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Developmental milestones of the brain

Brainwave Trust

Brain development does not occur at a fixed rate over time. Different parts of the brain are active at different times.Before birth the brain lays down memories of the major voice heard and the languages that surround the mother. There is scientific evidence that the newborn infant recognises these voices and sounds from birth. The first year is the most important period for developing the part of the brain responsible for attachment and empathy. The connections, pathways and networks created will enable the child to feel the pleasure of being involved in close, secure, nurturing relationships, and to develop over time feelings of empathy and an understanding of the needs towards others. This capacity is essential if the child is to enjoy intimate relationships in the future.

  • At one month there is intense activity in the areas of the brain associated with the sensory and motor skills the baby is acquiring. This is a prime time for providing visual and sound stimulation.
  • At two months the infant can experience a range of complex emotions including happiness, sadness, empathy, pride and shame. The part of the brain that is most active controls the development of vision and hearing.
  • By three months, the infant is able to distinguish between hundreds of spoken sounds. These sounds may come from several different languages. Children exposed to languages will learn them more rapidly than their older siblings and parents. The neurons responsible are open and ready for change and the networks and pathways are ready to form.
  • At four months the cortex begins to refine the connections needed for depth perception and binocular vision.
  • At around eight months the front of the cortex, in charge of the ability to express and control emotions as well as to think and plan, is alive with activity as the baby makes dramatic leaps in self regulation and attachment. Babies are likely to strengthen their attachment to their caregiver during this time. Caregivers can help infants learn to develop self-control of their emotions by responding sensitively to their emotional state.

The baby in twelve short months has progressed to a child who is beginning to talk, walk, and building on the enjoyment of interacting with others. The part of the brain responsible for speech is preparing to utter the first word. At one year the infant's first word heralds the magic of more direct verbal communication.

By the age of two a toddler embraced by conversations, stories and questions has twice the number of words of a toddler who has lacked this attention. The child's sentences will be more complex in structure. The circuits and pathways for some skill and capacities begin to close in the second year of life. These include those responsible for emotional control, full vision and social attachments.

At three the child's brain is two and a half times as active as that of an adult's. The vast majority of the brain has been formed. The experiences of small children may change their understanding and behaviour but they are also charged with creating important and permanent structures in the brain. In this way these experiences play a decisive and lasting role by defining the extent and nature of children's capabilities and limitations both at this stage and in adult life.

Every skill and sense required in early childhood and the foundation for all other capabilities are set by systems built into the brain in early life. Each has a limited timetable and critical periods when the related experiences must be attained. By the age of six most of the critical periods in which a skill or sense can be fully gained are over or waning. The opportunity for learning syntax, for example, begins to decrease making the learning of another language more difficult.

At the age of ten years the brain enters a new phase of development. Rather than producing and strengthening synapses the brain begins to prune those that are seldom used.

By late adolescence the brain is wired with the rapid, powerful and permanent lines of communication of the mature brain. By the age of eighteen the brain is less adaptable than the brain of an infant, but more rapid, secure and permanent. Experiences and interactions with the world have strengthened some connections and resulted in the elimination of others.

The genetic potential determined by the single sperm and egg which could have been expressed in billions of different ways, has developed a unique pattern of mind, thought and emotion, differentiating each of us from others.

- Reprinted with the permission of the Brainwave Trust , a national organisation set up as an independent charity. Brainwave's objective is to have every child in New Zealand raised with care and security. Brainwave aims to reach people with vital information on what is happening inside our baby's brains in the first critical years, and how this impacts on adulthood. Visit their website for more information.