Baby's brain

Scientists say a baby's brain is a fascinating bundle of neurons just waiting to be hard-wired into the intricate circuitry we call the mind. The wiring of the brain begins at birth and continues until age 10 or 12 when it is wired for life, according to these findings. Some scientists believe that with the right stimulation at the right time, you can help to increase your child's brain power from the very start.

1. "Windows of opportunities" in a baby's life are crucial.

The early years are precious windows of opportunity. Parents have the best opportunity to influence how their children think, feel, and behave, before that time. There are activities and play things that will help your child capitalize, in the best possible way, on a window of opportunity.

2. What are some of these "windows of opportunity?"

a) The first window is the LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT window. Zero to 2 years old is when this window is most wide open, but it does extend to 10 years old. This is a very important window because the child is learning his or her primary language. Parents should also do everything they can to hold the child close so that the baby can see where the sound is coming from and speak to the child in rhymes, in song, whispers, and silly voices. Take joy in speaking to them.

There's evidence that pop-up books are the best way to get your child used to reading. They stimulate the child's senses. These can have a life-long influence over the child's attitude toward reading. There is dramatic proof that the first couple of years are the crucial years in a child's reading life.

b) The second window of opportunity is VISUAL ABILITY. It opens at birth and closes at 2 years of age. To make full use of this window — put interesting things in the baby's line of sight, like a mobile. Make sure their eyes are always looking at something interesting. After 6 months, put something near the crib that they can look at, but not out of reach; this will help develop hand-eye coordination.

c) MOTOR COORDINATION is another window. Zero to 5 years. At the youngest stages, begin to hand the child toys to hold. Rub them in the palms of their hands and give them a feel for it. Also repeat their uncoordinated movements back to them, but in an approving manner to reinforce that behavior.

Guidelines for parents

1) "Respond to a child's cues and clues." A child, no matter how young, gives you indications of how he/she is feeling. Observe how a child's eyes move when looking at you or objects.

2) "Talk, read and sing to your child." When speaking, communicate face-to-face. The baby needs to see your eyes in interactions. And you should always include the baby, even if the baby doesn't appear to be interacting. If you are carefully observant, you will see there is a change in facial expressions, or the child will move a bit, when you are reading. This is an infant's language. You should respond to it."

3. "Use discipline as an opportunity to teach." Be specific about what jobs the child should do. Don't say, "clean up," in a general way, ask the child, "to put away the stuffed animals." Or "put the socks in the hamper." The child feels empowered by this, and you will not have unrealistic expectations.

We're all aware of the impact on stress on our lives. What kind of role does stress play in early brain development?

Stress in normal amounts is not a bad thing. A child builds a healthy stress capability with each new exploration because new things bring on a stress response that's a natural, neuro-biological system. Chemicals are released that help the body cope. But, if a child is in constant, chronic stress situations, he or she will build excessive stress reactions that will come out as fear, during certain times.

Overview: Wiring the brain

Scientists used to engage in the "nature or nurture" debate when they tried to understand the early years of childhood development. But, now they dismiss such philosophizing. That's because they are realizing it isn't one or the other. Nature is the dominant force in the earliest phases of embryonic development. But nurture plays a huge role in the first few years of the child's life.

Of all the recent neurological discoveries, the finding that the electrical activity of the brain cells changes the physical structure of the brain is the most surprising to the scientific community. And it translates into a new understanding of how important parenting is during the first three years.

At birth a baby's brain contains 100 billion neurons. While the brain contains virtually all the nerve cells it will ever have, the pattern of wiring between them is not yet established. It is the sensory experience (sight, sound, touch, taste) of the first three years (from age zero to three) that creates a blueprint for the assembly of a child's brain. Then, over the first ten or eleven years of a child's life, this blueprint is refined. Repetition of activity and stimulation helps the brain fortify certain neuron connections that lead to language, feelings and movement. The brain eliminates neuron connect-ions that are seldom or ever used. If a child isn't given stimulation that encourages language or feelings, the child can have a deficit in these areas. Depending on the type of parenting and stimulation provided, we end up with individual minds whose patterns of emotion and thought are unique.

How parents affect their children's development

In the 1930's D.W. Winnicot wrote about the importance of mirroring an infant by looking into the child's eyes. So, what's new here is more about why it's important to do that — we now know that the brain is reading each external signal as a road map for development.

Parents help babies learn by adopting the rhythmic, high-pitched speaking style known as "Parentese." When speaking to babies, mothers often put their faces very close to a child. They use shorter sentences, speak in a sing-song manner. Studies show that Parentese helps hasten the process of connecting words to the objects they denote.

Dr. Bruce Perry has done studies on the role parents play in helping their children regulate responses to stress. Children who are physically abused early in life develop brains that are sensitive to danger. At the slightest threat their hearts race and stress hormones surge. Perry said that "Experience is the chief architect of the brain."

Other studies show that a depressed mother's interactions with a child can affect the child's level of brain activity. A depressed mother who expresses her melancholy has a negative affect. But a depressed mother who can manage to play and interact with the child will encourage brain activity that leads to children with a more cheerful approach to the world.

                 — Good Morning America, ABC, April, 1997 

Toys and Games for Curious Tots

1-3 months - Mobiles and unbreakable mirrors attached to crib, rattles, stuffed toys with black and white patterns, music boxes and large colorful rings.

4-6 months - Beach balls, chunky bracelets, paper streamers, cloth or vinyl books and playing peek-a-boo.

7-9 months - Stuffed animals, nesting cylinders, pop-up toys, large dolls and puppets, bath toys and play pat-a-cake.

10-12 months - Push and pull toys, ordinary house-hold objects like empty egg cartons and large spoons, stacked rings on a spindle, and playing simple ball games.

19-21 months - Rocking horse, toys to take apart and put back together, small rubber balls, digging toys, large crayons, kiddie cars, water games, jigsaw puzzles, making mud pies, playing tag or hide and seek.

22-24 months - Kiddie lawn mowers and kitchen sets for make-believe play, modeling clay, construction sets, action toys like trains, telephones, dump trucks and fire engines, old magazines, baskets, tubes and containers with lids;

2-3 years - Beginner tricycle, mini-trampoline, roller skates, easel, crayons and markers, cassette players, woodworking bench.

(Excerpts from a Newsweek special issue on children and their development from birth to three in NEWSWEEK, Spring/Summer 1997. $3.50 at newstands or to order copies call 1-800-234-8193)

Other topics covered in this special edition of Newsweek include: How Speech Begins; A Baby's Brain; Genes and Emotions; What's Normal, What's Not; Preschool; Health Worries; Television; Web Sites and Toll Free Numbers and other resources.

Some of the Web Sites Featured include: Zero to Three - Washington, D.C.-based child advocacy group which provides research and information on physical, cognitive and social development of infants and toddlers. Web Site:

The American Association For Gifted Children, Preschool Project

For more information about AAGC, contact Margaret Evans Gayle, Executive Director or call (919) 783-6152.

Write to us at: American Association for Gifted Children at Duke University Box 90270 Durham, North Carolina 27708-0270