The Newborn Baby
Babies are social beings with an innate need to connect with other humans, particularly their parents. The love and attention they receive in their first few months plays a vital part in determining how their brains and bodies develop.
Your baby’s brain is its most complex organ and accounts for about 50% of his body size. Long before birth he already has more brain cells than he will ever need, although many of these will perish if they are not ‘mapped’ or wired into areas of use.
Brain development happens in two spurts. The first occurs in the uterus from 8-12 weeks, and the second around 10 weeks after birth. At 10 weeks old, the brain is growing at a rate of 1mgm a minute and there is a race to connect cells – so fast that Peter Huttenlocher* stated ‘it was easier to count raindrops in a storm’! At this stage, cell connections that are either weak or under-stimulated will perish.
Within the first week of life, your baby will recognise you as his mother by the smell of your breast milk and your voice. He has a fascination for human faces and will gaze at you and imitate facial gestures by 2-3 weeks of age.
Lack of love
Lack of stimulation, love and nurturing can have a devastating effect on a baby. The effects have been shown in Romanian orphans, who were adopted into loving families after years in an environment with only the minimum amount of care. These children have learning difficulties and an inability to make lasting relationships. Brain scans have shown black areas where the brain cells have died through lack of stimulation.
Similar effects can be seen in children whose early months have been spent in violent and abusive households. These babies' brains have been wired in fear and their character irrevocably altered.
Babies whose mothers have suffered post-natal depression have also been affected by lack of stimulation, and this can still be apparent at 10 years. Boy babies have been shown to be more vulnerable, particularly around age 4 months.
How to help your baby reaching its full potential
Babies will not thrive without love. Reading his body language, responding promptly to his needs, cuddling and stroking will all help him grow up secure and confident. Touch is the first sense to develop, and a gentle loving touch excites the emotional and sensory centres of the brain. Premature babies are shown to be physically and mentally stronger when held and cuddled rather than isolated in an incubator.
Breast milk is the best way to feed your baby. Not only does it provide all the nutrients the baby needs, but it will also provide protection from infections. Current advice recommends breastfeeding exclusively to the age of 6 months. When breastfeeding isn’t possible, it is advisable to choose formula milk that contains LCPs (Long Chain Polyunsaturated fatty acids). LCPs have been shown to aid development of the brain, retina and nervous tissue.
There appears to be an innate manner we adopt when talking to babies and toddlers, using a higher register and short sentences; “motherese”. Talking to your baby is extremely important. Talk about everyday things, read books, play music and sing nursery rhymes. Have toys appropriate to his age, and use natural objects in addition to the usual plastic toys.
Avoid over-stimulation from having the television or radio on throughout the day. This can hinder him concentrating on the most important thing in his life: you.
*Dr. Peter R. Huttenlocher is a Professor of Pediatrics and Neurology at the University of Chicago who specialises in infant neuroscience.