If you could peek inside your baby’s head, past those still-forming bones in her skull, you’d see that her brain is growing—and very quickly! She’s soaking up information from her surroundings all the time, and it’s building her brain. Here’s how.
Babies are born with about 100 billion brain cells, or neurons.
After birth, the task is to network all these cells together, via connection points called synapses. It’s the biggest job a little one’s brain has: In the baby and toddler years, the most highly evolved area of the brain creates two million new synapses per second. The brain actually makes more connections than it ever needs, and eventually it eliminates those that are never or rarely used.
- Build your baby’s brain by: Stimulating all her senses: hearing, sight, smell, touch, and taste. Talking to her, taking her places, and letting her little fingers explore different textures will all help create those new synapses. But also, read your baby’s cues (like fussing or squirming away) to know when she’s had enough and needs a break.
Boys’ and girls’ brains are different even before birth, thanks to hormones found in the womb.
Later, nurture and environment contribute to brain changes, too. Boys tend to be better at visual-spatial tasks, like putting together puzzles. Girl babies’ brains tend to be more advanced, cognitively, than boys, at least for a while (say, they may speak earlier and have more advanced vocabularies). They may have better social and emotional skills, too.
- Build your baby’s brain by: Providing girls with activities to work on those spatial skills, like sorting shapes and building with blocks; giving boys opportunities to talk, listen, and nurture (like caring for a baby doll or stuffed animal).
Babies use the fat from foods to strengthen brain cells.
Fat from breast milk, formula, and table foods is a key ingredient in myelin, a substance that helps brain cells communicate with each other quickly and clearly.
- Build your baby’s brain by: Serving nutritious foods that contain fat. About half of a child’s daily calories should come from fat until he reaches age two, which is why pediatricians recommend that little ones drink whole milk. Other good sources include avocados, cheese, and yogurt.
Your baby’s skull is growing, too.
Your baby has soft spots because the bones of his skull are not fused together yet. This gives the brain room to grow.
- Build your baby’s brain by: Protecting his head from injury as best you can. Helmets are not necessary, but babyproofing and basic safety protocols are: Always use a car seat; don’t leave your baby unattended on a changing table—use the safety belt while changing your baby; and place an area rug or carpet beneath the changing table and crib.
Babies’ brains are built on repetition.
Repeating the same sounds, skills, or movements helps your baby’s brain create, and then strengthen, the connections and paths that help brain cells process information.
- Build your baby’s brain by: Letting her experiment with toys and objects she can safely handle, and being patient with her repetitive ways (like when she tosses her cup off the high chair tray 10 times, or wants you to sing “The Wheels on the Bus” again and again).
The brain learns to control the body’s movements in a predictable way: from head to toe.
Newborns don’t yet know how to make purposeful, voluntary movements. But by age one, their brains have figured a lot of it out, starting at the top. First, a baby learns how to control the muscles in his head and neck, then his arms and torso, and finally in his legs.
- Build your baby’s brain by: Giving him tummy time when he’s very young (so he can strengthen those head, neck, and arm muscles) and then, as he grows, allowing time and safe spaces for him to experiment with rolling, crawling, walking, and climbing.
Baby brains are primed to speak every language under the sun.
Humans can make hundreds of different sounds, but each language only uses some of them. A tiny baby can hear and distinguish way more of those sounds than she actually needs. So, as she grows, the brain zeroes in on the sounds babies hear the most. Eventually, babies learn to tune out, and finally forget, what they don’t need.
- Build your baby’s brain by: Talking to her, early and often. Narrate your daily activities, read books together, and mimic the sounds your baby makes to have a conversation (albeit one made up mostly of nonsense syllables).
Memory starts developing by your baby’s first birthday.
New babies don’t remember specific events, but one-year-olds can start to recall things that happened hours before. That means babies can then learn a skill based on watching something, remembering it later, and applying that knowledge.
- Build your baby’s brain by: Demonstrating a skill (such as rolling a ball) and then giving your child the time and opportunity to practice it again after a few hours or a day has passed.