Building Your Baby’s Brain

By Christina Elston

Your earliest interactions with your child set the foundation for future learning

parenting - Baby BrainsA few moms sit on the floor of a bright, airy playroom at Well Baby Center in L.A. with their 1-year-olds toddling nearby. Facilitators, family therapist interns who are Masters-level graduate students, move among the toys, babies and moms.

Each time a baby approaches an adult, she or he is engaged in back-and-forth play. Each giggle or squeal gets a response. Each toy that is held out is enthusiastically accepted, each action is narrated.

“That rattle makes a fun sound.”

“She had that toy and you took it away, and now she is crying. Big feelings!”

“Peek-a-boo.”

To call this a play group, however, would be a sad mistake, because what is going on here is nothing short of brainscaping. These babies at play are building neural connections that will lay the foundation for their future learning, and their relationships with others and the world around them.

“In the first years of life, 700 new neuroconnections are formed every second,” says Victoria Mann Simms, Ph.D., president of the L.A.-based Simms/Mann Institute, which recently sponsored a conference (now in its third year) showcasing cutting-edge neuroscience research related to children ages 3 and younger. The focus of this year’s conference, called the Simms/Mann Think Tank, was that early experience matters.

Getting In Tune

parenting - baby brains“Brains are built over time,” explains Pat Levitt, Ph.D., Simms/Mann Chair of Developmental Neurogenetics at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and WM Keck Provost Professor at USC. The basic structure is present even before birth, so that the baby is ready to interact with the world. “We use our senses to do that. We see, we hear, we touch, we smell,” says Levitt, who was a speaker at the Think Tank.

Through the senses, infants can build relationships, first by learning to tell the difference between familiar and unfamiliar faces. “Babies become face experts within days of being born,” Levitt says. They also start to connect seeing familiar faces with being fed, changed or held and touched, building neural connections along the way.

This means you help build your baby’s brain just by looking at her. Really. Just look. “It seems odd to say looking at the child,” says Simms, “but do you know how many parents breastfeed while they’re online?”

Get off the grid and make eye contact. Then learn to play a little game many researchers call “serve and return.” It goes like this:

  • Baby laughs, you laugh.
  • Baby says, “ba ba ba,” and you say “ba ba ba.”
  • Baby squeals, you squeal.
  • Baby points and waves her arms, you point and wave yours.

This makes your baby feel heard and encourages language development, but it’s also just lots of fun. “In those early days, they are delighted when you give them their sound back,” says Jill Waterman, Ph.D., director of the TIES for Families Infant Mental Health Program at UCLA.

Waterman, who works extensively with children and their foster and adoptive families, says this type of communication also helps parents become attuned to their child. This means letting your interactions with your child follow from the child’s cues. “When you’re not reading it accurately the child will usually let you know,” says Waterman. “It’s a process of learning the child’s cues.” Pay attention, and you’ll eventually be able to tell whether your baby is crying because he is hungry, afraid, or needs a diaper change. Meeting your baby’s needs strengthens your relationship, and Baby’s brain connections.

Brains in Motion

Babies who want to interact with the people in their environment are inspired to work on their motor skills. Starting at around age 6 months, most babies can reach for and grab things so they can investigate them (though this could happen weeks or months earlier or later, depending on the baby). At first, motor skills are poor, but they improve over time as the appropriate brain circuits build.

Those new motor skills offer another opportunity to build attachment and attunement by playing games with your baby. “The more interactive it can be, the better,” says Waterman. Focus on games where your baby can have an impact:

  • Patty cake
  • Peek-a-boo
  • Stacking blocks and knocking them down
  • Puzzles and shape sorters

parenting - baby brainsThese games also spur the baby’s social and emotional development. “The timing of when babies begin to purposefully engage socially with others in their environment corresponds to the development of fine motor skills,” says Levitt. “Social and emotional behaviors contribute strongly to an infant’s cognitive development, promoting a baby learning about their world.” Levitt notes that one of the first things infants start to do when they have successfully grabbed an object is to hold it up to share it with whoever is around. “Look what I got!”

Sometimes, though, babies need to explore on their own. During this time, the parent’s job is to provide what Waterman calls a “circle of security.” This means being nearby as Baby explores, to provide an anchor of safety and comfort.

In Mindful Parenting groups at Well Baby Center, parents learn to narrate their child’s experiences to bolster the child’s understanding of what is going on and build attachment, set limits so that their child feels secure, and contain hitting, pushing and other behaviors that might be problematic. But they also learn to let their babies take the lead. Their role is to give their child space, but to be there if the child wants to run over to share a toy, or get a hug or some reassurance. “One of the things we want to convey is the value of this kind of time,” says Joseph Turner, Psy.D., associate executive director at the center.

“The parent provides a secure base for exploration,” says Waterman. Not developing a secure attachment can hamper a child’s later ability to form healthy relationships with others. In cases of abuse or neglect, some will learn not to seek help from others, becoming independent to the point that they have difficulty trusting others. Other children might become preoccupied with attachment, and become clingy and jealous.

Skills For Life

parenting - baby brainsPhysical activity and exploration also has another role: It stimulates production of chemicals that help our brain connections operate at their best. This may be one of the reasons toddlers are so active. They are using the motor system to learn about the world. “That physical activity is changing the physiology of the body and the brain in a really positive way,” Levitt says. It is stimulating development of something called “executive function.”

This set of skills helps you pay attention, remember details, organize information, think before you act (plan) and control your impulses. These are the skills that will eventually let you function in the adult world, and Levitt says research has shown they are a bigger predictor of success than I.Q.

Kids learn impulse control and broaden their attention spans through the trial-and-error of building a tower of blocks that doesn’t collapse. They learn how to take turns during circle time in preschool.

Executive function is the last piece of the brain development puzzle, and the only piece that continues developing in a big way into adulthood. The five senses, motor skills, and even our capacity to learn language reach their peak during our childhood, but executive function continues to build into the 20s and 30s.

In the earliest years, you gather simple tools. The brain’s later development involves learning to use your simple tools in more complex ways. In other words, babies’ early experiences establish a strong foundation of the architecture of the brain itself. Later learning just fine-tunes how well the early brain connections work, bringing more complex skills on board. “So those early years are really important,” Levitt says.

And without those early social and emotional building blocks, the architecture that supports higher thinking is less well established. “Cognitive, social and emotional development are inextricably intertwined,” Levitt says. “The circuits depend on each other. Humans are social creatures. We depend on social interactions to further our own development.”

Resources For Brain Builders

Well Baby Center: Located at 12316 Venice Blvd., L.A., the center offers weekly Mindful Parenting Parent-Infant/Toddler Groups, and groups dedicated to loving discipline, preschool readiness and breastfeeding support. Parenting support and counseling are available, with fees on a sliding scale. Learn more at www.wellbabycenter.org.

The Little Orange Project: In the spring, the Simms/Mann Institute will launch an interactive website dedicated to empowering parents and caregivers with practical resources and research-based tools to help families create stronger, deeper bonds to support the whole child. Learn more at www.littleorangeproject.org.

Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child: The Center’s InBrief series of videos provide an excellent overview of early brain development. View the eight videos, all of which are under eight minutes long, at www.developingchild.harvard.edu/inbrief-series.

Christina Elston is editor of L.A. Parent.

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