Baby's Brain: The Basics
By Diane Bales, Ph.D.
early years are critical for later life. For years, scientists have
known that what happens--or doesnt happen--during the first
few years makes a big difference in a childs later life. Babies
who do not get enough love and attention in infancy are less likely
to be well-adjusted adults.
recently have learned even more about how important the early years
can be. Thanks to new technologies, we now have a much clearer idea
of how the brain functions at birth. And weve found out that
the brain goes through some dramatic changes even after birth.
A baby is born with more than 100 billion brain cells. Some of these
cells are already connected to other cells at birth. These connections
regulate the heartbeat and breathing, control reflexes, and regulate
other functions needed to survive.
much of the brains wiring does not happen until after birth.
In the first months and years of life, brain cells form connections
in many parts of the brain. These connections are the complex circuits
that shape our thinking, feelings, and behaviors.
these early years, the brain cells make many more connections than
the baby will use. The developing brain is a little like a fertile
garden. When we plant a garden, we want the crops that we planted
to grow and thrive. But when weeds start to grow, there is less
room for the plants we want to grow. By weeding out the plants we
dont want, we allow more room for the crops to grow.
brain has a similar weeding process. By about age 3,
the brain cells have made many more connections than the child will
ever need. But the brain is also efficient at weeding out the connections.
It keeps track of the connections that the baby uses most. In time,
the brain gets rid of the connections that it does not use regularly.
The least-used connections are weeded out so that the most-used
ones have more room to grow.
Importance of Experience
From the moment a baby is born, every experience taken in by the
five senses helps build the connections that guide development.
No two brains are alike! Each child develops individual pathways
to deal with his or her experiences. For example, a hearing child
makes many connections related to oral language. The brain of a
deaf child does not get the experience needed to make those connections.
A child who learns to play baseball will make certain connections
that a child who never plays ball will not make.
kind of care a child receives plays a big role in how the brain
chooses to wire itself. Parents who talk and read to their babies
are helping them develop important language connections. And parents
who respond sensitively to their babys cries are building
the emotional connections that lead to healthier relationships.
Can You Do?
Parents and other caregivers can help nurture positive brain development.
Here are some of the most important ways you can help your babys
that brain development begins before birth. Nutrition makes a big
difference in brain development even before the baby is born. Women
who are pregnant should eat nutritious foods, avoid alcohol and
other drugs, and have regular prenatal care to help ensure that
their babies are born healthy.
sure your babys world is safe and secure. Remove any safety
hazards from the environment. Respond lovingly and consistently
to your babys cries. Give him attention. A baby feels stress
when the environment is dangerous or when caregivers do not respond
to him. Stress can slow brain development.
to your baby. When she makes a sound, repeat it. Smile at her. Talk
about the things youre doing together. Interacting face-to-face
builds the brain connections needed for both language skills and
a healthy emotional bond.
reading aloud early. Hearing adults read helps the brain develop
language connections. It also gives parents and babies a chance
to spend time together. And reading aloud helps your baby build
a lifelong love of books.
high-quality child care. To ensure healthy development, babies need
sensitive, loving care and stimulating experiences. Choose a child-care
provider who will interact warmly with your baby one-on-one. Look
for a safe and clean environment, a low baby-to-adult ratio, a provider
who understands how children grow and develop, and a rich variety
of age-appropriate toys.
the information you need. If you have questions about your babys
development, there are many places you can go for answers. Ask your
doctor questions during check-ups. Have your librarian recommend
good books on child development. Contact the Family and Consumer
Sciences agent in your county Extension Service office for more
information on parenting.
DeBord, K. (1997). Brain development. [Extension Publication]. Raleigh,
NC: North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service.
R. (1997). Rethinking the brain: New insights into early development.
New York: Families and Work Institute.
D. (1996). Brain trust. Education Week, Sept. 18, 1996.
C. (1997). Your childs brain: Food for thought. Little Rock,
AR: Southern Early Childhood Association.
of the "Better Brains for Babies" Collaboration.
by the University of Georgia College of Family and Consumer Sciences
"Strengthening Georgia Families and Communities" Initiative.
The University of Georgia, a unit of the University System of Georgia,
is an Equal Opportunity/ Affirmative Action institution. The University
does not discriminate with respect to employment or admission on
the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, handicap
or veteran status. If you have a disability and need assistance
in order to obtain this fact sheet in an alternative format, please
contact the College of Family and Consumer Sciences at (706) 542-7566.
Bales, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor and Human Development Specialist,
Department of Child and Family Development. Reprinted with permission
from the University of Georgia. Bales, D. (1998). Building Baby's
Brain: The Basics. Athens, GA: University of Georgia, College of
Family and Consumer Sciences.