Congratulations! Suddenly, you have a tiny vulnerable human who is completely reliant on you. You have been given advice on when they should sleep, how to keep them clean and healthy, how you change their nappy and why you need to feed them regularly. Now you’re home and oh my. what a shock! All of the books, articles, podcasts, and friendly advice you received does nothing to help you understand what it feels like to have a baby at home that you are totally responsible for keeping alive!
When we brought home my oldest, who is now a very intelligent and well-adjusted teenager, she used to cry like a cicada. Seriously, her cry made everyone think there was a cicada loose in her bedroom. Now, if you look up on the internet what baby cries mean, you will get a list of between 3 and 10 different types of cries and what they mean. None of them describe a cicada cry, so what were we to do? While it is great to be prepared and read a lot in advance, as my father used to say, the problem is that the baby hasn’t read the books! Every baby is different. In fact, every human is different. We are all unique and wonderful in our own way. So, when researchers or experts come up with definitions or descriptions of us, they are general and vague and describe the ‘average’ person (who actually doesn’t exist – it’s an average of all of us!). What we need is to realise that as long as we give a baby what they actually need in an evolutionary sense, they will develop just as they were meant to.
My area of expertise is the brain. So I’m going to leave aside the obvious care needs and focus on what a baby’s brain needs to develop.
- Touch: It has been shown that one of the most important needs of a baby (in fact all of us) is human touch. Babies who are cuddled a lot by loved ones are more confident, independent, and social later on in life. These traits are extremely important for further brain development as they become toddlers. For example, toddlers who are more confident are more likely to explore and play which is a precursor for better outcomes at school. So, cuddle your baby as much as you can!
- Talk: Look at and talk to your baby regularly. Even though they have not yet developed the ability to speak, they rapidly develop the ability to understand – and at every stage, they will understand much more then you think. The experience they get when they watch you speak is really important for the development of their ability to speak later on. We learn how to speak by watching someone speak and observing the lip and mouth movements, integrating that with the sounds they are making. This works because we all have a ‘mirror neuron system’ in our brains. When we observe someone moving, including talking, our brain mimics the same movement in our brain. It is extremely important for learning how to speak. So, spend time looking at your baby and talking and singing: you are literally building their foundations for language.
- Smile: Look at them and make lots of different facial expressions. Again, because of the amazing mirror neuron system, even though they may not seem to understand, their brain is practicing these different expressions for later use.
- Read aloud: You can start this as soon as they are born! Reading to babies, toddlers, and older children is very important for brain development. There is good evidence that babies who are read to regularly are more likely to be successful at school. Make the books appropriate and try to get involved in the story. They will be processing the prosody and intonation of your voice, your facial expressions, and your eye gaze, so make it fun and expressive.
- Play: Appropriate play is vital for development of the infant’s brain. Using things like mobiles, squishy toys, tactile play mats, and other fun toys are fantastic for the baby’s developing brain. Get down on the floor and enjoy the play with your baby or toddler and incorporate the tips above as you do it.
- Music: Music in the home is also a great way to develop your baby’s brain. Having lots of appropriate music can be relaxing and also activate a lot of important areas of their brain that will help them develop. If you can play the music yourself even better. We don’t fully understand why music is so important to our brain, but it has an amazing impact on a child’s development.
OK, now a few that might be a be harder, but are critically important!
- Stay off your Phone around your baby: Let’s face it, it’s really hard to resist talking, texting, listening to podcasts, and using our phones – and the baby isn’t going to object! But it’s actually clear from a lot of recent research that babies whose carers frequently are using a mobile phone or other device have slowed or abnormal development of speech, facial expression perception and empathy. Some studies also show kids whose carers use devices regularly around them have an issue called the “still face effect’, where the child doesn’t use facial expressions correctly. Here’s the problem: As we discussed earlier, a baby learns how to use their face to communicate by viewing their carer and practicing via the mirror neuron system. Even though you might not be aware of it because the baby isn’t responding, they are learning a lot during those first months and years. But they need you to be looking at them to learn appropriate emotional reactions! If you are looking at your phone when your toddler falls, you don’t give an appropriate response. Or when they do something good. And without direct gaze, they can fail to develop appropriate eye contact.
- Keep Screens Away: Screens are not good for any of us but they are especially harmful to the developing brain. Research has shown that the younger a child is given access to a device the more likely they will be diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) and abnormal development of the connections across the brain have been shown in infants who were taught how to read on screens. Every week more research is coming out showing the negative impact of devices on the developing brain and the importance of infants playing in the real world.
- Get into Nature: There has been an increase in research in recent years on the importance of being in nature. It has been shown that the more time children spend in nature the better they achieve later at school and have improved mental health resilience. This can be just hanging out at a local park or in the back yard. Take your infant outside as regularly as possible and help them explore the natural environment. The additional benefit is that it will be good for you too!
Remember every baby is different and they haven’t read the books or listened to the podcasts! It is unlikely they will fit the ‘average’ in every way. Give them your unconditional love and support, cuddle, read, smile, play and spend real undistracted time with them, and their brains will develop into strong, healthy, resilient toddler brains setting them up for a wonderful start in life. Good luck! Enjoy it!
Dr Mark Williams
Dr Mark is an internationally recognised neuroscience professor who has worked with thousands of students, teachers, and health professionals keen to understand how their brain works. He has taught the fundamentals of neuroscience to a wide range of students, as well as publishing more than 70 scientific articles and worked at MIT in the USA and multiple universities in Australia. His new book “The Connected Species: How the evolution of the human brain can save the world” is a #1 best seller.