Infant brain development

What we used to believe: Children are born “blank slates” and we can mold them as we wish.

What we now know: Fetal brains are growing at an amazing rate and already have formed many billions of neural connections based on received input prior to being born. We also know that the first three years of life see more growth in the brain than at any other time in life. In fact, the brain that is “built” prenatally and in infancy is the brain a child is left with for his or her life. Parents should work hard to ensure that it is the best brain it can be so that their child can handle all of life’s challenges.

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Frederick Douglass (1817-1895).

All of the senses begin to function before birth. The early activity of the senses in the prenatal period helps shape the development of the brain and nervous system. There are six states of consciousness present in the newborn — deep sleep, light sleep, semi-awake/drowsiness, calm alertness, active alertness/fussiness and crying. All but one of these states (crying) is also present in the fetus. A mother is typically very aware of her baby’s states before birth. This recognition is part of attachment. Since attachment provides the foundation for future mental health and resiliency, it is important that parents (and society) make sure that attachment happens for the baby.

Maternal stress affects the fetus adversely. The womb environment is varied, noisy, bumpy, dimly lit and full of different tastes and smells. The fetus actively responds to all this sensory stimuli, actively building the brain. The prenatal period is characterized by a constant interaction and exchange between the mother and the fetus. Prenatal development is not a passive unfolding of life; it is a dynamic, interactive process.

As the fetus grows and moves, the mother becomes increasingly aware of and engaged by the fetus. A mother also uses the baby’s movements to help other important people attach to the baby. The baby becomes more real to the people who are his or her family.

Humans have five senses — touch, taste, smell, hearing and vision — that help us monitor the environment. All of an infant’s sensory systems begin to function before birth and the sensory experiences the fetus has are very important to the development of the brain. Amazingly, the senses begin to function in some basic way even before the structures, such as the nose or the eyes, are fully formed. They begin to function one at a time, developing in a specific order. This ensures that the fetus is not overwhelmed with new sensory stimuli coming all at once and allows the brain to effectively process and understand the input. By the time a baby is born they are familiar in some way with the stimuli in the postnatal environment. A fetus hears its mother’s voice more than any other. At birth, it prefers its mother’s voice, seeks it out, and is calmed by it. A baby’s ability to recognize his mother’s voice before birth primes the attachment behaviors of the infant to seek out and respond to the mother. The mother reciprocates.

Maternal stress can affect how aware the mother is of her baby’s distress prenatally as well as after the birth. When a mother’s stress levels are too high for too long, or too frequently, problems for the fetus can result. High levels of maternal stress also can affect fetal brain development. Maternal emotions can affect the fetus’s capacity to regulate its behavior before and after birth.

The brain is not finished at birth; however, the prenatal period provides a unique opportunity for supporting parents and supporting healthy brain development.

Supporting information was obtained from “Early Development and the Brain: Teaching Resources for Educators,” Linda Gilkerson and Rebecca Klein, Editors, Erickson Institute 2008.

Lindsay Havran has over 30 years experience working with young children and currently teaches parenting classes through The Pinon Project, coordinates a social/emotional program in 32 preschool classrooms in Montezuma and Dolores counties, and teaches an infant/toddler course for caregivers. She is a member of the Montelores Early Childhood Council and serves on the Pyramid Model Partnership Team.

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