Brain development is one of the most interesting topics for parents. Interestingly, this is an area that even prospective parents should focus on.
Early scientific views held that a child's brain development was dependent on the genes they inherited. This was called the "Nature" approach. It says - "What nature has given you is what you will have".
However, advancing technology and new tools have enabled neuroscientists to observe the development of children's brains closely and the importance of "Nurture" (environment, love, nutrition, stimulation) has become evident.
Today's scientific thinking is that "Nature and Nurture" are critical to a child's brain development. We focus our attention in this article on the "Nurture" that a child needs.
New scientific research has clearly shown that the experiences children have in their first few years have a decisive impact on the makeup of the brain. This makeup of the brain, once created, influences all cognitive processes, behaviours and social interactions for the rest of the child's life 1.
So it is important for parents to understand how early experiences are important to brain development.
A child's brain starts developing within a few weeks of conception. This early brain development is focused on the control of vital body functions of the foetus. As the development progresses, more functions of the foetus are controlled by the brain. The foetus, believe it or nor has an extraordinary number of brain functions besides the vital ones like breathing, heart rate etc. The foetus does physical functions like sucking its thumb, swallowing and stretching and the one activity we feel a lot of - kicking!! It also starts developing sensory capabilities like being able to recognise their mother's voice.
In simple terms, the brain consists of neurons (nerve cells) and synapses (connections between neurons). Neurons are created in the baby during its gestation in the mother's womb. In fact, prior scientific research had thought that all the neurons that a human being needs in life are created before birth. While current scientific research is starting to show that there is some neuron generation throughout life, it is undisputed that a vast majority of the neurons that a human being's brain contains are generated before birth2.
A newborn has a 100 billion neurons. But their brain size is only a quarter of an adult's brain size. But the brain grows at an astounding rate and by the age of 3, a child's brain is almost 90% the size of an adult brain3.
Synapses, the pathways between our neurons, are also furiously developing in a baby's brain. Babies are born with the evolutionary need to learn and as they absorb more, the synapses multiply. By the age of two, a baby has over a 100 trillion synapses, about twice the number they need as an adult 1.
These synapses continue to be in place for the next few years of the baby's life. Then they start discarding synapses they do not need. This is called "pruning". Though this may sound like brain capacity is lost, it is an evolutionary process. It allows the survival of the fittest of the neural networks. If our children's brains do not do this, their brains may remain overcrowded. By doing this they increase the efficiency of the brain.
So how does the brain decide what should be pruned and what should be kept. This is based on the early experiences of the child. Each time the child experiences something, they exercise their synapses. The more they repeat a particular experience, the stronger the synapses associated with the experience become. So they survive. The synapses associated with experiences the child does not have or seldom has, are pruned. This is how the experience of childhood, lays the foundation for the brain that is used when they grow to become adults4.
Also see our article Developing children's brains - The role of parents
1. Rima Shore, Rethinking the Brain: New Insights into Early Development 1997, Family & Work Institute, New York, NY, USA
2. Shonkoff, J.P. & Phillips, D.A. "From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early childhood development" Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press
3. Perry, B.D., "Traumatized children: How childhood trauma influences brain development.",The Journal of the California Alliance for the Mentally IIl 11:1, 48-51, 2000
4. Perry, BD, Pollard, R, Blakely, T, Baker, W, Vigilante, "D Childhood trauma, the neurobiology of adaptation and 'use-dependent' development of the brain: how "states" become "traits'" Infant Mental Health J, 16 (4): 271-291, 1995. Found via Child Trauma Academy.
"How Are the Children? Report on Early Childhood Development and Learning - September 1999", US Department of Education
"Understanding the Effects of Maltreatment on Early Brain Development - 2001", Child Welfare Information Gateway, US Department of Health and Human Services