0 to 12 months: a very active brain

0 to 12 months: a very active brain
Your baby may not be walking yet, but there’s plenty of activity happening in his brain. With every stimulation, the connections between his neurons get stronger.

Your baby may not be walking yet, but there’s plenty of activity happening in his brain. With every stimulation, the connections between his neurons get stronger.

Different areas of the brain develop at different speeds. At birth, some areas are already more advanced than others, including the regions dedicated to the five senses. This is normal, as these are the areas the baby needs most in the beginning.

"All of a baby’s stimulations involve the senses," says Sarah Lippé, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Montreal and a researcher in brain and child development. "For instance, when you sing to your child and hold him in your arms, his sensory receptors send information to the brain, which then reinforces connections between the neurons. When multiple senses are stimulated at the same time, the brain receives information through multiple pathways."

Everyday routines, such as diaper changing, feeding, and bathing, are all opportunities to stimulate your baby’s senses and get the brain working. It’s the same when you talk to your child, cuddle her, rock her, look her in the eyes, or take her for a stroll. These kinds of interactions are essential for a healthy brain.

When he gets home from work, Charles, the father of six-month-old Léonie, has a little ritual: he spreads out a bunch of stuffed animals, toys, and pillows on a blanket and plays with his daughter. He makes funny sounds, tickles her, has her play on her belly, lifts her gently in the air, and lets her feel different textures. "When Léonie sees her dad come home, she’s so happy," says her mother, Emma. "She smiles, waves her arms and legs, and makes excited noises—she knows what’s about to happen!"

Development in all areas

 A stimulating and nurturing environment helps babies feel secure and fosters their growth, mental development, and learning. When you see your child progressing in different areas, you know his brain is developing properly.

"The first smiles will appear after about two months," says Miriam Beauchamp, director of the ABCs Developmental Neuropsychology Lab at the University of Montreal and a researcher at the CHU Sainte-Justine Research Center. "At this age, babies can also imitate some of their parents’ gestures, like sticking out their tongue. At three months, they start to look you in the eyes." At four to seven months, they understand that an object still exists even if they can’t see it anymore.

This is also when children start to experiment with sounds. At six months old, little Léonie babbles a lot. "In the past few days, she’s started making higher-pitched and more varied sounds," says Emma. "She’s also making sputtering noises with her mouth, like she’s trying to talk." Experimenting with sounds helps babies develop their language skills.

Léonie’s hand-eye coordination has also improved a lot recently. "She looks at the buttons or moustaches on her stuffed animals and can now reach out and touch them," says Emma. This shows that Léonie’s brain is letting her make more precise movements, using visual information (a stuffed animal’s moustache, for instance) to guide her hand to the object she’s interested in.

During a baby’s first year, major changes also occur in the areas of the brain related to motor skills. That’s how, as uncoordinated as they are at birth, infants begin taking their first steps after about 12 months!

Soothe your baby when she cries

Progress is slower when it comes to controlling emotions. “The areas of the brain that produce emotions function right from the start," says Lippé. "The areas that manage emotions, however, aren’t developed yet and are poorly connected to other areas of the brain." That’s why babies cry so often. Babies don’t cry for no reason—it’s their only way of letting you know that something is wrong.

That’s also why it’s important to soothe babies when they cry. When you reassure them, you’re helping their brain develop, as the neurons that contribute to managing stress and strong emotions are strengthened. When you comfort your baby when she cries, her brain also produces oxytocin, a hormone that has a calming effect.


A shaken baby means a brain at risk

Shaken baby syndrome happens when someone forcefully shakes a baby. The baby’s head swings in all directions, causing the brain to move inside their skull. As the brain is soft and fragile, it can bleed and swell.

Shaking a baby is incredibly dangerous: one in five babies who are shaken end up dead. Others may suffer permanent damage, such as vision loss, paralysis, epilepsy, cognitive deficiencies, developmental delays, or behavioural issues. If you feel as though you might lose control because your baby won’t stop crying, put him in his crib and walk away.

There’s nothing wrong with letting your baby cry in his crib while you calm down; your baby will be safer this way. If you can, ask someone to take care of your baby or call someone to talk about your feelings. Make sure you are calm before picking up your child again.


Photos: Maxim Morin


Naître et grandir

Source: Naître et grandir magazine, September 2018
Research and copywriting: Nathalie Vallerand
Scientific review: Dr. Tuong-Vi Nguyen, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry, Faculty of Medicine, McGill University