Even in the first three months of baby’s life, there is lots you can do to encourage his brain to grow optimally, writes Shanda Luyt
AT BIRTH YOUR BABY’S BRAIN has nearly all the nerve cells that it will ever have – billions of them. What is missing, though, is the connections or pathways between all these cells. Your baby needs these pathways in order to interpret all the information that he receives from his senses and he also needs them in order to react to the information. At birth, only the lower part of the brain is well developed. This is the part that is responsible for basic vital functions and primitive reflexes, such as breathing, heartbeat and swallowing. Your newborn can’t control his movements yet, or think about much, but every day he is learning. With time, all that incoming information starts to form pathways between his brain cells. In the process the higher part of his brain that was still immature at birth begins to develop. He will be able to react to his environment more and more.
Even though his brain is immature there is a lot your new baby can do. Within a few hours of birth he can recognise your face and the sound of your voice. Within a few days he knows both his parents’ smell. He has a visual preference for faces, not objects, and studies different expressions of emotions intently. By a week your baby can focus for a short while on one thing out of all the sights and sounds around him. At about a month he will stare in fascination at objects in front of him. He can also remember an object when it is taken away and then returned some seconds later. After two months his vision has developed to such an extent that he will watch an object that moves in a pattern in front of him. By three months your baby understands that there is a connection between his behaviour and a specific reaction. His eyes will follow an object moving across a room, he will reach out to objects close to him and he will attempt to bring objects to his mouth to investigate them further. He will also listen carefully and quieten down in order to hear better. His memory is now good enough to anticipate events that happen regularly, like bath time or reading time. He also recognises music that gets repeated every day. By three months a baby’s brain can distinguish hundreds of different speech sounds. He can also recognise more and more family members’ voices and faces. HOW TO HELP BRAIN GROWTH Love, love, love is what they need. In the first three months there is no better stimulation for your baby’s brain than to spend time in his parents’ loving presence, observing their movements, smell, voices and faces. You can help your baby by responding to his needs. It helps a lot if you learn to read his body language. Rest assured, it is not possible to spoil your baby by picking him up and comforting him. All the care you shower on him helps his brain to develop. HERE ARE MORE POINTERS: Sleep. You’ll find out very soon that your new baby’s sleep pattern differs from yours quite radically. Full-term babies sleep on average 16 hours a day, says Dr Welma Lubbe, a nursing scientist and senior lecturer at the University of the North-West. Newborn babies develop a rhythm consisting of two sleep phases: REM sleep and non-REM sleep. Both are necessary for brain development. According to an article on sleep and brain development in the journal Newborn and Infant Nursing Reviews (December 2008) the sleep cycle of a newborn is necessary for the building of their sensory systems, the protection of their brain suppleness and the development of long-term memory and the ability to learn. Parents who want to support brain development are therefore advised to let their baby sleep as he wants. Talk. One of the best ways to stimulate that little brain is to chat to your baby. Language is one of the building blocks of cognitive development. Many studies show that babies who are regularly spoken to use up to 300 more words at the age of two than babies who grew up in a less chatty environment. Nurse. Breastmilk is the best nutrition for your baby’s brain. It contains long chain fatty acids that help shape a healthy layer of fat around the nerve paths. This isolates the nerves, allowing them to work faster. Stimulate. Newborns shouldn’t be exposed to toys packed with sensory stimulation functions, says Welma. “Stick to toys in primary colours that provide contrast, like black on white with a little yellow or red, and regular shapes such as circles, triangles or squares. Also make sure that the sounds and textures of the toys aren’t overwhelming. One or two textures is enough.” Babies are easily overstimulated, so learn to recognise your baby’s stress and approach signals so you can limit stimulation when your baby has had enough. Massage. The advantages have been proven in countless studies. Premature babies’ nervous systems especially benefit from massage.
Only after these first three months will your baby need an environment where stimulation and exploration are possible. The environment outside of the womb is already jam-packed with sounds, smells and visual stimulation, says Welma. “For the skin, every sensation is new too. Light touch can feel like pain, and temperature and pressure also play a large role in baby’s experience of his environment. All this sensory stimulation – voices, colours and shapes – is transported to the brain via the nervous system. There, it has to be processed in order for your baby to react to it. In this time these nerve paths are formed and the brain is being programmed.”