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The Miracle of Your Newborn's Brain

Interaction with loved ones is the key to healthy early brain development


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Newborn BabySo, you’ve just arrived home with your newborn, and you are cradling her in your arms. She doesn’t seem to do very much other than eat, sleep, and cry when she needs something. You look into her eyes and wonder, “Is anything going on in there?”

The answer is: Yes!

There is a lot going on, in fact. Since before you gave birth, your baby’s brain has been growing faster than it ever will again. On the day she is born, her brain has an estimated 100 billion neurons, nearly all that she will ever have. Her brain is about one-quarter of the size it will be when she is an adult, and it is growing rapidly. That little brain has a lot of work to do in the coming days and months, but what it can already do is a true miracle.

Ready on Day One

Before you leave the hospital, your newborn recognizes your voice, and possibly the music and household sounds he heard during gestation. In the first week of his life, you will see that he can follow objects with his eyes and express his preferences in ways that you can understand. He also can sense your emotions, reacting as a kind of mirror if you are nervous or angry, and visibly calming when you are relaxed and content.

What can you do to make the most of this period? When baby is alert, hold her in front of you and make eye contact. Notice that as you do, her attention is focused on you. This activates her right brain and creates the perfect opportunity for learning and strengthening your attachment to her. Croon to her, speak softly, and have a real conversation.

Brain as a Super-Highway

Each one of your baby’s 100 billion neurons is beginning to connect to about 10,000 other neurons or brain cells—over 2 million miles in length.

So what? Those connections, called synapses, form a highway to learning. Every experience he has, from the kisses you give him to hearing an angry argument, activates his neurons to create a kind of “neural map” (a sensory image or a verbal representation of something), which is a pattern of “firing” of specific neurons. We do not really know how this firing in the brain creates an image in the mind, but these images form the beginnings of learning. Repeated experiences—hearing frequent arguments or being cuddled daily—strengthen those connections. This is learning.

In the first few months of life, the circuits for social and emotional functioning come “on line,” lighting up the orbitofrontal region of the brain. Day-to-day experience is organizing these circuits. Science tells us that even though we will have no recall of specific argument or cuddling episodes (this is called episodic memory, and baby does not develop that for a few years yet), strong implicit memories are being created. It is implicit memory—those strong connections in the brain from early life—that may cause us at a later age to react strongly when we do not always know why.

In the long run, interaction with loved ones, not high levels of stimulation, is the key to healthy early brain development. Especially in the first few weeks of life, use eye contact, touch, and a soft voice to introduce your baby to a world that is safe and loving, and to engage her attention.

Terri Combs-Orme, PhD, is a professor of social work at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, and a Resident Fellow at the Urban Child Institute in Memphis.

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