The way you fulfil your role as a parent or caregiver is incredibly important to how your baby’s brain develops. A baby’s brain is undeveloped at birth. Although the basic brain architecture is formed during pregnancy, a newborn’s brain can’t do everything it will eventually be able to do.
Children’s brains develop more in their first three years than at any other time of their life. Ninety per cent of our brains are built during the first five years. As such, you can have an important impact on your child becoming mentally and physically healthy through having a loving relationship with your child. It is connection and repeated positive experiences that creates wellbeing.
According to Brainwave Trust Aotearoa, “Everything your baby thinks feels and does is controlled by their brain, so the way their brain develops affects every aspect of their life.”
The base of the brain, or brainstem, is developed at birth. This is the part of the brain that helps us survive. It regulates our basic functions, like breathing, heart rate and temperature. When a child feels emotionally and physically safe, the rest of the brain can start to grow. However, if a child feels frightened or stressed the brain goes into survival mode, and the rest of the brain can’t grow. Things that cause stress in children include mothers’ drinking or using drugs during pregnancy, family violence, family conflict, abuse or neglect.
As the Trust puts it, “The more positives there are throughout your child’s early years, and the fewer negatives, the more likely they are to grow up into the wonderful adults they are meant to be.”
The next part of the brain to develop is the mid-brain, followed by the limbic system, which is the social/emotional part of the brain. The limbic system is very tuned in to body language and will notice your eye contact and tone of voice.
When a child is upset their brain can become overwhelmed. Big, long, logical adult explanations are not helpful when a child is distressed because that part of their brain simply shuts down during upsets. This is not because they are naughty or trying to do something manipulative, but simply because that’s how brains are structured.
Ways to effectively calm your child’s limbic system when they are upset include:
• Showing unconditional love.
• Experiencing joy with your child.
• Responding in consistent ways.
• Giving them lots of hugs and cuddles.
• Staying with them during big feelings (anger, sadness, frustration …)
• Talking to your child about the emotions they are feeling. Give them words to explain different feelings. Provide repeated connection and positive experiences.
It is important to know that brains are malleable and can develop new healthy pathways throughout life. Positive, loving interactions with older children and adults can help their brains grow and be soothed. Connected, respectful relationships are good for all our brains and therefore our overall wellbeing.