Your Baby & Brain Development: 6 Key Findings To Understand

Written by Vanessa Lapointe, PhD
Vanessa Lapointe, PhD, is a bestselling author, parenting expert, and registered psychologist who has been supporting families and children for more than fifteen years. She received her doctorate from School Psychology at the University of British Columbia.

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A baby's brain development is highly dependent on the connection to the caregivers. In a new book called Parenting Right From The Start: Laying a Healthy Foundation in the Baby and Toddler Years, bestselling author and psychologist Vanessa Lapointe, Ph.D., helps guide parents through some key findings so parents can better understand what steps to take early in a child's life.

An understanding of how the human brain grows is grounded in science, but perhaps no other human developmental process is utterly affected by heart—and by heart I mean an environment full of love, compassion, and connection. In the growing of a human brain, heart and science coalesce with synergistic brilliance, and the process is more complex, layered, and involved than a simple understanding of neuroscience. 

The infant brain is growing at an explosive rate. Scientists also know that neuroplasticity—the brain's ability to change throughout a person's life as directed by external influences—is inextricably linked to how the brain grows. Through neuroplasticity, a child's brain soaks up the world, which means that the direction of a child's brain growth and development is not a predestined, scientifically resolute path. Instead, a child's brain will be hugely influenced by what is happening in the world around them. 

Knowing this gives a parent the profound power to reach into their baby's brain and influence it in the most incredibly positive way. Remember: You don't need to be a perfect parent. You only need to be good enough. So yes, you will stumble. You will lose your patience, or need a moment to yourself, or become frustrated because you have done nothing but carry around a fussy babe all day long. And that is OK. You are allowed to be imperfect. Then, you move along, pick up the pieces, dust off, and carry on with righting the relationship, soothing upset, and, yes, growing your babe's amazing brain.

Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D., is a psychiatrist whose life's work is devoted to understanding what children's brains need to grow in the best possible way. What follows is my take on Perry's six truths about the human brain. These truths shed important light on how a child's brain growth and the parenting they receive are woven together, and how you can ensure the best outcome for your little one:

1. Build from the bottom up.

The human brain is organized in a hierarchical fashion from the bottom up. The downstairs brain houses much of the neural circuitry for emotional responding and control and is the part of the brain that will be exploding with growth in the early days, months, and years of a child's life. Given that the current thinking about child development indicates that the environment does indeed create the mind, these early years are the moment for parents (and all other big people) to get it right. As neural connections take root in the base of the brain, it is imperative that parents create an environment full of loving connection in which their child's brain can marinate. The focus at this time is not on learning, preparing them for school, or enrolling them in a zillion extracurricular activities to give them a leg up. Rather, the focus is on loving and playing and exploring and growing, all with a foundation of attachment and ultimate trust in nature's brilliant way.

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2. Use it or lose it.

Neural system change is "use-dependent," meaning that the brain takes a "use it or lose it" approach. Whatever neural systems are activated most often are the ones the child's brain will hold on to as more permanently wired into the neural structure of the brain. Neural systems responsible for self-regulation are not exempt from this use-it-or-lose-it tendency toward that permanent wiring. If a child is consistently responded to and calmed with compassion whenever he is upset, hurt, or ill, that child's brain will hold on to the neural systems responsible for self-regulation. But if a child lives in a stressed state because their emotional needs are not being tended to, their brain will hold on to the circuitry that has the child being more practiced at being stressed. The key for parents and other big people to remember is that consistency of response is vital for the growing child. The focus ought always to be on calming and regulating the child first, with instruction and reminders to follow only when the brain is settled and soothed.

3. Take it one step at a time.

As mentioned earlier, the base of the brain is the first in the important sequence of development. Every other part of the brain, the physical neural circuitry and the resultant pathways for thinking and problem-solving, builds on top of that foundation. Parenting with consistently and calmly delivered connection, love, and compassion will result in a child with a solid foundation for emotional regulation, one who is more likely to reason effectively and to solve problems. Remember that this is a process that takes time. And steps may be missed when a child does not receive the kind of connection he or she is seeking. When a step is missed in the brain's sequence of development, this hole must be filled before the rest of the brain will be able to grow and thrive. A child cannot leapfrog to a place of well-developed maturity if the brain is missing a step in the growth sequence. If this happens, parents, therapists, or psychologists must assess the child's missing needs and then go back and help the child grow the neural connections that were missed. 

4. Get a head start.

The brain develops most rapidly early in life. As we've learned, it is forming approximately a million new neural connections per second. Imagine how microscopically small a neuron is. Now consider that during this period of unfathomably explosive brain growth, the infant brain weighs only 25% of its eventual adult size. By the time a child reaches their second birthday, their brain will have grown to 75% of its eventual adult size. The rate of neural growth in a young child is stunning! With this rapid growth and what experts know about neuroplasticity, it makes deep sense that children's brains are the most open to external influence during this early period in life. The brain is not static but is constantly changing form by responding to its external environment and then coding those experiences internally. As you think about how to set up your child's world, remember your role in ensuring that these early years are calm, consistent, and absolutely full of connection. Sometimes creating such a reality takes a fierce stepping in and a sincere consideration of priorities. I encourage all parents to take some time to figure out how you can do this for your child.

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5. Change is possible.

Neural systems can change, but some are easier to change than others. So if a young child misses out on the contact, closeness, and care needed for optimal development of the brain's regulatory core, this will need to be proactively addressed later through consistent, attachment-based caregiving.

Countless peer-reviewed studies have shown the remarkable potential for the brain to change. For example, Megan Gunnar, Ph.D., and colleagues showed that a sample of traumatized children recently placed in foster care had initial high levels of cortisol in their system. Cortisol is the stress hormone—secreted in times of alarm in an effort to help your body respond so you can keep yourself safe through fight, flight, or freeze. A child with a history of maltreatment will likely have adapted by developing a brain that is good at responding to stress. This kind of response works well in an environment where a child needs to be on alert for the next moment of high need or attack. However, it also makes that same child susceptible to stress and anxiety.

What researchers like Gunnar and her colleagues have discovered is that cortisol is actually toxic to the developing brain. But with the sole intervention of consistent, compassionate, attachment-based caregiving, that heightened response shifted to be more like the cortisol response patterns of children without traumatic histories. It took three months to make that change, a change that altered the entire life course for each of those children. As a rule, the older the child or, indeed, the adult, the longer and steeper the climb toward change, but the door is never shut entirely. The amazing thing about the human brain is that it wants to be OK. Scientists have identified something called the "self-righting tendency." Given half a chance, the brain will push toward recovery and optimal outcomes. And when we're talking about the brain of a child—a brain that is exploding with growth and potential—the likelihood that your responsive caregiving will make all the difference is exceptionally high. So love them and tend to them—and then watch the brain do its thing.

6. Social by design.

The human brain is designed to be social. We are meant to grow in a world of relationships, to be absolutely steeped in connection. In generations past, humans lived within more relationship-rich communities and structures than many of us do today. We lived in tribes, and then in villages and multigenerational homes—some families still do! We had built-in structures and systems for parents to be cared for as they cared for their children. We slept, ate, worked, and played together.

When children are immersed in a heterogeneous world filled with people of different ages, they are offered the opportunity to observe and experiment with upcoming developmental stages as modeled by older and more competent individuals in a safe and secure environment—and this results in more opportunity for growth. Social by design, and yet few children get to experience the richness of relationship in the way Perry describes. You can gift that richness to your children by not playing to the sanitized, homogenous ways of our contemporary world. Think multi-age groupings of all sorts of people—children and adults. Big family gatherings, involving extended family and grandparents in child care, avoiding too many group activities of same-aged littles, and every other chance you get to marinate your children in a more tribal, village-like existence—do it! This is what grows social brains for our social species.

The unifying thread…

The theme of these points is that relationship matters in an unequivocally profound way to every growing baby and child. Relationship is how you grow a brain! If there is one message parents should internalize about how to grow their little humans it is this: Children need—not want but need—to be held in the safe physical and figurative embrace of their most special big person or people. They don't need fancy high chairs and high-tech strollers and the coolest toys. Children need their parents to be present and guiding from their adult selves with understanding, patience, and love. When that happens, the capacity for self-regulation will be nourished and nurtured.

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