Dads Toolbox : Your baby's brain
Under the bonnet
Wiring your baby’s brain
is the most important and long-lasting work you will ever do
A baby starts out with just a few skills:
Sucking – for nutrition
Crying – to tell you they need something
Looking adorable – so you will like them and take care of them
Except for their automatic body functions, these are all the skills a baby has! Everything else they have to learn. And what they learn comes from you.
Your newborn is tiny, maybe 5% of how much they will eventually be once they've grown up. But their brain is already almost 25% the size of its full size. Not only is it bigger when they are born, the baby's brain grows far quicker than their body. Their brain will be 80% of its adult size by the time they turn 3. Their body will only be 20% of its adult size by then.
This chart shows the rate at which a brain grows. It grows extremely fast over the first three years compared to the body and then evens out. The learning the baby does during these first three years forms what kind of person they will be later on.
graphic courtesy the Child Trauma Center
Even though the baby’s brain is a lot smaller than your brain, it has about the same number of brain cells as yours does (about 1 billion)! The difference is that the baby’s brain cells haven't connected-up to each other, yet. The great power of the brain comes when brain cells link-up to each other. This linking-up of brain cells goes throughout life, but it happens most rapidly over the first three years.
How learning works
Learning is the linking-up of brain cells. The first skills a baby learns is mostly about their body: how to roll over, sit up, stand and walk. And it's about hearing their parents' voices and making meaning of what is being said.
Learning could be described like this: the brain receives a signal. That might be their dad saying "Hello darling, I'm going to pick you up and nibble your ear."
The baby feels good if their is dad smiling at them and they might even smile back. The more the baby hears the dad’s voice, the stronger the connection gets. With repetition, those strands between brain cells get reinforced and that strand becomes more solid and permanent. Your baby has learned to recognise your voice! This is an infant learning.
Everything your baby hears, sees, touches and how they are touched – every single thing that goes on around them – these are all things your baby learns from. Nothing happens around the baby that they don’t notice and learn from. Your baby is a learning machine who is constantly trying to understand how the world works. It’s their full-time job!
To be able to learn – a baby needs to feel they are safe. That means they need to have people around them who like them, feed them well and make them feel wanted and loved. Infants and toddlers feel safe (or not) by how their dad and mum act around them. This early sense of feeling safe and secure (or unsafe and insecure) stays with a child for their entire lifetime. Getting this right is very important - but it's not hard.
Being a great dad is not rocket science
Being a great dad is about giving your child what they need:
Your attention – as much as you can
Caring for them – changing the nappy, playing, soothing, putting to bed
Being friendly – when you are with them
Being respectful by explaining to them what you are doing rather just doing things to them
Being respectful of the other people around – including their mother
Be as consistent as possible
“Consistency, I don’t think I’m naturally consistent with my kids. But there’s a way you can be consistent that comes before all else … and that’s just being there. You know, staying the course, being there with your kids.” – SJD father of one, stepfather of two
What happens around your baby matters
Most of what a child learns before they turn three just becomes who they are. They won't remember the specifics. But this early learning is not only physical, it is also where their self-esteem and confidence (emotional intelligence) and their "smarts" (cognitive intelligence) begins.
If your baby feels safe when they are touched, held, talked to, played with, changed, read to and put to bed – then they will feel secure. If they are fed when hungry, changed when they are soiled, cuddled and soothed when they are scared or lonely … your baby is learning that:
Problems have solutions
Being unhappy will go away
Broken things can be fixed
People will look after them
The world is a pretty good place
If they (mostly) have positive experiences in these early years, they are likely to become a confident child who likes to learn, makes friends and becomes an adult who can cope with what life throws at them. These become part of their personality.
And the opposite is also true. If they are often being told off or told that they are bad or stupid, if they are ignored or neglected, if they are abused or experience violence – even to people around them – then they are likely to …
Feel anxious and insecure
develop difficult behaviours that makes them hard to deal with
Have learning difficulties
These things will become part of a child’s personality and will make life more difficult for them.