The development of the infant brain in the first year of life.

Updated: Jun 14, 2020

An introduction to your newborn's brain.

A baby is born with an immature brain that needs stimulation to reach its full potential. At birth a baby’s brain cells are more numerous than that of an adult, 200 billion compared to 100 billion at age 35. The majority of the networks and pathways required for physical and emotional development are not. This is demonstrated by the fact that a baby’s brain is thirty three percent of its eventual adult size but only twenty five percent of its eventual weight. The parts of the brain functioning well at birth are controlled by the lower portion of the brain, the spinal cord and the brain stem; these are a part of the oldest evolutionary part of our brain (reptilian) which we share with all vertebrae. This area of our brain is responsible for essential body functions required to sustain life such as respiration, blood pressure, heart rate, digestion, sleep, fight or flight instinct. The other part of the newborn’s brain that is developed well is the emotional brain (mammalian) that triggers strong emotions such as fear, rage, separation anxiety, caring, nurturing, social bonding, playfulness and explorative urges. The newborn's brain is not mature enough to be able to manage or process these responses and relies on the loving nurturing response of their caregivers to manage them for them. This is because the mammalian brain requires the rational (higher) brain to manage these responses. It is this part of the brain which is immature in an infant.

What happens next?

The infant's brain begins to organise itself by moving neurons to specific areas of the brain based on what function these cells will perform through a process called neural migration. This process began inside the womb and will continue until the infant is at least eight to ten months old.

An example of this is baby’s vision, whilst inside the womb vision was not required to stimulate the development of the brain. A baby is born with limited vision seeing about twenty five centimetres in front of its face. The vision is limited to protect the infant from sensory overload and give the brain cells responsible for vision to mature through the stimulation of our faces, bold patterns and the world around it.

The part of the brain which controls movement also develops rapidly during the first six months from birth, more so than at any other time within our lives. From laying to sitting to crawling to walking and all the stages in between. It is during this first year of life that the brain creates pathways and connections. To form strong ones the connections need to be repeatedly used and if not the connection will be pruned and lost. The connections are being made at a million per second. It is from our baby’s most early experiences that their brain is shaped and develops. As the pathways and connections are formed the process of myelination begins where by a white substance forms around the neurons which has an insulating effect and fixes the connections whilst creating better, faster more efficient connections between brain cells.

How you can play your part.

Babies are not yet capable of complex thinking as the cortex of the brain is still developing and not yet functioning. It is important for babies to receive sensory input, especially tactile stimulation and positive nurturing human interaction for this area of the brain to develop. If this is not received brain development can be prevented in areas which could result in social, emotional and behaviour problems throughout their life.

As a baby builds their experiences through visual stimulation, nurturing touch, positive interaction with the world it is experiencing and through positive communication their brain begins to establish positive connections in health, social and emotional areas of their brains. Their brains are developing from the bottom up, mastering basic functions and graduating through to the more complex world of emotional development. It is important that they experience nurturing, loving positive relationships and experiences. These experiences do not just ‘show’ how to behave they actually prevent high levels of stress within the infant which is damaging to the brain development. This is because the infant relies upon you to moderate their chemical responses within their brain. They need co-regulation to release the positive feel good opioids and oxytocin until their higher brain has developed enough to control the response from their mammalian brain. This is fundamental to the development of their emotional patterns and intelligence the results of which will affect their mental health now and in the future.

During the first year the brain is at its most optimum for learning whilst the pathways in the brain are still changeable. As the baby matures the brain's ability to change neural pathways and messages decreases. As it is more difficult to change pathways as an adult than create pathways as an infant the experiences your baby receives during its first year are fundamental in your baby's future as an adult. The foundations for later learning, behaviour and both mental and physical health are set by these experiences. Nurturing positive relationships build healthy brain structures providing optimum foundations.

Nixie Foster - The Motherhood Mentor to high–flying female entrepreneurs and career women. The founder of High-Flyer to Authentic Motherhood in 13 Steps; a mentorship program to assist you in finding your natural identity as a mother and give new mothers the secure, loving bond with their baby which allows them to confidently be their unique version of motherhood.

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