the importance of timing - what affects baby's developing brain?  

The majority of brain development takes place between conception and the age of six, with most progress made in the first three years of life.

Although brain development in the fetus is initially driven by genes, the experiences of the child, both in the womb and following birth, take an increasingly important role. Most (three-quarters) of the brain actually develops outside of the womb.   At birth an infant's brain is not fully formed. The brain cells (neurons) are all in their correct place, however most are immature with no set function or connection with other brain cells.

Although the brain of a newborn baby is smaller than that of an adult's it is already extremely active and focussed on the need to grow. In order to develop the brain cells need to be activated and to connect with other cells. It is these connections, pathways and networks that will enable the child to develop the powers of vision, language, smell, muscle control and reasoning.

These lines of communication are largely activated and formed by the sensory experiences of the child, such as touch, speech, and movement. As the baby interacts with the environment and caregivers, the brain processes and stores the information. These experiences are crucial as they actually build the brain. They alter the structure of the forming brain and control brain development.

For example, the experience of being touched with warmth and care releases hormones into the infant's brain which will help a child develop the skills to bond with others. Similarly, talking and singing to a child will trigger the brain to start building mental language circuits.

It is during the first six years of life that the majority of the neurons become connected into pathways and networks. However it is the first three years that are particularly important as most (85%) of the core brain structure will have developed by the time the infant is three years old.

The development of the infant's brain will reflect the patterns, intensity, qualities and quantity of experiences that he or she is exposed to.

Research has found that childhood experiences that enrich brain development in these early years produce rich adult brains. The basic experiences of love, security, trust, and affirmation enable children to become competent, intelligent empathetic adults.

Neglect, violence and abuse during these years can damage normal brain development resulting in the profound and permanent disruption to the brain's structure. This can lead to lifelong social, emotional and learning difficulties.  Early experiences, positive and negative, change the actual physical structure of the brain. The resulting structures determine the brain's capabilities and provide the foundation upon which more complex feeling, thinking and behaviour develop throughout the rest of life.


The emerging research has shown that it is not only the quality and intensity of the experiences that affect brain development, but the timing of those experiences.

Neuroscientists have discovered that the brain develops in sequence. There are periods during which the brain is particularly efficient at learning. In science these times are called sensitive and critical periods.

A sensitive period occurs when the neurons required for a process like sight are open and ready to change.  Critical periods are times when established networks can become linked to perform more complex tasks, such as the ability to focus or develop depth of vision.

Information for a skill or a sense flows easily into the brain during these learning periods. However each period is only open for a defined time. Once it closes the brain structure for that skill or sense is complete and becomes more difficult to change. If children miss out on experiences within these time frames, the brain may not develop the connections and, consequently, the skills associated with that developmental phase.

Critical periods occur in phases from birth to the age of twelve. Although learning takes place throughout life, the opportunities and risks are greatest during these early childhood years due to the flexibility of the infant's brain.

developmental milestones

Brain development does not occur at a fixed rate over time. Different parts of the brain are active at different times.  Before birth the brain lays down memories of the major voice heard and the languages that surround the mother. There is scientific evidence that the newborn infant recognises these voices and sounds from birth.

The first year is the most important period for developing the part of the brain responsible for attachment and empathy. The connections, pathways and networks created will enable the child to feel the pleasure of being involved in close, secure, nurturing relationships, and to develop over time feelings of empathy and an understanding of the needs towards others. This capacity is essential if the child is to enjoy intimate relationships in the future.

At one month there is intense activity in the areas of the brain associated with the sensory and motor skills the baby is acquiring. This is a prime time for providing visual and sound stimulation.

At two months the infant can experience a range of complex emotions including happiness, sadness, empathy, pride and shame. The part of the brain that is most active controls the development of vision and hearing.

By three months, the infant is able to distinguish between hundreds of spoken sounds. These sounds may come from several different languages. Children exposed to languages will learn them more rapidly than their older siblings and parents. The neurons responsible are open and ready for change and the networks and pathways are ready to form.

At four months the cortex begins to refine the connections needed for depth perception and binocular vision.

At around eight months the front of the cortex, in charge of the ability to express and control emotions as well as to think and plan, is alive with activity as the baby makes dramatic leaps in self regulation and attachment. Babies are likely to strengthen their attachment to their caregiver during this time. Caregivers can help infants learn to develop self control of their emotions by responding sensitively to their emotional state.

The baby in twelve short months has progressed to a child who is beginning to talk, walk, and building on the enjoyment of interacting with others. The part of the brain responsible for speech is preparing to utter the first word. At one year the infant's first word heralds the magic of more direct verbal communication.

By the age of two a toddler embraced by conversations, stories and questions has twice the number of words of a toddler who has lacked this attention. The child's sentences will be more complex in structure. The circuits and pathways for some skill and capacities begin to close in the second year of life. These include those responsible for emotional control, full vision and social attachments.

At three the child's brain is two and a half times as active as that of an adult's. The vast majority of the brain has been formed. The experiences of small children may change their understanding and behaviour but they are also charged with creating important and permanent structures in the brain.

In this way these experiences play a decisive and lasting role by defining the extent and nature of children's capabilities and limitations both at this stage and in adult life.

Every skill and sense required in early childhood and the foundation for all other capabilities are set by systems built into the brain in early life. Each has a limited timetable and critical periods when the related experiences must be attained. By the age of six most of the critical periods in which a skill or sense can be fully gained are over or waning. The opportunity for learning syntax, for example, begins to decrease making the learning of another language more difficult.

At the age of ten years the brain enters a new phase of development. Rather than producing and strengthening synapses the brain begins to prune those that are seldom used.

By late adolescence the brain is wired with the rapid, powerful and permanent lines of communication of the mature brain. By the age of eighteen the brain is less adaptable than the brain of an infant, but more rapid, secure and permanent. Experiences and interactions with the world have strengthened some connections and resulted in the elimination of others.

The genetic potential determined by the single sperm and egg which could have been expressed in billions of different ways, has developed a unique pattern of mind, thought and emotion, differentiating each of us from others.


help your child unfold ...

When my son Isaac was born, I used to marvel at the intricate curves of his tiny ears. With my daughter Eloise, it was her perfectly formed finger nails. The detail of their design just seemed miraculous. It was all there - they just needed to grow. Or so I thought. I now think that the greatest miracle was in fact happening in the part of their bodies that I couldn't see, in the only organ which was not fully formed when they were born - the organ that makes both my children so wonderfully unique, so different from each other and so different from every other child: the brain.

Babies are born with most of the brain cells (neurons) they need. But just having these is not enough. If your baby is to learn to speak, walk, run, play, and become a bright, imaginative and loving child, their brain cells need to connect up with each other to form pathways and networks in the brain. It is these connections that enable your baby to see, hear, learn and think in a more developed way. As the brain connects up you will notice your child beginning to reach the milestones associated with child development, such as grabbing an object, learning to speak, crawling and walking.

Most of this development (85% of the brain's structure) will have happened by the time your child is only three years old.

We now know that day to day experiences are responsible for shaping the brain. Her experiences of the world are what she sees, hears, feels, tastes and smells - trigger electrical activity in the brain enabling it to form these connections and grow.

Day to day experiences don't just create a background for early development and learning - they directly affect the way the brain is wired, its size, its capabilities and its limitations.

Your baby's brain development will reflect the quality and quantity of the experiences that she is exposed to. For example when your baby is touched with warmth and care, her brain is flooded with hormones. These enable her to form the connections that she needs to develop feelings of warmth, love and empathy towards others.

Similarly, talking and singing to your baby triggers the brain to start building the connections that she needs to develop language. As these experiences are repeated the connections, pathways and networks become permanently etched into your baby's brain.

The brain of an infant that has received stimulation, in a loving caring environment will be dense with these connections and pathways. By eight months of age the average infant, living in a stimulating, secure and loving environment, will have sparked 500 trillion connections. By the age of two she will have developed around 1000 trillion connections - twice as many as her parents. These connections lay the foundation for her adult life. They will affect the way that she thinks, learns, interprets, experiences and understands the world as an adult.

It is not just good experiences, however, that affect brain development. Your baby's brain development is equally vulnerable to poor quality experiences, neglect and abuse. And the repetition of these experiences can have long term and devastating effects.

Babies deprived of stimulating experiences and love have been found to have brains 20%-30% smaller than others of their age.

This research has important implications for the way we parent. The way we treat our children in these early years of life has a definite and lasting impact.

"This new information about brain development is crucial to the well being of families and to the wellbeing of our nation," says Brainwave Trust Chairperson, Judy Bailey. "We now know we have a three year window of opportunity in which to give our children the best possible set them on the road to a happy and productive life¡Klet's make that time count!"

So how do we make sure that our children get the best possible start?

There are a variety of ways of raising bright, happy, well-rounded, secure, sociable children. Many parents and caregivers already provide the conditions that promote healthy brain development.

Babies and children need care, time, attention and warm relationships. You can foster a stimulating, secure environment by:

- spending time interacting with her

- showing her love and affection

- smiling and having fun with her

- talking, reading and singing to her

- promoting safe opportunities for her to explore the world

- playing simple games

- encouraging movement

- responding to her needs by repeatedly responding physically to her cues.

Responsive, loving care does more to boost learning than encouraging your toddler to watch TV, play computer games or memorise facts and figures.

For toddlers, they will learn just as much, if not more, from pottering about and interacting with you. The possibilities are limitless at home and in care.

- when hanging out the washing, give her pegs to play with, get her to pass them to you and name the colours as she does so, give her a container that she can put them in, count them etc

- give her a variety of objects to hold - warm, cold, soft, hard, different colours, different textures (just not too small or sharp!) - name them, talk about them

- when changing her nappy - let her kick with no clothes, tickle her tummy, rub it with massage oil, stroke her with a feather or a piece of soft cloth, talk to her, smile at her, give her lots of cuddles

- take her for walks in the park

- sing her nursery rhymes in the car

Just follow her cues. They are natural little nosey-parkers, designed to learn and are curious about the world around them. By responding to their needs you will be providing the right stimulation at the right time.

This research should be extremely reassuring for most parents. Your child will thrive in a stimulating environment where she is nurtured, cared for, loved, talked to and played with.

If you think that your child is experiencing developmental delays - seek help. It is important not to `wait and see' as you may miss the best chance to help your child during a critical period of child development.

Alex Woodley is a Trust Committee member of the Brainwave Organisation. The Brainwave Trust is an independent body formed by a group of paediatricians, medical, educational, legal, academic and business professionals in response to new scientific evidence on the impact of the first three years of life on brain development.

Copyright 2006 Brainwave Trust

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