Getting Real with Shadra Bruce

The process of brain development is nowhere near complete once your baby is born. Proper continued development relies on healthy engagement the first two years of life, as babies are created to absorb information at a shockingly high rate. At birth, synapses (neural connections in the brain) develop at a rate of about three billion per second. By the time an infant is approximately eight months old, he or she will have thousands of trillions of synapses. This primes your child’s brain to be ready to absorb all the new discoveries they will make, but by ten years old, almost half of these synapses will disappear. The brain preserves the connections that your child has learned to be important, and everything else is forgotten.

What does this mean for my infant?

It is possible to interrupt normal brain development. Infants thrive on the love and attention, and rely on care-givers to provide every bit of necessary information. Unfortunately, infants who are exposed to high levels of stress, trauma, or neglect have brains that do not develop normally, and learn entirely different lessons than a baby that has developed normally. Those who experienced stress as an infant are more likely to have challenges as they get older, reinforcing the importance of the nurturing process. Every interaction you have with your infant from the moment they are born has an effect, and properly nurturing your infant is the first step in protecting your child’s brain development.

How to protect your child’s brain development

Protecting brain development is critical, and within the first two years of life, your child’s brain will grow rapidly. Everything that your child comes into contact with has a determining role in their overall development, and it is up to you to ensure that they have everything they need.

Nutrition – There are no multivitamins for infants, but nutrition is essential in brain development.  If breastfeeding, a child should nurse between birth and at least one year of age. If you and your child wish to continue nursing, there are also proven benefits in the second year of life as well. If you are not breastfeeding, or the child has weaned earlier than one year, use a formula that is iron-fortified and offer this until the child’s first birthday. Once they are a year old, they can switch to whole milk, with the extra fat that is perfect for brain development. Also, as exciting as new foods can be, refrain from offering certain foods, such as honey, before it is appropriate. There is debate on how allergies are developed, and when foods like eggs and peanut butter can be introduced, but there are others that can cause harm if introduced too early. Talk to your pediatrician about when to introduce foods and how, in order to maintain the proper nutrition.

Stimulation –  Babies are born curious, and stimulation of the senses inspires brain development. Ample stimulation of sight, sound, and touch can keep an infant entertained for a while, as this is how they learn. Colorful toys and objects of varying texture and shape are all helpful in stimulating brain development. It’s never too early to read to your child, and music time can be fun for the both of you. As the care-giver, your infant also loves when you talk and make silly faces. Engaging with your child on a regular basis, even if you’re only making random noises, will help fortify brain growth.

Environment – The concern for your baby’s environment does not end once they are born. It is well-known that smoking, drinking, and other drugs can be detrimental to a developing fetus, but an infant relies on you to maintain a stable environment after birth as well. Reduce stress in the home environment whenever possible, as abuse, violence, and neglect can harm the development of your child’s brain. This is why doctor’s warn of the dangers of shaken-baby syndrome, as well as neglecting a baby for too long. Leaving a baby to cry for an extended period of time can form connections in your child’s brain that teach your child that it is unlikely their needs will be met. If you are feeling overwhelmed or need help, reach out to your pediatrician or other community resource for assistance.

Children need a positive, nurturing environment in order to thrive.  The more love and support your child is given in those first years, the more likely they are to be successful and healthy throughout their entire life.