3 Ways you can actually see brain development happening

by | Jan 13, 2020 | Featured, Infant, Parenting

Recently I had the privilege of presenting a training to over 150 Head Start teachers in Houston. The topic was understanding autism and we covered lots of information about neurological development that happens in the first several years of life. One of the word pictures I like to use when talking about the newborn brain is that it’s like a warehouse full of boxes. Each box contains a top of the line, extremely powerful computer. In the box, still all wrapped up, it’s quiet and doing nothing. Once unwrapped, connected to others and loaded with the right tools and software, each computer is capable of doing and creating amazing things.  
 
Those computers can be compared to a newborn’s brain. Every baby is capable of doing and creating amazing things as they grow and develop. They simply need to have their needs met by a responsive, loving adult and a lots of rich, positive learning experiences, freedom to explore and time to develop at their own pace.

From the moment babies are born, their brains are equipped for intense growth. Well, actually before they’re born, inside the womb. From first opening their eyes to bright light, to the first cry, the first suck, the first snuggle with mom and dad, first finger grasp – every little thing that happens contributes to brain growth. 

The structures are there to create millions of connections which control and determine movement, speech, emotion, senses and intellect. The neural centers are in place but they are not yet connected to each other.  In the first year we literally can watch those connections happen as body movements go from jerky and haphazard to smooth, cries go from uncontrolled to controlled, sounds turn into communication and play emerges.

Here are three ways you can observe brain growth happening in your baby:

Reflexes.

The reflexes present at birth give us a window for observing neurological development. We all have reflexes like blinking, sneezing that stay with us throughout life. But many reflexes present at birth are there solely for survival and as the brain develops the reflexes drop off. Newborn reflexes that diminish in the first year of life include the rooting reflex, which happens when baby’s cheek or lower lip is stroked. They’ll automatically turn their head and begin to suck. Another is the grasp reflex. This is endearing to us because when we place our fingers in the palm of newborn’s hand they’ll instantly grasp it and hang on tight. This reflex disappears around 4 months when hand movements become more intentional.

Studying.

This is when you see your baby staring at something. Here’s what happening.  First, they perceive something that they’re uncertain about. As long as they don’t feel any threat, the heart rate lowers, breathing becomes steady, movement decreases and attention is focused. In this state of still staring, the prefrontal cortex is highly active, you are seeing neural complexity forming. You can see it in the picture here as Cadence studies the mobile.

 

One way you can support this is by trying not to interrupt the ’studying’ process. It’s fleeting so if your baby is staring at the fan or a fluttering paper, wait a few seconds and for her attention to turn to something else before speaking to or moving her.

Pointing.

Pointing is one way your baby will communicate with you before they are able to speak. And actually pointing indicates some pretty amazing neurological development! Research has shown that pointing at 12 months is a great predictor of later vocabulary size, which is a great predictor of academic success. What this means is that when your baby begins to point at something to tell you what they want or to let you know that they want to be picked up, they are well on their way in the process of receptive language development. They’ll begin to point to pictures as you read books to them.

Another indicator of brain growth is when your baby points to share something with you. For example, when you’re at a coffee shop and another baby comes in with their parent. Babies often tune in and notice each other. When you baby points at the other child, with a little sound to get your attention this tells us that she understands that you have a different perspective from their own and she wants to share something with you. The development of joint attention is a major cognitive leap that happens in the second year.

You can model pointing as you talk with your baby, especially when something interesting is going on that you’d like them to notice – like pointing to an airplane that’s flying overhead as you talk about what you see.

Bottom line is, like with every aspect of your child’s development, brain growth is nurtured when you are attuned to and responsive to your child. When you pay attention to what they are attending to, when you observe what they’re interested in and join their play, when you speak to them, respond to their gestures and vocalizations and genuinely enjoy their company.  That’s what’s gonna make that little brain burst with activity, make extra strong connections and explode with creativity.
You are exactly the parent your baby needs to grow and develop. You’ve got this parenting thing. We’re behind you! 😍

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We’re a mother-daughter duo sharing developmentally appropriate ideas for teaching little noggins and nurturing new parents.

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