Love Nourishes: The Role of Parents in a Child's Brain Development (Updated 2020)

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.

It doesn't take more than love and attention to help your newborn develop.  For example, check out this chart of suggestions from Zero to Three:

What's going on: What you can do: Questions to ask yourself:
One of the most important tasks of the first 2 months is to help newborns feel comfortable in their new world. Observe carefully. This will help you figure out what your baby’s cries are telling you. What soothes your baby? How do you know?
Babies are learning to regulate their eating and sleeping patterns and their emotions, which help them feel content, safe and secure. Soothe your baby. When you respond to your baby’s cries and meet his needs, you let him know he is loved. You can’t spoil a baby. In fact, by responding lovingly to his needs, you are helping him learn skills now that allow him eventually to soothe himself. You are also promoting a strong bond and healthy brain development. What most distresses him?
Newborns use their gestures (body movements), sounds and facial expressions to communicate their feelings and needs from day 1. They use different cries to let you know they are hungry, tired or bored. Figure out what your baby is trying to tell you. Responding makes him feel important and tells him he is a good communicator. This builds a positive sense of self and a desire to communicate more. How does your baby communicate with you?
Babies ask for a break by looking away, arching their backs, frowning or crying. They socialize with you by watching your face and exchanging looks. Talk and sing to your baby. Tell him about everything that’s going on around him. Pay attention to the sights and sounds he likes. Find toys and everyday objects with different colors and textures and see which he likes best. What kinds of interactions does he like best? How do you know? How does he let you know when he has had enough?
Play helps babies learn about the world around them. It is also an important way they connect with you, helping them to develop a strong attachment and promoting healthy social development. Play “tracking” games by moving yourself and interesting objects back and forth. First he will use his eyes to follow. Eventually he will move his head from side to side. This helps strengthen his neck muscles as well as exercise his visual abilities What kind of toys grab your baby’s attention? How does he let you know what he’s interested in? What kind of play do you enjoy most with your baby?

 

Zero to Three also has similar charts for ages 2-6 months, 6-9 months9-12 months, 12-18 months, 18-24 months, and 24-36 months.  

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, singing and connecting) 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. 

For additional ideas to support your baby's social and emotional development, read this article from WhattoExpect.com.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published