Brains are built from the bottom up.
During the first month of life, the number of connections or synapses in a baby's brain dramatically increases from 50 trillion to 1 quadrillion. If an infant's body grew at the same crazy rate, their weight would go from 8.5 pounds at birth to 170 pounds in one month. In the first few years of life, 700 to 1,000 new neural connections are formed every second in their brain which triples in weight by the age of three.
At first, this explosive growth is uninhibited, but as time goes on, it's accompanied by the continual reduction of neuronal connections, through a process called pruning. Pruning allows their brains to become more precise and efficient.
While the basic blue print of a child's brain is strongly determined by genetic factors, early experiences have a profound impact on the form and function of their brains too through the pruning process providing the foundation for all future learning, behavior and health.
Ultimately, genes and incoming input work together to build a child's brain. Connections activated the most will be preserved becoming stronger and more complex, while connections not used are deemed nonessential and eliminated in order to transmit information more efficiently — known as neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity takes place from cradle to grave, but the brain is the most plastic in childhood meaning it's a time of great opportunity, but also great vulnerability.
Because of neuroplasticity, your brain is changing every second of every day based on your experiences, behaviors and even thoughts. The brain is a highly integrated organ with everything effecting everything else. So, emotional well-being, cognitive, language and social skills developed in the early years provide the foundation for success in school, the workplace and life. They are the bricks and mortar of brain architecture.
For example, an infant's brain has connections that allow them to hear sounds from all languages in the world when they are born. A child, however, will learn to talk using only the sounds and words they pick up from their environment. Over time, the brain discards connections for sounds they do not hear. For this reason, most adults have trouble distinguishing sounds not in their native language and children learn second languages much easier.
Just as a weak foundation compromises the quality and strength of a house, adverse experiences early in life can impair developing brain architecture, with negative consequences lasting into adulthood.
To help your child thrive and optimize synaptic pruning, you can actively work to build your child's brain. Here are five essential ways to begin this lifelong journey:
1. Bond with your baby.
Your baby's brain is wired to seek safety. So if your child doesn't feel secure at a young age, they can't learn optimally. Attending to your baby's needs, decreasing stress in their environment and maintaining your own peace and calm as a parent are important to providing a sense of security to your child. They may not understand words yet, but they can feel your emotions. And feeling a sense of security, comfort and balance from you will help their brains flourish.
2. Talk to your child.
The number and variety of words you use when talking to your baby matters. Talk to your child from day one. Narrate everything. Research shows that children whose parents spoke to them extensively as babies have significantly higher IQs and richer vocabularies than kids who didn't receive similar verbal stimulation. The words have to come from you — a real, live human — not some electronic device. Babies learn by having people pay attention to and engage them.
3. Invest in face time.
Emotion is one of the first ways babies communicate with the world. Being able to read facial expressions is the cornerstone of strong nonverbal communication skills and sets a child up for success later in life. A baby stays emotionally attuned to the people closest to them and responds to the tone of voice, facial expressions and touch. Their little versions of reality come from the way their caregivers respond to them: feeling secure because someone comes when they cry or feeds them when they're hungry. So honor quality time with your kids not only as something that is emotionally nurturing, but intellectually essential.
4. Limit "bucket time."
Babies use their senses to take in information about the world around them and need to be able to move to learn how their bodies work and develop skills and strength. These days, most spend way too much time in what Jill Stamm, author of Bright from the Start, refers to as "buckets": car seats, strollers and the like. Yes, we want our kids to be comfortable. But we don't need to ensure they are always coddled and contained. Let your child move and explore!
To boost their brain power, children don't need to listen to Mozart, a room full of brain friendly toys, or a library of educational DVDs. They need time to explore, create and imagine. According to John Medina, author of Brain Rules for Babies, "The greatest pediatric brain-boosting technology in the world is probably a plain cardboard box, a fresh box of crayons and two hours. The worst is probably your new flat-screen TV." So rather than putting pressure on your kids to do every extracurricular in the book, let them be kids! Coloring during a play-date or running around the playground laughing are essential ingredients for cultivating intelligence. Everyone needs balance!