From the outside, your newborn appears a helpless bundle, but inside, he’s a frenzy of activity. His brain is developing at a phenomenal rate - in his first two years, it grows faster than at any other time in his life.
“From birth until the teenage years, the volume of your baby’s brain increases by 40 per cent,” says Professor Mark Johnson, director of the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development at Birkbeck College, London. “He’s born with more or less the same number of nerve cells as he’ll have all his life, but, over the first three years, the connections between these cells experience rapid growth.”
Over the first years of life, the connections between the nerve cells in the brain are developing very quickly. These connections relay messages from brain to body and back again, controlling everything from breathing to emotions.
By your tot’s third birthday, he’ll have a thousand trillion connections in his brain - twice as many as you. But over his childhood, the connections go through a pruning process, and the ones that aren’t so useful die away.
These developments change your baby from helpless infant to independent toddler with his own thought processes and an understanding of social and emotional behaviour. “In the first year, your baby moves from being controlled by the sub-cortical, primitive part of his brain to the cortex, which is responsible for the cleverer cognitive functions,” Dr Johnson adds. Soon he’ll be on the move, chatting away and making friends.
Developing his senses
Your baby’s senses are developing at an incredible rate, in tandem with your baby’s rapid brain growth. At birth, his skin is his most receptive sensory organ. His eyesight, though, is poor. He can only see objects that are within 30cm away.
But just one month on, his hearing is almost fully developed and he can focus both eyes on an object and follow it if you move it around. The area of his brain that controls hearing and smell is also developing rapidly, so it’s the perfect time to stimulate him with talk and song.
As your baby gets older, the new experiences he encounters will give his senses a workout. At birth, for example, he prefers sugary to salty tastes. But once you start weaning, his palate will adjust to different flavours.
Once he’s on the move, you’ll see even more evidence of how his senses have developed. Sitting independently means his hands are free to discover the world through touch. He’ll also use his mouth, which is rich in nerve endings, to explore objects. You’ll notice him turning if you call his name and babbling back in reply.
Why you need to spend time with baby
Mums are naturally equipped with all the skills we need to help our babies. The best environment for a baby to learn is a loving home with lots of social interaction. For example, have you ever used cutesy baby talk? Called motherese, this is where adults instinctively speak in a sing-song voice, using short, simple sentences and lots of repetition. It helps babies to make sense of the words more clearly.
Your baby is also driven to seek out learning experiences for himself. He’ll naturally turn to things he hasn’t seen before, and is particularly interested in new toys.
Still, the best thing you can do for your baby’s development is to spend time with him. “Babies instinctively know that the ideal way to learn about the world is from other human beings,” Dr Johnson explains. “Their brains are very active when they’re in close contact with an adult. If you play with an object together, your baby will learn much more about it than if you just give him the object and leave him to it.”