Why Smiling at your baby today helps make a brighter future for all of us
Baby brain development prebirth to post birth
Why understanding your baby’s brain development, before birth and after birth, is so important
I know you want a healthy happy baby – that is what every new Mom and Dad want. Life does not always guarantee that this will happen, but there are things you can do to help make your baby healthy and happy.
Extensive research which has been available for decades, now shows that the nine months of pregnancy and the first two years after birth – is when your baby is developing his/her ability to think, feel and develop relationships with others.
Before becoming pregnant – ensuring your body is fit and healthy, and as drug free as possible (alcohol, smoking etc), and it is recommended to take folate even before you become pregnant to reduce the risk of neural tube defects.
Pregnancy first trimester – the first three months are crucial times for formation of your baby’s organs and most importantly, your baby’s brain. Avoiding all drugs during this time is crucial (see alcohol pregnancy), so that there is no damage to your baby’s brain.
Pregnancy second trimester – continue to provide your body with healthy nutrients which are then passed on to your growing baby (foetus). Ensure you have enough iron so that your blood carries adequate amounts of oxygen via the placenta – to your baby. Continue to avoid drugs particularly alcohol, nicotine, and illicit drugs. Check with your Doctor if you need to take drugs for medical reasons.
The other substances your blood carries to your baby – are hormones and growth factors which influence how your baby’s organs develop and mature.
By the 18th week of gestation (pregnancy) – billions of basic nerve cells (neurons) have been laid down in your baby’s brain. These nerve cells need the connecting structures of synapses and dendrites – in order for them to work properly.
While this is happening, if the expecting Mother is in a stressful environment – her body makes stress hormones, which pass through the blood – to her baby – more info down below.
Pregnancy third trimester – your baby’s organs and brain continue to develop.
If the expecting Mother is in a stressful environment – her adrenal glands are stimulated – this prepares her for a “fight or flight” response. More blood is sent to the hindbrain (which prepares for quick reactions) and to the muscles – in case she needs to “fight or flight”. Because there is more blood in the hindbrain – there is less blood (so less nutrients and oxygen) available for growth and development of the forebrain. The forebrain – the frontal lobe which is behind the eyes is responsible for:
- Learning abilities (your memory, and how quickly you understand things – which will affect school performance)
- Limbic system which is where we learn how to relate to others; how to let other people know what our basic needs are; how to control our impulses, and how to adjust to the environment we live in.
So if this is happening to the expecting Mother, it is also happening to the developing baby (foetus).
In order for the neurons to become fully functional, they now rely on feedback and stimulation from the outside environment – which is given by the primary caregivers – usually the Mom and the Dad.
Although a newborn baby may appear to be unaware of what is going on around him/her, what we now know is that the baby’s brain is like a sponge, absorbing and learning from what is going on around him/her – almost as though the baby is in a hypnotic state. If the baby is told in a loving voice how wonderful he/she is, and how much he/she is loved, more connections are made in the neurons, increasing the baby’s brain development.
If there are no voices, no loving touches, no warm delicious milk to fill a hungry tummy – no stimulation means no connections made – which means that the potential of the neurons remain untapped.
If voices are raised or abusive, the baby has already learned while inside the uterus, to respond by getting ready for fight or flight. The only problem is that the baby cannot take flight on it’s own – and must lie there – and the baby cannot fight back. More blood is sent to the hindbrain and muscles, and less blood to the area that is responsible for the baby learning to think, control their impulses and develop relationships and understanding (empathy) for others.
If you are an expecting Mother, and you are reading this, and you know you have been under incredible stress – don’t freak out about this – there is so much you can do for your baby. Remember – up to the end of the first 24 months is considered the critical period for your baby’s brain development.
- While your baby is still in your womb – make time every day to calm your mind – and find a quiet safe place inside yourself – focussing on your breathing and taking a few slow deep breaths.
- Think of something that you love, a place, a person, an event – we all usually have a few stored in our memory somewhere – or a place in Nature that makes you feel better.
- When you are feeling more relaxed and calm – send loving thoughts to your baby – talk to your baby – preferably out loud so your baby’s hearing neurons are making connections, you can rub your tummy gently – which your baby may feel – which again makes connections in the neurons associated with touch.
- You could read your favourite book, play your favourite music (not too loud!!) or sing to your baby – knowing that all the time you are doing this – you are helping your baby make connections to make his/her neurons fully functional – which will help your baby be able to think for him/herself, to control impulses, and make friends later in life, as well as develop the most loving relationship with his/her main carers – You and your Partner (if there is one around). The blood then starts flowing to your baby’s frontal lobe – and helps develop brain functions.
- Once your baby is born – you have the most incredible opportunity to show your baby how much you love them.
- Your baby will have basic needs, for food, for cuddles and touching, for reassurance that everything is OK, for comfort – not having urine or faeces (pooh) burning his/her bottom, also of course needing time to sleep and not become overwhelmed or overstimulated. Your baby is going to give you “cues” – they can’t talk yet – so understanding your baby’s cries and body language – is your way to “tune in” to what your baby needs. The more time you spend with your baby – the more you will be able to work out what your baby needs, and respond by satisfying that need – as you do this, your baby learns from each experience and step by step – your baby attaches to you and knows that he/she can trust you to be there for them.
- Continuing to help those neurons make connections by talking in a loving voice, and smiling and looking into your baby’s eyes, and telling your baby how wonderful he/she is. The smiling face of the main carers (eg Mom and Dad) has been found to have an incredibly positive effect on helping neurons make connections.
- Touch / Massage your baby with gently stroking movements. It is crucial that you watch to see how your baby feels about being touched. If your baby squirms away – then stop. You can always introduce massage first – with your baby fully dressed, just try for a minute or two. Then after a few days – you can try massaging your baby without their clothes on – again – just do as much as your baby tells you he/she is happy with. (Remember that your baby’s skin is formed from the same layer in the blastocyte – as the brain and spinal cord – that is most probably why it has such a profound effect on your baby’s wellbeing.)
- Watch “Newborn Parenting for a new world: Practical skills for Mom and Dad” – for tips on how to massage your baby. Discuss with your partner – how you will work together to give your baby the most advantages – at this crucial stage of your baby’s development. ( By the way, massage has also been found to strengthen the immune system – so imagine the health benefits you are giving your baby)
- Be sure to look after yourself – so that you are not too exhausted to give your baby that very best care you want to give.
- So you see – every day – you are working with your baby – each positive little thing you do – is helping your baby – to give your baby the best start possible – and that is all you can do – and keep remembering – you are doing the BEST you know how. What research has shown – is that we tend to be the same sort of parent – as our own parents were – and sometimes we haven’t seen fabulous parenting skills at work.