of a magic bullet for a developing baby. He says that although the topic is much debated, there's little controversy about it in the scientific community.

What you can do: Whether your baby breastfeeds or not, you can help your baby's brain develop with certain routines.

  • Hold your baby in your arms. The physical contact helps create a warm, loving and secure environment.
  • Alternate which arm you use to hold your baby.
  • Gently stroke your baby's cheek to get them to turn toward the nipple or bottle.
  • Take your time with feeding. Visit with your baby and enjoy stroking, talking or singing.
  • Pay attention to your baby's cues. If a baby pulls away, they might not be hungry or might need to burp.

Does your newborn seem to love and respond to something you say or do? What do you think helps your wee one grow a better brain?