“Just smelling your baby is a huge mood booster.”
- Veteran Mom
“She definitely came out with her own personality.”
“In a lot of ways, it’s like when you first start dating someone. You don’t know them at first and you have to get used to them.” - Veteran Mom
Babies are determined learners and they naturally grow their own mind in a way that works best for them. They’re constantly picking up on everything around them and fascinated by each new experience. Just watch a child’s quizzical eyes, intense gaze, and curiosity and you’ll see their brain wheels turning. They’re also creative learners, like babies who learn to roll around to get where they want to go before they’re even crawling. And you’ll see how thrilled your child is when she masters new skills like rolling over, crawling, standing and walking (they explore like swift kittens, so stay attentive when yours gets moving)!
And how you interact with your baby also influences her learning. She’ll stare intently at your face, observing your expressions, inflections, and gestures—and babies are natural born mimics. One of the first pictures from Boot Camp for New Dads was a father sticking his tongue out and his baby mirroring the same. It’s a great reminder that your little one picks up on everything you do—even at this age! So the longer you stay amazed by how your baby’s brain works, the easier it will be to follow her lead.
As parents, we contribute a tremendous amount to our child’s development, but we can also block curiosity and learning by doing too much for them (if they reach for an object, instead of handing it to them, let them take on the challenge to grasp it on their own). And since babies’ brains remain elastic, every experience continues to shape her development.
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During the first half of your pregnancy, your baby grows over 100 billion neurons (nerve cells) inside her brain, all she’ll ever need. Neurons input information from other neurons then passes info to yet another group of neurons (similar to a computer chip except much more complex).
Synapses start forming between neurons to pass chemical or electrical signals between them in a network (it’s like the wiring in your house, except brain wires grow on their own and follow a built-in wiring diagram). Your baby’s heart, arms, legs, eyes, and ears get connected first, and hearing is ready to go a month or so before birth (enabling her to recognize your voices).
Each neuron eventually connects through synapses to an average of 15,000 other neurons. Multiply this by 100 billion neurons, and you get 1,500,000,000,000,000 (1.5 quadrillions) connections forming your baby’s brain. There are many, many more possible combinations, which is why she’ll be so entirely unique and utterly fascinating.
At birth, even though her brain is forming synapses at a furious pace, less than 20% of these neural connections are built with only 1.2 quadrillion synapses to go! In her first year, her brain triples in weight.
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How Your Baby Learns
As your baby’s physical components connect, her brain takes a free-form approach to synapse formation and follows a wiring diagram with a flexible blueprint. Every life experience influences her development, and a wide variety of collective experiences literally change a baby’s brain—starting before birth.
When she’s in the womb and hears you, it stimulates her brain to create new synapses for recording your voice. As these connections get stronger and more efficient, your voice imprints on her brain; the same happens when she hears your favorite song on repeat and once she’s born, she’ll know the tune now stored in her memory bank.
At birth, her brain records your touch, smell, voice, and facial expressions. With eyes wide open, she’ll explore all around as her neural network for vision calibrates to 20/20, and she’ll start imprinting visuals, beginning with your face. When you hold her for the first time and she stares into your eyes, her neurons are furiously generating new synapses, and each time you hold her, even more fire up to bolster the connection (especially when you do something new).
Brain wise, your baby’s neurons don’t yet possess all of the needed programming; the circuitry is laid out, but the switches haven’t been turned on. Her sensory experiences will facilitate circuit connections necessary for language, vision, emotions, comprehension, and physical coordination and stimulation is critical.
Rich experiences produce rich brains. It’s what turns a mass of brainpower into a functioning human being. Like a muscle, a baby’s brain increases its function according to how much it’s used. You and Dad stimulate your baby by talking to her, being affectionate, showing her the world, and introducing objects to see, feel, taste, and experience. Think of it this way: Every time you put something new within your baby’s field of vision, thousands of new brain cell connections are being made.
Babies use their motor skills and natural ability to suck to master breastfeeding with a “try this, try that” approach to what works and what doesn’t. The same goes for her legs and arms: initially, they flail around but they soon evolve into rhythmic patterns that exercise her muscles. After a few months, she’ll discover her hands and stare inquisitively at them as she learns to grasp objects (major milestone). Speech begins with hearing and babbling and is further stimulated by your facial expressions and verbal communication.
Her brain then turns to thinking, which includes logical processing. When she’s three years old and asking you hundreds of questions a day like “Why is water wet?” she’s using neural networks for higher reasoning, and her brain keeps on forming until she’s in her twenties.
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“It’s pretty cool when you think about it. Babies never seem to get discouraged when they’re learning something new. They just keep trying.” - Veteran Mom
“Babies change so much in the first year. One minute they’re stationary on a blanket, and the next thing you know you’ve got a baby on the run.” - Veteran Mom
Mother & Child Brain Connection
Your baby’s neural network built just for you will become very large since nature endowed her with the drive to survive which is all about YOU. This mother-child network starts developing well before she’s born and because you’re constantly linked, both pre and post birth, you’ll be the major source of her early experiences, which become imprinted as primary brain connections.
During these initial months, she’ll learn that she’s safe, comfortable, and loved. She’ll learn she can count on you no matter what, which provides her with a strong sense of security throughout her life. Studies show that when a mother enters the room, her baby’s heart rate calms down, and she can actually soothe her baby in the same way pain medication does, except mom’s way is organic via oxytocin surges.
Emerging brain research shows that the inordinate amount of stress a new mom experiences nowadays is transferred to her baby. For example, when connected to biofeedback while holding their babies, moms were asked to imagine they were on a sunny beach or listening to the ocean and, incredibly, their baby’s heart and stress rates decreased. When asked to imagine financial stress, yup, both went up. These moms weren’t speaking or consciously doing anything differently, but their babies still tracked their stress levels. The conclusion was babies pick up on emotions through non-verbal methods like scent and body temperature. Though they can’t speak yet, babies are finely tuned-in and their senses work exceptionally well.
So it’s clear that your stress level will translate into stress for your baby, which negatively impacts her brain (as it does yours except it’s happening during her brain’s development). Among other impacts, this reduces her ability to concentrate and increases irritability, meaning more stress for you. Parental tension also drives arguments, and babies release a lot of cortisol and stress hormones when there’s arguing. With so much stress prevalent today, reducing and avoiding it is essential. Taking care of yourself with exercise, rest, friendship, support, etc. is one of the best things you can do for your baby, because when you relax, so does she.
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“The other day, my husband was letting my son play in the closet and take everything out, and I thought, ‘That’s not good.’ But this has now become my favorite thing, and I let my son take everything out…it pushes me to be a little more flexible.” –Veteran Mom
Differences Are a Plus
So, what do moms and dads uniquely bring to the table? Science now tells us what babies tend to get from each parent.
Researchers in Denver placed babies in a room and asked both parents to enter individually. When Mom walked in and stood five feet away, her baby’s heart rate went down and she (baby) became calmer. When Dad walked in and stood five feet away, the baby began moving her limbs and her heart rate went up, anticipating excitement. Of course, this doesn’t mean moms aren’t exciting and dads aren’t calming, but it does reaffirm that each parent has a distinct and equally important role in their baby’s development and life.
The combined differences you and Dad bring to the table are giving your child one of the greatest gifts of all: a strong foundation in the world and a more confident approach to life. 100% of both Mom and Dad give baby a richer experience than 200% of Mom. In short, children benefit most from the basic, deeply foundational contributions both parents make to their long-term well-being. And for real growth, adding grandmas, grandpas, aunts, uncles, friends, and caregivers into the loop gives your baby a mega brain boost.