How You Can Help Your Baby Build a Better Brain

Microscopic view of neurons and synapses

The brain of a newborn baby is basically a disorganized bundle of nerves. One of the few organs not fully developed at birth, the newborn brain can only control the most primitive functions: those that keep the heart beating, the lungs taking in air and the sucking reflex, which allows the baby to feed. Other than that, it literally doesn’t know what to do. Over the next 2,000 days – 5½ years – it will learn.

The newborn brain contains more than 100 billion brain cells. But in the beginning, the cells are detached and cannot communicate with each other. Immediately after birth, connections begin to form between the neurons at the incredible rate of over 1 million per second. These connections, called synapses – tiny gaps across which nerve cells can send impulses or messages – are formed with every interaction and every sensation the baby experiences.

Research has shown that these new connections are selectively refined during the first 2,000 days of life, primarily through the baby’s experiences with his or her parents and environment. They can be strengthened by high-quality learning experiences and a warm, nurturing and interactive environment. Or they can be weakened by negative experiences such as hunger, stress, isolation and neglect.

These experiences determine which connections get used more and therefore, strengthened. Those that are used less weaken and fade. The resulting brain structure is the foundation upon which all future learning, behavior and health will depend. And by the time a child starts kindergarten, this foundation is 90 percent complete.

Building a Better Brain

Although the specific needs of the young child will vary based on their age, nurturing relationships and enriched physical surroundings are essential to healthy brain development.

Many studies have shown that children raised in such an environment have better learning and memory skills; are more imaginative, curious and willing to explore their world; and, are less fearful of new situations. They are more likely to do well in school and have the social and emotional skills they need to succeed in life.

How to Create Strong Synapses at Every Stage

For newborn babies, every sensation is a new sensation. They are incredibly sensitive to hunger, temperature, light and pain, all of which can cause them physical and emotional stress. Removing the stressor and soothing a baby when they cry will help them regulate these new sensations through the formation of strong, new synapses.

“When those emotional needs are not met, the persistent stress can negatively affect brain development and can actually alter the immune system” says Andrew Hertz, MD, Vice President of the Rainbow Primary Care Institute.

Immune cells can “remember” experiences of neglect and can leave the child more prone to illness throughout their lifetime.

The neural connections related to certain skills like language, vision and higher cognitive ability, develop at different times in the first 2,000 days. However, several common-sense principles can help ensure a child’s brain develops to its full potential. These include:

  • Establish strong bonds through close trusting relationships.
  • Provide varied social interactions at all ages.
  • Provide age appropriate toys and activities to promote coordination, creativity and problem-solving skills.
  • Make reading to your child a daily habit, even as early as a few weeks of age. Use lots of new words to build vocabulary.
  • Limit screen time. Watching television is a passive activity that doesn’t build brain connections.
  • Set aside time to actively play with your child. Regular physical activity is fun and healthy.

UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital has an extensive network of pediatric practices located throughout Northeast Ohio. Getting regular check-ups with a trusted pediatrician is one of the most important things you can do to help your child grow strong and healthy in both mind and body.

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