Love Nourishes: The Role of Parents in a Child's Brain Development

For most people, the draw of infants is irresistible.  We want to hold them and snuggle them and sing to them in sing-songy voices designed to bring comfort or amuse.  As parents, we are hard-wired to love and respond to our baby’s cues.  According to experts, in addition to proper nutrition, genetics, and DNA, how we respond to and interact with our baby early on has a direct impact on the baby’s brain development.   

When my husband and I first told my dad I was pregnant, Dad almost immediately insisted I listen to Mozart daily.  A musician and music educator, he had read somewhere that listening to Mozart both in the womb and out would help make the baby smart.  Given that listening to Mozart seemed a relatively safe experiment, I purchased “Mozart for Babies” and took my daily dose of it, along with my folic acid, prenatal vitamins, and DHA. But does Mozart really help a baby’s brain develop?

When my son was 8 weeks old, I joined an organization called PEPS.   During one of our meetings, a guest presenter, an expert on screen time, mentioned an amazingly informative book on a baby’s brain development: Brain Rules for Baby: How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five, by John Medina.    Medina discounts the Mozart theory, but he does discuss a variety of factors that help a child thrive or that negatively impact a baby’s development.  He and many other experts recognize that normal, loving, responsive caregiving play important roles in an infant’s brain development.  Yes, you read that right!  Normal, loving, and responsive caregiving help your baby’s brain develop. 

What is normal, loving, and responsive caregiving?  Well, it begins with supportive touch (essentially pleasant physical contact, like skin-to-skin contact or breastfeeding or holding your infant) immediately upon birth or whenever you can safely do so.   According to Medina and many other articles, including the U.S. News and World Report article, “How Holding Your Baby Helps with Brain Development,” early physical contact is critical to a baby’s development. 

In one study, conducted at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital and supported by the National Institutes of Health, a team of researchers led by Dr. Nathalie Maitre recorded the brain activity of over 100 full-term and prematurely-born infants using EEG (electroencephalogram) testing while the babies’ skin was lightly touched.  First, they recorded the typical brain response to touch in full-term babies (babies born on or after 37 weeks of pregnancy). Then they recorded the brain activity of babies born prematurely (before 37 weeks).

Compared with full-term babies, premature babies (who were not touched as much as full-term babies due to complications presented by their premature birth) showed starkly reduced brain activity when they were touched.  They noticed, however, that the more these babies were touched, the more active their brains became.  The study showed, for the first time, that for premature babies the quality of touch while in hospital after birth (typically around one month) affected the functioning of the babies’ brains.  With supportive touch, these babies' EEG results demonstrated increased brain activity; with unpleasant touch (i.e., skin punctures and tube insertions), reduced activity.  According to Dr. Maitre, supportive touching is “actually able to counteract some of the problems that are caused by the NICU stay and by immaturity at birth.”  For more information on Dr. Maitre’s study, click here.  

Talking and singing to your baby also help baby’s brain develop.  As mentioned in another Bumbershoots by Nana blog, Top Five Reasons to Read to Your Little One, studies show that children who were read to as newborns not only have a larger vocabulary, but more advanced mathematical skills than kids their age who were not.  What can we glean from that?  That language – talking, reading, and singing to your child - is also fundamental to a baby’s cognitive (brain) development.

The short of the long of it?  Love nourishes our babies’ brains.  The kind of attention we innately want to give our little ones (i.e., holding, touching, rocking, swaying, comforting, talking and singing) is precisely the best kind of stimulation for their growing brains at that particular time in their lives.  In other words, by simply loving and nurturing our babies in ways that feel most natural to most parents, we are already helping our babies thrive developmentally.  Nature!  It has a way of working magic without our even realizing it!

For more information on baby’s brain development, check out Zero to Three’s resource, Frequently Asked Questions About Brain Development by clicking here. 

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