The Developing Brain

Understanding the way your child's mind grows

Watching your child grow into a unique person with independent thoughts and ideas is a beautiful thing. And as a parent, you'll play a significant role in that. In the early years, a child's brain starts to make connections. During their first 1000 days, from conception to age two, your child's brain will go through a number of critical developments. It's a time that'll shape who they become, and understanding this process will help you create the best environment for them to thrive.

The right building blocks

The day your baby's born, their brain is around 27% the size of an adult's – and by the time they're three, it's already 85% the mass of an adult's. Most of that growth happens in the first year, so it's a significant part of their lives. As their brain responds to experiences, it'll begin to make connections. These pathways will mature through growth and remodelling, shaping your baby's development and laying the foundations for how they'll feel, think and behave for the rest of their life.

Giving your child lots of responsive care, protecting them from major stressors and creating a loving environment during this time will help them build normal, healthy pathways. We also know that if a young child is neglected or abused, they'll develop pathways that can be harmful to their development and the way they function later in life.

It starts before you meet them

Perhaps before you even know you're pregnant, as early as 18 days in, your baby's brain has already started to grow. While the development that happens during pregnancy is primarily genetic, there are some environmental factors that can have a major impact too. Things like mum's diet and stress levels, and exposure to harmful substances can all affect the way a child develops in the womb. They're protected from the outside world, but it's also a time when they're particularly vulnerable.

Looking after yourself to look after them

Keeping your body healthy and free of toxins while you're pregnant is an important part of growing a healthy baby. But to understand what that means, you need to know what your body needs at this time, and what you should avoid completely.

Alcohol – the New Zealand Ministry of Health recommends that women who are pregnant, or planning to become pregnant, should avoid drinking alcohol altogether. Even a small amount of alcohol during pregnancy can affect your baby's development. That's because it crosses the placenta, meaning anything you drink, your baby will consume too.

Having large amounts of alcohol during pregnancy, especially at sensitive times, can lead to fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). This can restrict a baby's growth (both in the womb and after birth), and cause intellectual disability and behavioural problems. In some cases, it can even change a baby's facial features or damage sensitive tissues and organs.

Even moderate amounts of alcohol can lead to a condition called fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) – which has links to learning difficulties, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), impaired social functioning, and impaired language development.

Smoking – the New Zealand Ministry of Health recommends that women do not smoke if they're pregnant or breastfeeding. It can cause a number of poor outcomes, including low birth weight, spontaneous abortion, placental complications, sudden unexpected death in infancy (SUDI), and premature delivery. Smoking also suppresses the appetite, which means a mother may not eat enough of the right foods, leading to poor nutrition for her and her baby.

Nutrients – during pregnancy, your body needs more of certain nutrients than usual. Optimal folate status is particularly important. Low folate levels before and during pregnancy are linked to an increased risk of brain and neural tube defects, including spina bifida and anencephaly. For this reason, the New Zealand Ministry of Health recommends that 'women planning pregnancy, or who are in the early stages of pregnancy, should take an 800 μg folic acid (the name for folate in supplement form) tablet daily for at least four weeks before and 12 weeks after conception as well as consuming foods rich in folate and folic acid-fortified foods'. The World Health Organization and the Institute of Medicine both recommend that women receive 400 μg folic acid per day (from supplements or fortified foods), prior to conception and during the first trimester of pregnancy. A varied diet including folate-rich foods, such as green leafy vegetables (e.g. broccoli and spinach) and legumes (e.g. chickpeas, beans and lentils) is important, even when not planning a pregnancy, and men need it too.

Stress and antenatal depression – it's natural to feel some degree of stress and anxiety during pregnancy, especially if it's your first time. But it's important to try and minimise that where you can, because prolonged exposure to significant stress and antenatal depression can adversely affect you and your developing baby (see Understanding antenatal depression).

Exposure to high levels of stress hormones in the womb increases the risk of low birth weight and preterm delivery, and the development of stress-related conditions later in life.

A variety of factors contribute to stress during pregnancy, including family life, financial hardships, a history of depression or anxiety, physical health problems, unplanned pregnancy, support levels, social unrest and natural disasters. If you're noticing symptoms of stress or antenatal depression (see Understanding antenatal depression), telling someone how you're feeling is an important first step in reducing the effects on you and your baby.

Life in the early years

Babies start learning from the moment they're born (see How babies and young children learn). So their environment, and in particular their relationship with you (see Understanding attachment and bonding), will be incredibly significant during these early years. As they use their senses to experience the world around them, their brains start to organise themselves in an expected way. And if certain sensory inputs are lacking during this time (for example, in babies with hearing or sight impairments), different patterns of brain organisation can occur. (see What your baby can hear, think and sense in the womb and The senses)

Touch is the very first sense your baby experiences, and the first to influence brain development. Smell, taste, balance, hearing and vision will then follow in that order – with scientists believing that this progression is important for complete development (see What your baby can hear, think and sense in the womb and The senses).

It's a critical time in the life of a child, and a time when your input is incredibly important. Building a strong relationship during these years will have a profound effect on the way your child develops (also have a read of Understanding attachment and Bonding). And it's the everyday things you do that really count – things like cuddling, singing, talking, smiling, reading and playing (see Communicating with your baby, The Beginnings of Language, Reading and The Magic of Music). By responding to your child's needs, having fun with them, giving them safe opportunities to explore the world, and protecting them from major stress, you're literally helping shape their brain.

Sadly, this also means that children who don't get the care and attention they need in the early years can have a greater risk of developing emotional disorders, learning problems and behavioural issues.

Summing it up

  • During pregnancy – brain development is mostly genetic, but there are certain environmental factors that can contribute too. Women are advised not to smoke or drink alcohol, to avoid becoming overly stressed, and to take folate supplements before conception and during pregnancy. Healthy eating is important at every stage in your life. But during pregnancy, it is even more essential as nutrient requirements are much higher.
  • At birth – a baby's brain is around 27% the size of an adult's brain, and goes through a significant growth period in the first year. Safe, loving and nurturing relationships and experiences, along with sound nutrition, are vital for the formation of the brain cell connections and shaping of the brain cell networks that form the basis of lifelong learning.
  • The early years – the first three years will lay the foundations for how a person feels, thinks and behaves for the rest of their life. Children who don't get the care and attention they need may be at greater risk of developing emotional, learning and behavioural problems, so it's important to build a strong and loving relationship with your child at this time.

How to help your baby's brain grow in a healthy way

During pregnancy

  1. Get the right nutrients – folate is a really important B vitamin for expectant mothers. The New Zealand Ministry of Health recommends taking an 800 μg folic acid tablet daily for at least four weeks before and 12 weeks after conception, as well as eating foods like leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, wholemeal bread, yeast, liver and legumes which are rich in the vitamin.
  2. Steer clear of toxins – there's no healthy amount of alcohol to drink during pregnancy. Even a small amount can have harmful effects on your baby's development, and experts also recommend avoiding it when you're trying to get pregnant. It's the same story with cigarettes. The New Zealand Ministry of Health recommends that women shouldn't smoke while they're pregnant or breastfeeding – and exposure to secondhand smoke after a child's born should be avoided too.
  3. Take it easy – you don't have to be perfect to be an amazing parent, so try not to stress about the little things too much. It'll be best for both of you.

In their first 6 months

  1. Cuddle them – touch is the first sense your baby will experience, so try to give them as many positive physical experiences as you can. Cuddling your baby, giving them skin on skin affection and massaging them will help them feel secure and loved. (see What your baby can hear, think and sense in the womb, The senses and Understanding attachment and bonding)
  2. Learn their language – your newborn may not be able to speak, but that doesn't mean they can't communicate with you. It'll take some time and lots of close attention, but eventually you'll learn your baby's signals. It could be a different type of crying, whimpering, moving or wriggling. They might be telling you they're tired when they stare into space, rub their eyes and yawn, clench their fists, grizzle, screw up their face, jerk their arms and legs, or cry. And hunger signs often include nuzzling, sucking on their hands or clothing, putting their hands or fists in or near their mouth, turning their head from side to side, and crying. Understanding how to communicate with your baby will help you both get off to a better start. (see Communicating with your baby)
  3. Build a close relationship – a secure attachment to you is one of the most crucial parts of your child's early development. It's about responding to their needs, but it's also about the everyday things you do, like talking, singing, reading, smiling, playing and giving them safe opportunities to explore the world. (see Understanding attachment and bonding)
  4. Surround them with good experiences – a baby's brain starts to make connections the moment they're born. Safe, loving and nurturing relationships and experiences, along with sound nutrition, are vital for the formation of the brain cell connections and shaping of the brain cell networks that form the basis of lifelong learning
  5. Look back – you'll notice your newborn starting to initiate eye contact with you. When they do, it's important to be fully present and give them your total attention – it's the kind of interaction that will fill your baby up emotionally. Just remember, when they look away, they're taking a break, and you can help them by allowing that to happen. (see Communicating with your baby)
  6. Give them lots of different things to look at and touch – the ideal distance for babies to focus is the distance from their mother's face to their breast, about 30cm. Allow your baby to track objects with their eyes, and eventually their head, by slowly moving objects back and forth. (see The senses, Understanding your child's physical milestones)
  7. Talk to them – when your baby starts babbling, they want to talk, and the best thing you can do is talk back in a way that feels natural to you. This will help them learn words before they're actually ready to speak them. (see Communicating with your baby, The beginnings of language)
  8. Give them something to chew on – babies learn a lot by putting things in their mouth. It's a very normal, and important, stage in their development and you can help them by providing toys that are safe to chew on, like a small rattle with a handle. Ensure that toys aren't a choking hazard.
  9. And something to grab – soon enough they'll become obsessed with their hands too. It's a normal part of their fine motor development, and you'll notice them reaching out for objects, grasping them, and eventually passing them from hand to hand. Give your baby toys they can do this with – things like rattles, rubber rings, soft dolls or cloth books. They'll discover their toes soon, and start to reach out and grab those too. (see Understanding your child's physical milestones)
  10. Let them move about – your baby's born with their own sequence of development, and figuring out how to move is part of that. So all you need to do is facilitate them. Try to limit the time they spend in car seats, bouncinettes or buggies, giving them plenty of time on the floor instead so they can kick freely and discover how their body works. And by placing objects on either side of them, you can encourage your baby to try and roll onto their tummy. (see Mastering Fundamental Physical Skills)
  11. Have fun with them – playing with your baby is one of the best things you can do for them. It helps their brain build connections and strengthens the bond they feel to you. (see Understanding attachment and bonding)

As they grow older (6-18 months)

  1. Follow their lead – allowing your child to initiate play and choose objects that satisfy their curiosity is important. This is called ‘heuristic' or ‘discovery' play, and you can help them experience it by putting together a treasure basket of natural, household and recycled objects that your baby can safely chew, drop, bang or shake. Try to choose things that stimulate the five senses, like pinecones, bells, a small mirror, a wooden spoon, a piece of silk, a metal whisk, an old CD or a small sealed container full of lentils. And stay with your child while they play – try talking to them about how each object feels, sounds, smells, tastes and looks. (see How Babies and Young Children Learn, Understanding the importance of play, Mastering Fundamental Physical Skills)
  2. Show them how it's done – you're their greatest teacher, so give them a chance to learn from you. As you do things, like putting a block in a box, give your baby time to process what you just did and then copy you. This teaches them cause and effect, an important life skill.
  3. Help them discover at bath-time – giving your baby lots of plastic containers and bath toys for filling and pouring will help them figure out and explore the wonders of water.
  4. Respond when they're unhappy – listening to your child is a really important part of being a parent, at every stage in their life. Comfort them when they cry and acknowledge when they're feeling frustrated or cross. By responding to their feelings, you'll help your child manage them and develop self-control. (see Understanding attachment and bonding, Building resilience, Independence)
  5. Help them move forward – watch your baby closely to see what they can do, and then try to help them move onto the next level. So if they've managed to get a ring on a stacking tower, or a wooden puzzle piece in place, hand them another one and encourage them to do it again. Give your child a few age-appropriate toys that'll challenge them, and keep them somewhere they can easily get to. (see Understanding your child's physical milestones)
  6. Choose the right toys – you don't want a toy-box that's overflowing with things that never get used. Instead, try to pick toys that can be used in lots of ways – wooden blocks are one great choice. And remember, toys might not always look like toys. There are lots of things around your home that your child will enjoy playing with, things like a pot and a wooden spoon, a pile of plastic containers or a basket of pegs. It's also interesting to note that young children aren't right or left handed yet – so give them things in the middle and let them choose which hand they use. (see How Babies and Young Children Learn, Understanding the importance of play, and Mastering Fundamental Physical Skills)
  7. Get down on your hands and knees – the two sides of a baby's brain start to share information as they crawl, and it also helps them develop upper body strength, learn independence and develop their ability to focus visually. It's something you can get involved in too – make it fun by joining your baby, setting up obstacles, and letting them crawl on different surfaces like grass and sand.

The first few years (18 months+)

  1. Let them use their imagination – just like babies, toddlers learn through play, and some of the best things you can give them during this time are natural materials. They'll need to be creative and use their imagination to play with things like water and sand. (see How Babies and Young Children Learn , Understanding the importance of play, and Creativity and Pretend Play)
  2. Make a mess – being a kid is all about exploring the world, and getting messy is an important part of that exploration. Messy play helps kids learn and develop fine motor skills – so get out the playdough, shaving foam, clay and finger-paint. And remember, they've got the only other tools they need, their hands – so don't be in a rush to give them rolling pins or shape cutters. (see How Babies and Young Children Learn, Understanding the importance of play, and Mastering Fundamental Physical Skills)
  3. Have a chat – just like adults, children can learn a lot by having a chat. Just by talking with your child, asking them questions about what they can see, find, smell, feel and hear, you can turn something as simple as a walk into a valuable learning experience. (see Communicating with your baby, The beginnings of language)
  4. Make sure they get plenty of sleep – it's incredibly important for growing bodies. Sleep helps our brains turn new information and experiences into long-term memories, and also impacts behaviour and cognitive development. Your child will need different amounts of sleep as they grow – a newborn will sleep for 16-20 hours in a 24-hour period, infants and crawlers need around 12-15 hours spread over night-time and naps, toddlers 11-14 hours, and pre-schoolers (age 3-5) 10-13 hours.

Some deeper reading

For more information about brain development and the importance of the first three years, visit Brainwave Trust Aotearoa

Playcentre is a great place for families and children to grow and learn together. Phone 0800 PLAYNZ or check out

Parents Centre offers support and education to parents. There are 50 Parents Centres around NZ.

The Parents as First Teachers (PAFT) programme in New Zealand is a parent education and support programme that helps parents understand how their infant develops and learns, and how best they can help their child reach their full potential.

Raising Children has a story on ‘The importance of the first years' you can watch for free on their website.