It’s not really something you think about, is it?
I mean, when you are pregnant what you think about is the development of your baby, it’s exciting to think that they are getting bigger each day, that they now have hands and feet, or that they can hear. You don’t really think, ‘gosh, my baby is now building neural pathways and developing their spinal cord which will connect with their brain which is currently developing!’, do you?
I had never really thought about a baby’s brain much until I heard about the impact of the first 1000 days of life. But it turns out that your baby’s brain IS doing amazing things really early on in your pregnancy and it is developing throughout, and the things that you do now will affect your baby’s life outcomes.
In a piece of brain tissue the size of a grain of rice, there are 10,000 nerve cells. Each one of those forms between 1 and 10,000 connections with other nerve cells. There are an estimated one hundred trillion connections in a human brain. At only four weeks gestation, your baby is creating neurons. These neurons are ones that will be used for their whole lives, from the very beginning through to the end of life. By the time you are four weeks pregnant, 500,000 neurons are developing every minute. These neurons build the brain layer by layer like an onion. They travel along supporting cells called glia in waves of millions of neurons. No other cells migrate in this way. There is some evidence that neurons have some idea where they need to travel to in the brain and that they also know whereabouts in the brain they are! Amazing! And all that is happening while you sit there, just watching telly or reading this blog!
This fascinating information is all well and good, but, ‘so what?’, I hear you say, ‘what can I do about it and why would I be that fussed?’
Well, the amazing thing is that science has shown us that the development that takes place in your baby’s brain in the first 1000 days of life – that’s from conception to two years old – is fundamental to the life outcomes for your child.
One third of the world’s children will not reach their full potential and you might think that those children are all based in deprived countries and this doesn’t affect you, but sadly they actually come from all over the world. In the UK, one in five children arrive at school and struggle, and in some places in the UK that number is even higher. It seems so wrong to have children who are falling behind right from the start when this is completely preventable.
You see, we used to think that brain development was a fixed process, that you were born with your genetic blueprint and that determined your life outcomes. Now we know more; science has shown us that things are different. We can see that although yes, genes are important, we also know that the brain is changed both physically and functionally with the experiences that it gets. This is known as brain plasticity. It starts from before your baby is born and goes on for the whole of the first 1000 days of their life – the brain is in its period of the most rapid growth of your baby’s whole life.
By providing your baby with a few key elements at the beginning of their life, we can have lasting impacts on the brain and reap massive rewards later on. This is because with the right environment, brains become stronger, more connected and better networked. This has a ripple effect because it improves your baby’s academic performance, economic opportunity, health, resilience and their capacity to navigate life, including some of the trickier things that can happen in life.
WOW! That’s quite heavy, isn’t it? I can hear you now asking, ‘well, what can I do to help my baby’s brain then?’
Well, the brilliant thing is that it isn’t that hard!
Obviously, we want to provide your baby with great nutrition and health, but it’s also about providing lots of love and LOTS of play-based, responsive stimulation. For that, think play between you and your baby, as by doing this you can literally build your baby a strong brain.
What I am talking about here is giving your baby play activities that build their cognitive (thinking), emotional, and physical skills. By responding to them and giving them security, we show them that their needs will be met in a warm and loving way. So when you sing, massage or talk to your baby, when you encourage curiosity and you are consciously interacting with your baby, you are literally enhancing your baby’s brain and creating a platform for more development. This is because your baby’s brain is built from their experiences.
Building your baby’s brain is like building a house, or even an amazing castle! The experiences we give them are the foundations of that building. And just like when you are building a house or castle, you want strong foundations, so the same is true for our baby’s brain.
Strong foundations for your baby ensure that the walls of the castle and ultimately the roof all are strong, structurally sound, and fit together.
What we are looking for here are small, simple, daily activities that help you give your baby the strong start we all want for our children. And we do that through the play that we do with them.
What look like simple activities are actually extremely complex.
For example, when you shake a rattle for your baby, you are developing their eyesight and hearing.
If you help your baby to hold the rattle, you are also building up the strength in their hand muscles – the same muscles that they will use to hold a pencil when they are older. And if you talk to your baby at the same time as they are holding the rattle and tell them what they are doing or ask them questions about it, you are also developing their language skills.
Something you can start doing today for your baby is something that I have taken from the Pregnancy section on the Oliiki app, but is also interesting and important once your baby is here:
At a meal today, turn off all distractions like the TV, radio etc. and just focus on being with the other people around you. If you don’t have anyone else with you, just talk to your baby.
Now, just tell a story; it can be anything, but preferably it’s more than what you did today. It should be something that you remember that you can describe in detail or retell a story that you have read, or even start a debate. Like I said, the content doesn’t matter, what matters is that you talk with enthusiasm about it.
Research has shown that this is a great way for babies and children to develop their vocabulary and build their language skills.
The researchers found that although reading to children introduced them to approximately 140 ‘rare words’, conversation at the dinner table introduced them to over 1000!
Children who have bigger vocabularies learn to read more earlier and more easily because they can decipher the words more easily.
By doing this, not only are you building your baby’s vocabulary, you are also building bonds that last a lifetime, as well as developing better emotional and mental health and improving their social skills. So you can see from this that the simple act of talking around the dinner table is building your baby a strong brain.
Another activity you can do today is again from the pregnancy section of the Oliiki app but can also be easily done when your baby has already been born (and you can start using it straight away!). This time the activity’s focus is on maths and numerical understanding.
Today, make a list of number games that you can remember, for instance ‘10 green bottles’ and the like. If you can’t think of any, you can look them up on the Internet. Developing an understanding of numeracy is important during the early years. It lays the foundation for all your baby’s future mathematical understanding, and number games are a great way to start introducing simple mathematical concepts to your baby in a fun and relaxed way. Obviously, you are not going to play these games with your baby right now if you are newly pregnant, though there is nothing stopping you singing them to your baby while they are still in the womb. By making a list of these songs and games now, it will help you when your baby is old enough to play them. If your baby is already here, developing a list of songs will help you never run short of them!
Number games help build your baby’s brain. It is really important to lay strong foundations for language development for your baby in these early years but it’s equally important to also lay the foundations for mathematical understanding. Early number games not only introduce numbers to your baby in a fun and easy way, they can also introduce concepts such as matching, sorting, ordering and comparing. All of these will help your child when they reach school and will lay the foundations for their future learning.
Doing simple activities like this daily, from the time you conceive to the time your baby is two, will help your baby develop the foundations they will need to step out into the world confidently and be prepared for the learning opportunities that they will encounter. If you want more ideas like this, the Oliiki app provides you with one simple activity to do each day, using everyday items from in and around your home. There is no need for expensive toys or classes, just simple play activities that build your baby a strong brain and give you confidence that you are doing the right thing for your baby each and every day.
Download the Oliiki app today and enjoy your 7-day free trial.