The first 1000 days Part Two: Birth & Babyhood

This is the second in our series of four articles on the first 1000 days of life. Find PART ONE of The first 1000 days hereResearch has proven this a critical and unparalleled window of time, which has a lifelong influence on an individual’s growth, brain development and relationships. Here we focus on days 250-500 – birth and babyhood – and get the experts’ advice on how to best feed hungry minds, bodies and souls.
Giving birth is the most amazing thing your body will ever do. After nine months as the ultimate host, an anonymous nudge of a silent switch triggers contractions to roll in like waves. It’s a universal biological process – or a precise medical procedure – but it’s supremely personal in nature; a tiny new intricate being is channelled from his private safe-haven into this gulping great wide world.

Once born, you’re still his ultimate host, his protector, but at last you can survey his features - lay your eyes and fingers on your likeness as he nestles, for the very first time, into your arms.

You can’t reclaim these kinds of firsts: your baby’s raw senses flooded with the light of day, your consciousness engulfed by his very first cry, his first comfort found in unfiltered voices, and the wonder of skin-to-skin touch.

You can’t help but marvel. (How did his lungs instinctively breathe, his mouth somehow know how to suck?) And you can’t help but feel overwhelmed. At this point in time, his life stretches out before you like a desert highway, and his potential is profoundly unfathomable. No wonder you want to give him the best, and make every moment count.


Long fascinated with the wonder of infant brain development, Miriam McCaleb invites us to take up the challenge of empowering our babies with love and care.

It is sometimes said that early infancy is like a fourth trimester of pregnancy. Comparing our newborn babies – full-term babies – to brand new lambs, foals, or lion cubs, we find massive differences. And I’m not just talking about the fur.

We typically birth our babies after 40 weeks of gestation, when the heart, lungs and stomach are ready to make the transition from amniotic fluid to oxygen and milk. So when humans are born, most of our organs are good to go. For example, a baby’s heart is a miniature version of the adult heart – fully organised, already pumping blood and doing the work that it will continue to do throughout that person’s time on earth.

But our brains … ah, that is a different story. We are born with immature brains – which is actually just as well. Imagine trying to squeeze out a skull that is large enough to house a three-year-old brain. Yowzer! This pelvic limitation is believed to be one reason that we birth our babes while they’re still so very needy. It’s a head circumference issue. Babies’ brains have not finished growing when they are born.

The incomplete brain and associated neediness of our infants means that we can wire up brains that are exquisitely responsive to experience. Babies use their earliest relationships and their first 1000 days on the planet to gather as much data as they possibly can about the world. It’s as though a new baby is asking “What do I need to know in order to survive and thrive in this time and place?”.

Think for a moment about what that has meant for our species. People have been able to raise babies all over the place: in jungles and cities, on mountains and islands. Societies and civilisations exist all over the earth because humans are able to learn, communicate and adapt. What to eat, where to go, what (or who) to avoid. People have babies in peaceful idylls, and in the middle of wars. Babies are born into families in a whole range of circumstances, and those babies are figuring out how to fit in, from the time they’re in utero. 

Power to change
Those lambs, foals and lion cubs I alluded to earlier might get up and walk within minutes of birth, but they cannot adapt to their environments in the way that humans can. It’s not their fault!

They simply do not possess a brain as complex as ours. ‘Homo sapiens’ means ‘the wise ones’, and we have this name because of our giant, juicy, adaptable prefrontal cortex.

Remember, babies are wiring up their brains with every early experience. When we are born, we have about 15% of our brain cells (aka neurons) already connected. In a normal, scruffy, loving, good-enough family, the daily practices of living (smiling, caring, eating, talking, singing and playing – even disagreeing) will nurture the remaining 85% of connections into being. Quite literally. To borrow the words of Dr Lou Cozolino, a writer, professor and psychologist: “The brain is where love becomes flesh”.

The connections between neurons in the brain (aka synapses) are strengthened in a user-dependent kind of way. That is, the more times we have a particular experience, the more our brain wires itself to prepare for more of that sort of experience. Our brains eventually prune away the synapses that aren’t being used. As neuropsychologist Donald Hebb has famously written: “Neurons that fire together, wire together”. So it is not an exaggeration to say that the kindnesses experienced by your baby early in his life will contribute to the creation of a kinder adult, later in life.

That’s not the only miraculous aspect to a baby’s neurodevelopment, however. As well as wiring up connections all over the place, babies’ brains are concentrating on wiring in a hierarchical way. That is to say, we grow our brains from the bottom up. We grow (and use) our brains beginning with the more simple processes and then gradually add complexity.

A baby in the earliest months of her life is working hard to wire up her brain stem and diencephalon, sometimes known as the reptile brain. During this important phase, there really is no better place to be than safely nestled in the loving arms of a familiar caregiver. During these early days, babies need safety and calm as much as they need lullabies and milk.

Never underestimate how important you are: babies are born seeking relationship. One example: they prefer to look at human faces more than anything else. Also, we are born with just enough depth of vision to be able to make eye contact from the crook of our mother’s elbow during feeding. We have just the right vision to connect from breast to face. Amazing!

Another feature of life for our babies during this time is that they are sensing the world rather than thinking about it. Before language, even before emotion, there is our sensory experience. Neurobiologically, these lower regions of the brain are fulfilling an important function for your baby, providing her with important information about the world in which she lives.


Love and learning for life
Parents of new babes find themselves in partnership with tiny people who are simultaneously completely helpless, and actively pursuing relationships. These sweet babies are both utterly vulnerable, and absolutely worthy. In a world where advice is everywhere (and oft contradictory!), what should a new parent do?

1. Start by observing your baby. Really watch him – his face, his movements. Truly listen: what noises does he make at different times? Mothers who sit and stare at their beautiful babies are not wasting time. Gaze at your baby like it is your job. Because it is your job! Paying full, conscious attention is a deceptively simple and intensely powerful technique for increasing understanding. And without it, we can’t know what baby is telling us about his needs or wants. Let this observation be a touchstone in your relationship. Think of it as “home base”.

2. Aim for calm. We do well to avoid unnecessary activation of baby’s freeze, fight or flight responses. Startles or distress are best followed by soothing and comfort.

3. Stay in your pyjamas for at least a week. Of course, if you feel subhuman to be kickin’ it in your jimjams, then please, get dressed. But I fully support new mothers whose nonverbal cues tell any guests or visitors “we need our private time”. It can take a little time to get to know one another. So don’t apologise if you want to carve out that time for you and your baby.

4. Crying together is its own form of attunement. When my youngest daughter was an infant, I remember one particularly difficult day, when she was crying a LOT. I was aiming for calm and connected and all that was happening was that she was crying, and I was crying too – it was all a bit much. A wise friend reminded me that “crying together is its own form of attunement”. In that moment, everything shifted. We were still crying, baby and I, but instead of panicking about the crying, or rushing to try and stop the crying, I could just think (and say) “Right now, we are both crying”. It didn’t last. Nothing does.

5. Research confirms what you probably instinctively know: touch is super important for babies. Babies do well when they can touch, feel and smell their significant adults. As much as possible, as often as is manageable. It’s great if you can let baby hang out or sleep on your chest – skin to skin if it’s warm enough. Out and about, try this: instead of carrying the veges back from the farmer’s market and pushing baby in a stroller, push the veges home and carry the baby. Try as many slings and front packs as you can get your hands on, there’s bound to be one that works.

6. Sing! Even before humans learned to talk, we communicated via song. All over the world for millennia, humans have sung to their offspring. Singing enhances learning, it bathes our brains in feel-good neurochemicals, it supports language development, and it’s super fun. Nursery rhymes exist for good reason. But honestly, 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 sing.

7. Use your words. Talking is free, and has profound benefits! 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. “Okay, I need to hang out this load of washing. I’ll find my basket and put all the wet clothes in here…” Meanwhile, parallel talk 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.

8. Sensing baby: Meet baby at her own stage of neurobiological development. She’s a sensory being, you can be one too. It can be really useful to let yourself experience your baby with ALL your senses. The smell of her, the feel of her soft skin, the noises she makes. When you drop your language, pause your thinking and focus on connecting with Baby in a sensory way, you connect with her deeply.

9. Embrace routine. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again; I love nappy change time. Caregiving routines (feeding, dressing, bathing, changing) happen all day, every day. They can either be islands of relationship-enhancing partnership, or they can be inconveniences to rush through. Attitude is everything here. Slow down. Use your gazing, singing, talking skills, and embrace.

10. Resist technoference! Humans evolved this amazing brain without screens. Hide your tablet, shut down your smartphone, turn off the telly. As often as you truly can!


Recommended reading:

☙ Dance with Me in the Heart, by Pennie Brownlee

☙ Changing the World is Child’s Play, by Sarah Best

☙ Science of Parenting, by Margot Sunderland

☙ Previous articles Miriam has written for OHbaby! Magazine include:

15 inspirational ways to play with your child

Why good dads are sexy

The Power of Reading Aloud

10 ways to fight back against technology

Are smart phones the new blankies?

How to encourage sharing & turn-taking

Understanding your family temperament

The life changing effects of loving your baby


Miriam McCaleb has been a kindy teacher and a university lecturer, and is a certified trainer for PITC. She parents, gardens and writes at home in North Canterbury.


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