Did you know that when a baby is born less than one third of his brain has developed? Did you know that the rest of her brain grows during the first three years of life?
But brains do not grow like cabbages do. They need a lot more than water and sunshine. Your brain is no cabbage. Brains need LOVE. Brains need YOU. Without responsive human interaction, ideally in the form of a besotted mummy and daddy, baby brains cannot grow.
Brain surgeons are all well and good but if you think about it, when they set to work, their material is already provided and set out right there in front of them. They have something to work with. But you actually GROW that thing. You grow it day in and day out, and it takes you three years. Without you, brain surgeons would be nothing. (Time to update those CVs ladies and gentlemen.)
Most living things require very few things to grow. But humans are not like most living things. We are the most dependent species the world has ever known. As I mentioned in a previous post on The Fourth Trimester, a human newborn is needier than any other. Whilst a horse or sheep can jump up and skip about straight after birth, it takes a human baby half a year to even sit up. Without a competent older person to care for and love them, no human baby would ever learn to walk let alone communicate, think or even feel.
The human baby is not born with a massively underdeveloped brain just so that it can ‘fit’ (read squeeeeeeze) out of Mama’s exit. Ingeniously, the remaining two thirds of the baby’s brain is grown after it has been born, so that the infant can be programmed to suit the place and time that it is going to be growing up in – giving it as much flexibility as it can to adapt to its own particular environment. You wouldn’t catch babies living in outer Mongolia reaching for their mothers iPhones in Starbucks and neither would you find babies born in inner city London playing happily with snowballs in an igloo in the middle of the Arctic. Each baby arrives with literally no expectations, and then adapts readily to whichever environment it has been born into, and can do so because its brain is shaped as it goes along. Its like one of those holidays you book when you are young and stupid – you’re not fussy about the location and have no idea of what the hotel will be like. All you care about is sunshine, food and booze. Everything else is a big game of wait and see.
A brand new human baby is COMPLETELY accepting of ANY time or place he or she was born into. Whether he was born in a slum or in a castle, in the backstreets of Victorian London or on the planes of Africa, yesterday, or 4,000 years ago, each baby gets on with the business of growing up wherever, or whenever it happened to be doing so, no questions asked. What a little legend.
A baby is born with only the basics; it knows how to breathe and how to suck and not much else. Babies are blank slates. Nature has designed them this way so that they can adjust to the human species’ rapidly and constantly changing ways of life. Each one is a fresh new page, and ALL OURS to write on.
When your baby makes a face at you, your face responds in just the right way, without you having to even think about it. You respond even if it’s not even your baby – try NOT smiling at the baby grinning at you from the shopping trolley in the queue for the checkout. You respond without having to even think about it, you instinctively smile and coo and make silly high pitched noises – you were programmed to when you were loved as a tiny child. You are history repeating itself.
Parents are actual Brain Growers. Big job. The hugeness of this responsibility is enough to make any parent want to lie down in a dark room because our parenting has a huge effect on our children’s future happiness and ability to form relationships. (No pressure.) An extreme example of what happens when the job is not done right is the Romanian orphans who were left alone in their cots. Only their physical needs were seen to, their emotional needs were not met, they were not held or touched, kissed or cuddled and so their brains simply DID NOT GROW. There were HOLES where their brains were supposed to be.
Love grows brains.
If you are a parent of an under three, you are growing a brain right now. And, happily, it’s really quite hard to get it wrong or mess it up. Although it is no walk in the park, parenting is not rocket science either. The good news is that you are already doing ALL the right things. You have been since the minute you met your little one. You ARE growing little brains, and doing a beautiful job of it. From birth, each hug and kiss and smile, each cuddle and look of reassurance, each feed and each change is a learning experience. You are teaching your baby how to communicate and how to relate to other human beings. Everything you are doing right now is helping your baby to develop their senses into emotions, and then into thoughts. You are building your toddler’s resilience. Mummy makes it better = I am optimistic! It will be ok in the end! I will bounce back!
During your baby’s second year you are helping him to develop a healthy conscience. From month 12 to month 24, you are growing the part of the brain they will need many years from now when someone pisses them off at work. Because of what you are doing now, guiding your tot through the rights and wrongs of their world, they will know not to smack their colleague around the head with their computer in the future. You are giving them the gift of social skills. Can’t buy those on Amazon.
All the things that come naturally to you; smiling, talking, playing with, comforting and LOVING your baby, all those things are growing their brains. Your touch, the smell of you, your warm presence. It’s all they require. You do not need to be doing anything else. When nappy changes are a game instead of a chore. When you sing and tickle and snuggle. When you run a little commentary on what you are doing when you go about your daily jobs. When you make baths and walks fun. When you effortlessly ENJOY your baby, you are firing up millions of connections in their brains. Your vital love and affection is shaping the person they will become.
Of course there is nature and there is nurture. Everyone is different and everyone is born exactly who they are. Every baby is born with the ability to learn a language. Nature. Babies learn however, whichever languages they are taught. Nurture. The potential is there when they arrive. We shape that potential. We are the nurturers.
We teach our babies how to relate to other humans, and how to love, through our loving of them. That is why we take such care when choosing childcare if we need it; we need to ensure that the person that looks after our child is LOVING THEM rather than just feeding and watering them. Without love a baby cannot become the person they are supposed to be.
Our babies learn how to trust through trusting us. They gain confidence. They become optimistic and therefore resilient. Our love teaches them that good will prevail. Our love grows the part of the brain that provides them with emotional intelligence – the most important skill they will ever need. More learning and growth happens during the first three years of life than at any other stage of child or adulthood – yet it is completed without any real awareness and with none of the stresses of school with all its flashcards, tests and exams. Make sure you are giving yourself enough credit for all that you are managing to do for your child during their first three critical years. (Consider taking yourself out for some wines.)
A happy parent means a happy child. Which is why in today’s western world, which is so far removed from other cultures and times where children were raised by many, many family members, clustered around the child and available constantly to love and support the parents, loving and supporting the parents around us today, is so important. We must notice if a fellow parent is unhappy, struggling, exhausted and weary from loving so much. We must see if they are suffering and joy-less. We must spot potential post-natal depression, and we must help. Because support is vital when a job is this important. We must look after ourselves, and we must look after each other.
BRAIN GROWERS! Never underestimate the amazingness of what you are doing for your little people, every minute of every day.