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What's Going On In There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life
- By Lise Eliot, Ph.D

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Baby Brainpower

By Gail Rosenblum


What do babies know, and what are they capable of learning? These questions have always fascinated parents, and now there are some important new answers. Scientists are discovering that newborns - once thought to enter the world as blank slates onto which a lifetime of experiences was inscribed - have brains as sophisticated as the most powerful supercomputer, wired with a mind-boggling capacity for knowledge. Research has also shown that in the earliest months of life, a dazzling amount of brain development continues to occur.

"What's novel in the 1990s is an intriguing set of theories that hadn't even been thought of as recently as fifteen years ago," says Sandra Ackerman, the author of Discovering the Brain (National Academy Press). One of the areas scientists are exploring is infants' startling capacity for memory. But perhaps the most significant news concerns the impact of a baby's environment on the development of his brain.

Also, don't miss Mental Milestones at the end of this article for an age-by-age guide to the intellectual development of babies.

The Basics of Brainpower
It all starts with a series of bulges on a four-week-old embryo's neural tube. From there, billions of brain cells, called neurons, develop throughout the pregnancy. Connections between these cells, called synapses, also multiply rapidly during the nine months of gestation, forming the physical maps that allow learning to occur.

At birth, infants can feel, hear, and see (although vision is somewhat blurred). Within days they are able to recognize their mother's smell, and within weeks they can discriminate between her voice and the voices of others. Synapse formation continues at a rapid rate, allowing the baby to accomplish ever more complex tasks, such as forming her first sounds.

If you carefully observe your baby, you will probably notice that by about three or four months, she has a memory. If you show her a ball or toy, for example, then place it behind your back, you'll see that her eyes follow your action. She seems to remember the object and know where it is.

These kinds of observations by parents are borne out by research. "From following babies' eye movements we can observe that a three- or four-month-old does know that an object placed behind a screen or under a cloth is still there," confirms Adele Diamond, Ph.D., a developmental neuropsychologist and visiting faculty member at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "The child simply doesn't have the ability to let us know, by reaching for, pointing to, or uncovering the object, that she knows."

A baby's capacity for memory expands rapidly. "We've found that by the time a child is about thirteen months old, she can remember certain events for at least eight months after they occur," notes Patricia Bauer, Ph.D., associate professor of developmental psychology at the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis. "Some current data suggests that they remember even up to a year later."

At the Institute of Child Development, babies (13, 16, and 20 months of age) were shown how to perform certain activities, such as making a party hat decorated with a pom-pom, a headband, and a sticker. Then the infant was encouraged to repeat the activity. The fact that most of the children could recreate the party hat wasn't especially miraculous; after all, we know that babies are able to imitate spontaneously. (This is part of the learning process.) What was remarkable, however, was that when the children returned to the institute one year later, they could still recreate the hat.

A Baby's World
Social scientists have long suspected that children's intelligence and well-being are affected by their environment-whether or not they are nourished adequately, challenged intellectually, and given enough affection. Now, modern brain-imaging techniques have confirmed this notion. "We recognize that the actual physical wiring of the brain is susceptible to experience," says William Greenough, Ph.D., professor of psychology and cell and structural biology at the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Dr. Greenough obtained similar results from his experiments on rats. "We found that the brains of rats placed in stimulating surroundings were more elaborate than those of rats placed in isolation. The animals in the first group had more brain-cell connections, and they solved problems (such as finding their way through a maze) more rapidly," he explains. "It was clear that a stimulating environment brought out the best in them."

The same goes for babies. Specifically, a baby's environment during the first year of life appears to have an enormous impact on brain development. It is during the first few months that the brain's wiring is fine-tuned, and excess cells and synapses-typically those that have never been used - are eliminated, explains Kathryn Taaffe Young, Ph.D., a New York City-based developmental psychologist. Dr. Young is the principal author of Starting Points: Meeting the Needs of Our Youngest Children, a 1994 Carnegie Corporation study that underscored the importance of maximizing children's potential for learning before age three. "The first year is critical for healthy brain development," she emphasizes. "If synapses aren't used, they die, and there's no chance to revive them."

What this means is that children reared in environments where stimulation is limited actually have fewer synapses than those raised in environments where they are regularly talked to, held, and visually stimulated, according to Dr. Young. You may not have realized it, but all of the things that you do with your baby regularly add up: When you sing to an infant, talk to her, hold her, play with her, and give her appropriate toys and objects to explore, you are creating an environment that enables her brain to develop to its maximum potential.

Practical Implications for Parents
When parents hear about the importance of stimulation, they may wonder whether they should be making special efforts to encourage their baby's intellectual growth. In other words, will more stimulation result in an even smarter baby?

Most experts believe that it doesn't help to pressure babies and young children to learn. In fact, says Dr. Diamond, pressure can turn learning into a source of anxiety. Patricia Goldman-Rakic, Ph.D., professor of neuroscience at Yale University School of Medicine, adds, "Young minds can absorb information efficiently, but the child must be ready for it." Parents must be careful not to frustrate a child by pushing him to perform tasks that are beyond his level. "And don't be concerned about how well a young child performs a task," Dr. Goldman-Rakic adds. "There's no question that he will master it over time."

The key is to support a baby's natural development through challenging, age-appropriate activities. Experts suggest that in your child's first year of life, you introduce her to objects of different weights, textures, and materials, for example, and show her colors both indoors and outdoors. Because babies tune in quickly to sounds and rhythms, read poetry to your baby and have her listen to all kinds of music. Give her a pan and a spoon and let her make her own music. Because babies do so much learning by imitation, play imitation games with your baby (like wiggling your fingers or making sounds and encouraging her to watch and do what you're doing).

The most important strategy for encouraging early learning is simple. "Nurture your child's unlimited curiosity about the world around her," Dr. Diamond suggests, "and a sense that learning is fun." Remember that education is a process and that your role as your child's most involved teacher is a lifelong one. Children learn by example; if a child sees you having a wonderful time using your mind, she will be sure to get excited about all kinds of learning, too.


MENTAL MILESTONES
The following is an age-by-age guide to the intellectual development of babies, according to Jill Swanson, M.D., a pediatrician at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

Newborn to Three Months

  • Controls outside stimuli with an "on-off" system that allows her to be alert one minute, and to tune out the next

  • Can distinguish mother by her scent; by second month, discriminates among different voices, tastes, and sizes of objects

  • Remembers objects that disappear and reappear quickly

Six to Nine Months

  • Participates in imitation games

  • Babbles, repeating one syllable over and over; able to utter several different consonants

  • Begins to understand that something out of sight may be concealed behind something else

  • Knows his name and the meaning of many words associated with familiar people or objects

Twelve to Eighteen Months

  • Understands the meaning of some words and commands

  • Starts to recognize some words as symbols for objects

  • Has increased attention span; may play with one toy for as long as 15 minutes

  • Imitates activities such as using a comb, listening to a toy phone, or wiping up a spill

  • Searches for hidden objects

  • Uses five to ten words

  • Remembers past events for longer periods



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