Make the connections
Ever wanted to know what's going on in your baby's head?
Miriam McCaleb reports on the latest findings in brain development
that could have major implications for how you raise your
I've got some shocking news about your baby.
Her brain is more active than yours. Your habits are likely to
affect her for a lifetime. And she needs your love and nurturing
way more than she needs clothes, toys or a learn-to-read programme.
When we think about early brain development, or even our own brain
function, people often think about school success, high test scores
or university scholarships. We hear "brain" and we think
A more helpful framework for thinking
about brain development is to acknowledge that the brain controls
our everything. Yes, our ability to do well at school, but also our
ability to return a serve in tennis, to sing in tune or to make
friends - it's our brain that enables us to read and respond to the
facial cues of other people. Our brain decides whether to marry
that guy, to overtake that car, to have that extra glass of wine.
It is our brain that remembers the punch lines to jokes, puts the
dishes away without breaking anything and keeps us calm (or
not) when we get up to our teething baby for the third time
in a night. So when we think about brain development, we are
thinking about the whole of a person - the three-dimensional,
marvellous mess of humanity.
What's more, we know that our cognitive
ability - that is, our ability to think logically, to do well in
exams - largely rests upon our social and emotional development.
And all this depends on the sort of nurturing we have received
early in our life story.
How do we know all this? Well, during the
1990s brain-imaging technologies evolved so we could peer inside
the skulls of living beings. A US presidential proclamation
declared the '90s "the decade of the brain". We learned more about
brain function and development in those few years than we had
learned in the previous few centuries. Now we know that the human
brain develops in a unique way, unlike any of our other organs. It
is not fully formed at birth, like its compatriots the heart or
liver, but instead does most of its growing in the early years of a
At birth, a baby's brain weighs around 350g. By her first
birthday, that has doubled. By the time she heads off to school,
her brain will weigh 90% of its eventual adult weight. And because
humans are inherently social, the brain development is happening in
the context of relationships. University of Canterbury lecturer and
Brainwave Trustee Nathan Mikaere-Wallis says, "You could think of
our brains as social organs. It's been described as love becoming
During infancy and toddlerhood, our
brains are a hive of electrical energy. When an infant has an
experience for the first time, it causes an electrical spark inside
a brain cell (neuron), commanding the neuron to connect with
another neuron. At birth our brains have completed about 15% of
these connections, with the earliest years' experiences sparking
the creation of the other 85%.
The experience may be, "being cradled
lovingly in Dad's arms and watching his eyes crinkle when he smiles
at me". The learning here might be something as simple yet profound
as "there are people who care about me" or "it feels good to give
and receive love".
The next time the infant has that same
experience, the electrical current passes more easily between those
cells because there is an existing pathway (synapse, or synaptic
Neurons that fire together...
When we practise something many times the cells involved in that
learning formalise their synaptic connections by wrapping them
securely in a fatty substance known as myelin. Once a synapse is
fully myelinated, the electrical currents involved in the learning
can travel 250 times faster, as on auto-pilot. Or, as they say,
"neurons that fire together, wire together".
You might recognise the feeling. Remember
learning to drive? When you first had your learner's licence it was
probably an exercise in concentration to avoid bunny-hopping as you
deliberately thought, "Clutch in, over and up to first gear, clutch
slowly off now and accelerate gently ... sweet ... OK, second
gear..." These days, you can probably change gears without really
thinking about it. The difference is in the myelin. Myelin supports
those synapses because your brain recognised that this was an
experience you'd repeated enough to expect that you would be
repeating it again in the future.
So we would want to be equally deliberate
about the sort of experiences that our babies have early in their
lives. Are the hands that hold baby gentle or rough? Are the voices
patient or harsh? Are the faces surrounding baby warm or angry? Is
baby responded to or ignored?
In these early relationships and
experiences, we are setting children's auto-pilots. Consider this:
we're born with more neurons than we need: between 100 and 200
billion at birth. All of us naturally lose about 40% of the brain
cells we're born with when we're around age three. Which do we
keep? We will keep the neurons that we use most often. We will keep
the cells that are involved in well-myelinated pathways. So the
learning that happens in our earliest years has implications across
the lifespan. That is to say, we will hardwire the experiences that
we have most frequently early in our lives.
Imagine the networks of the brain are like a grapevine, and the
three-year-old loss of neurons like an approaching winter. The
process of pruning away the weaker connections (that is experiences
we've had less frequently) will strengthen the connections that
remain (the experiences we have often).
This is not to say that change is
impossible - we are always capable of forming new connections and
creating new habits of mind. But if we think of building a brain as
like building a house, it will be simplest and most cost-effective
to get the foundations right the first time. The same is true for
Remember, it's not as though your baby's
brain can differentiate between "good" experiences and "bad" ones.
Unfortunately, connections aren't myelinated according to a
criterion of "this will serve me well in the future, I'll keep it"
or "this is an unhelpful pattern of behaviour, I will prune this".
Instead, we keep the connections that are involved in the
experiences we have most often, whether that's an awareness of the
give-and-take of conversation (that's what mimicking those infant
coos is all about) or having experienced a world where violence and
intimidation are successful strategies for getting needs
When we consider the crucial role of
nurture for building healthy brains, it is interesting to do so
within the New Zealand context, where we parent our young in a
culture that has historically urged us to "harden up", a culture
that perhaps still prizes self-sufficiency and stoicism more than
warmth or weepiness.
The biological reality is that we cannot
get to healthy emotional control without passing through softness
and nurture. Think of our mighty rugby players keeping calm and
rational even amidst intense expectations and heightened stress
responses. Being able to do this requires a mastery of one's
biology that is best achieved by being sensitively cared for early
That ability to calm oneself down is known as
"self-regulation", and it's a field of human development that
has a lot of experts talking. The thoroughly unscientific way that
I describe self-regulation is the ability to get yourself back into
balance when you're out of whack. Out of whack might mean "I'm
hungry", it could be "I'm angry", even "I need to go to the
Self-regulation is what happens when we
have strategies to manage our own inevitable storm clouds of
disregulation (out-of-whack-ness). "I'm hungry - I've snacked, now
I'm better." Or it can be: "I'm angry - I'll breathe deeply, now
I'm better." Or even: "I need to poop! OK, I did that, now I'm
better." It takes humans decades to learn how to self-regulate, and
some of us haven't mastered it even as we approach our senior
years. So how do we learn this vital skill?
Renowned Canadian researcher, teacher and
philosopher Stuart Shanker summarises: "It's by being regulated
that the child develops the capacity to self-regulate at the
Being regulated - this is what the
fortunate children of attuned parents have happen to them over and
over on any given day. When we feed a hungry infant, when we soothe
an upset baby, or make him comfortable with a clean, dry nappy, we
not only foster healthy brain development, but we provide our
services as an external regulator. That is to say, we support them
to feel better whenever they are out of whack.
Over time, little by little, our children
gradually assume more and more responsibility for managing their
own regulation. They become self-regulated.
So contrary to what the "harden up" school of
parenting would have us believe, responding to a baby's cries is
not spoiling him, it's not (heaven forbid!) teaching him to be
soft. It is, in fact, supporting the biological processes that will
mean he can keep his head and kick the winning conversion in the
Rugby World Cup of 2031, for example. No pressure!
The essential trio
In order to be able to provide the sort of care that supports these
essential processes, parents are well served to consider the three
key concepts as identified by international relationship expert and
founder of the Centre For Attachment, Lauren Porter. She says that
what babies need most is: "Proximity, sensitivity and
To expand: proximity means we first need
to be near our babies - close enough to hear their cries and
observe their physicality.
Next, we need to be sensitive enough to
recognise what their vocalisation or body movements tell us. Is
this baby hungry? Tired? Uncomfortable? And the final point is key:
we must then be responsive. This means we take our cue from baby
and provide him with what he needs. Hungry baby? Feed him! Tired
baby? Time for a sleep!
When children are cared for in this way a
remarkable thing happens. These are the parenting behaviours that
support a secure attachment relationship, but they are the same
practices that will support baby's slowly emerging ability to
self-regulate, and foster optimal brain growth. It's like a three
for the price of one deal.
So whether our motivation is a settled
baby, a loving relationship or a future full of juicy brain power
and calm self-regulation, providing proximity, sensitivity and
responsiveness (as often as we are able!) is a strategy for
Ideas for being with
Here are a few suggestions of ways to interact with your baby to
help build those well-myelinated pathways:
Do what I do, say what I say: From the time baby
is just a day or two old, she will imitate your facial expressions.
Make a big wide mouth… and wait. Try poking out your tongue…
and wait. She'll copy you! Provide words for what you're doing:
"Baby, you made your hand pat your leg. Pat, pat, pat! I can do it
too! Pat, pat, pat." The rewards come in earnest from about six
weeks old, when baby learns to smile - copying you - and your
parental sun comes out!
Baby chat: By the time she's about 12 weeks old
she'll be cooing gently and will probably start to fll in the gaps
of conversation. So leave her lots of time and space to "reply"
when you talk to her. "Ata marie! Good morning darling!" (Wait!
Wait… wait some more…) "Did you have a lovely sleep?" (allow a big
enough pause and she'll vocalise). "You did? Great! Shall we open
the curtains?" (Wait… wait… be patient…)
Self talk: The number of words that are spoken
directly to children before they're three predicts things such as
IQ scores and school success. Self talk is the name theorists give
to our chat when we're describing what it is that we're doing. "OK,
I need to hang this load of washing. I'll fnd my basket and put all
the wet clothes in here…"
Parallel talk: This is when you're describing the
things that baby is doing: "You're having a big drink of milk, eh
love?" Or: "You are stretching your legs so far that you've moved
all the way off your blanket!" In this way, children come to
associate the things that they (or Dad or Mum) are doing with the
words and sounds that accompany them.
Reminiscing about the day: From the time baby is
small incorporate a daily reflection into the night-time
routine. "I had a lovely day with you today, baby! Let's
think about what we did. We fed the ducks, didn't we? And that
great big duck came so close to your stroller, remember? Poppa came
over for lunch, and he had his woolly hat on. I wonder
what adventures we will have tomorrow?" Not only does this habit
support all sorts of intricate processes involved in the recall of
experiences, it gives clues to the inner world of your toddler as
she gains language and shares her
Hold me close and rock me: Wrapping your baby
securely in loving arms is one of the best things you can do to
nurture the foundation of her brain development. If you haven't
experimented with babywearing (such as slings) give it a go.
Similarly, never underestimate the value of letting baby hang out
or sleep on your chest - skin to skin if it's warm enough. Your
comforting smell, your reassuring heartbeat - all of this has
profound benefits. Gentle rocking in Mum or Dad's arms also
provides a metronome of calm for baby. Neuroscientist Bruce Perry
says this is one of the key experiences in wiring a brain capable
of optimal growth.
Sing to me!: All over the world for
millennia, humans have sung to their offspring. There are many
reasons for doing so - it supports development of language, it
soothes agitation and it boosts learning-enhancing hormones in the
brain, such as endorphins. Nursery rhymes exist for good reason.
Kiwi Julie Wylie is an internationally recognised expert at
creating music that's perfect for children. I also recommend
artists such as Dan Zanes, Elizabeth Mitchell and the Baby Dub or
Putamayo world music collections for music that's as groovy as a
café soundtrack. Guess what else? Your baby will benefit from
anything that you sing! Make up songs, change the lyrics to any
song you like and turn it into anything you want! Don't be shy - if
you can talk, you can
* The Science of Parenting by Margot Sunderland
* Why Love Matters by Sue Gerhardt Parenting from the Inside
Out by Daniel Siegel
* Born for Love by Maia Szalavitz & Bruce Perry
* From Neurons to Neighbourhoods by Jack Shonkoff (ed)
Miriam McCaleb is a mother, a writer, a founding
member of the Brainwave Trust in the South Island, and the force
behind www.baby.geek.nz. She says, "The geek
shall inherit the earth." As a passionate believer in the power of
play to transform, teach and heal, she often enjoys hanging out at
the kids' table more than with the adults.
As seen in OHbaby!
magazine Issue 14: 2011
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