Brain development begins before birth, when the brain cells that last a lifetime are being built. Although almost all of baby’s brain cells are in place at birth, there aren’t many connections between them.
By birth, babies are primed to learn. They can take in information through all their senses, and have already learnt some things about their world from their experiences in the womb. Early experiences (nurture) combine with baby’s genes (nature) to shape how baby’s brain is built.
Brain growth in the first 3 years
The first 3 years are a time of incredible brain growth and development. A newborn baby’s brain is about 25% the weight of an adult’s. By 3 years old, baby’s brain weighs about 80% of an adult’s brain size. Babies learn through playing, discovering and exploring their environment — with support and attention from dad or mum.
How they explore will be influenced by their attachment relationship. Babies who have a secure attachment with a parent will be more curious about their environment and confident to explore, knowing that dad or mum is close by to encourage them, or to comfort them if they need help.
Interacting with mum or dad provides more opportunities for baby to learn than any toy, TV programme or computer game. In fact, TV viewing during the early years has been linked to attention and behaviour problems as baby grows, and they may spend less time playing.
Learning through their close relationships and exploring their world builds every area of babies’ development: language, social, emotional, intellectual and physical. All of these are linked, and influence each other.
Pathways in the brain that process the basic information babies learn are wired before the pathways that process more complex information. Early learning builds the foundation on which later development is built.
Babies are learning to:
- be curious
- be motivated
- get along with others
- pay attention
All of these skills help them when they get to school, and later in life.
Learning at their own pace
Parents don’t need to hurry their baby’s learning. Babies learn at their own pace. They’re all different — they each have their own temperament, their own interests and their own way of learning and interacting.
Parents can provide many everyday activities and experiences that will stimulate baby’s senses:
- reading stories
- smelling flowers
- feeling different textures
- music for baby to move to
- blocks to bang together and build with.
Trips to the park or the beach can be a huge learning experience for baby. Every time baby has a new experience, new connections and pathways are growing in the brain. When experiences are repeated over and over again, the connections and pathways are strengthened.
Baby needs to learn in a safe environment. Parents can make sure toys are safe and that there’s nothing nearby that can hurt them. Baby is very curious and wants to know about everything that’s within reach, so it’s helpful to put things that they aren’t to touch out of reach.
- Babies learn through all their senses.
- Their brain is growing at an incredible rate in the first 3 years.
- They learn through discovering and exploring, with help and encouragement from mum or dad.
- They learn more through interacting with mum or dad than from any toy, TV programme or computer game.
- Early learning is building a foundation in the brain for later learning.
- Babies learn at their own pace.
The ‘Te hinengaro mīharo’ sections in the SKIP Whakatipu booklets give parents simple neuroscience information to support them with their parenting:
- Te Kākano, page 9 — brain growth in the womb
- Te Kākano, page 33 — brain cells in place by birth
- Te Pihinga 1, page 9 — strengthening connections
- Te Pihinga 1, page 21 — learning language
- Te Pihinga 1, page 33 — learning through play
- Te Pihinga 2, page 8 — learning through the senses
- Te Pihinga 2, page 21 — encouragement helps learning
- Te Pihinga 3, page 8 — new experiences build connections
- Te Kōhuri 1, page 8 — repetition strengthens connections
- Te Kōhuri 2, page 9 — learning through positive experiences
- Te Kōhuri 3, page 8 — learning through loving interactions
- Brainwave Trust: Learning is child’s play
- Brainwave Trust: Tots, toddlers and TV: The potential harm
- Center on the Developing Child: Experiences build brain architecture
- Zero to Three: The power of play
This material is written for the Parenting Resource by Brainwave Trust Aotearoa.