Wisdom//

What You Need to Know About the Science Behind Your Baby’s Brain

“Your child’s DNA is not destiny; you are at the helm, guiding his course.”

By goodmoments/Shutterstock
By goodmoments/Shutterstock

Your child’s DNA is not destiny; you are at the helm, guiding his course. The truth is that nature and nurture are in a delicate dance akin to Fred and Ginger’s famous choreography: if one goes too fast, the other one falls. Science tells us that early childhood experiences actually have the capacity to structure and alter the brain. That means you didn’t just supply your child’s DNA-you’re still shaping it, and it’s only by wielding that power that your child will activate his full potential. You are truly a gene therapist, manipulating and guiding your child’s genetic makeup, based on the expe riences you create for him. The longer you abdicate your power to shape your child’s genetic makeup after he’s born, the more you leave his devel opment to chance. In this chapter, I’ll explain the nuances of your secret parental power–and teach you how to harness its full potency.

As a human behavior expert and family and child development special ist with a PhD in psychology and an EdD in education, I am often asked to comment on how parents can awaken their child’s potential. My answer always begins the same way: parents have the power. You are not merely a factor; you are the single greatest determinant of your child’s personality, intellect, and future. Your power extends way beyond providing a boost in potential or a push to succeed; you, as a parent, are capable of shaping and are, to a great degree, responsible for the very structure of your child’s brain. As a parent, you have the ultimate responsibility for the trajectory your child takes in life. The good news is that you have everything you need to give your baby what she needs. 

Your child’s genes may be a blueprint, but that’s still only a two dimensional potential mock-up of what will be a three-dimensional person. That old argument of nature versus nurture has been settled, and the truth is that both have about equal influence. Nature may supply the genes, but those genes express themselves in reaction to stimulation from their environment—the environment you create and control. So, you can see that you are your child’s true gene therapist, and your presence and the environment you create actively determine which of your child’s genes are expressed. Your baby’s brain builds and grows in response to the stimulation it receives, which means that each and every one of her physical and emo tional experiences affects the biological development of your baby’s brain. It’s a lot of responsibility–and a lot of power. And regrettably, far too many parents aren’t aware of just how much influence they wield. 

Your baby is born with approximately 100 billion neurons and over 50 trillion synapses. This may seem like a lot, but it’s only a fraction of the neural connections that she will develop–more than 1,000 trillion in the first year alone. Out of your baby’s 24,000 genes, 12,000 of them establish these neural connections in the brain, which designate how the central nervous system will be created and function. However, those 12,000 genes aren’t nearly enough to activate all those neural connections. Therefore, it is your baby’s heightened experiences, both emotional and physical, that specify and determine those connections. Because the brain is highly efficient, it actually dumps unused neurons while strengthening those used consistently. This process, called synaptic pruning,2 allows your child’s brain to develop correctly. Stimulation enhances connections, and pruning discards what is not being used. Synaptic pruning extends over your lifetime, but it is the most active during early childhood. Synaptic pruning means that every experience counts. Every touch, sight, smell, and interaction positively or negatively affects the wiring of your child’s brain—each experience, whether positive or negative, is a signal that strengthens, weakens, or reinforces synapses. Think of it as two roads diverging in a yellow wood-except your child’s brain will always take the road most traveled by. 

As a result, either the environment will alter your baby’s brain archi tecture, or you will do it on purpose by shaping and influencing baby’s environment to that end. This is not a construction process that can or should be outsourced—nature has gone to great pains to signal its prefer ence for parental guidance. Biology ensures through bonding that you hold greater power to stimulate brain development-and the turning on and off of genes—than anyone else in your child’s life. Remember that flood of unconditional love you experienced the first time you held your baby? That’s a survival instinct (and nature’s strongest incentive), put in place to ensure that you will want to be present and engaged in this crucial, forma tive time of your baby’s life. The quality of that experience is determined by bonding: quantity and quality time, attention, care, and nurturing that is physiologically and emotionally essential to your child. 

Acts of love like cuddling, soothing your child with your voice, respond ing to her needs, and reading a book may sound simple, but they are the stimulation your baby’s developing brain needs and builds upon most effec tively. The more you interact with and stimulate your baby, the more you increase his neuroglial cells. That increase in cells also leads to an increase in activity, and it’s easy to see how that promotes faster and more complicated patterns of thought. You’re building the highways and infrastructure for high-traffic learning later. 

The impact of bonding can’t be overstated. The absence of secure bond ing and nurturing not only deprives your child of the brain stimulation she needs to thrive, but can cause serious neurological harm. As Laurie Larson points out in her pivotal study on maternal touch, babies who are not fondled or touched can die from lack of physical contact. When that secure bonding is present, the impact is huge: we’re talking about influencing your child’s IQ by 20 to 40 percent. American psychologist Florence Goodenough, revered for her work in child psychology, suggested that enyironmental factors, including complicated language, accounted for between 20 and 40 percent of a person’s intelligence score, which she took to be a measure of cognitive development. That can be the difference between average and high achieving—just because you showed up and parented. 

HARDWIRED TO LEARN 

Babies are hardwired to learn. They are tiny scientists discovering their world through familiar experiments. You don’t need formal training or a fancy degree to build your child’s brain. Your child—every child—is born with what renowned doctor and educator Maria Montessori called “an inner teacher.”5 Montessori believed that children do not need formal education to learn much of the important social, emotional, and intellectual behavior experience in their early years. They are naturally driven to explore. What children do need, she argued, is an environment rich with the toys and tools that help them master the progression of skills necessary to build confidence and competence, which leads to good self-esteem and, ultimately, academic success. Your child learns by testing herself against her environment. The very act of venturing out beyond her reach and making discoveries about how the world looks, feels, and tastes stimulates your baby’s neurons, which in turn adds to the mass of connections in the brain. With each outing into unknown territory, your child moves to a higher level of intellectual and emotional advancement. 

But the most important element in your child’s world of exploration the one thing that will ensure that she reach her full potentialis you. If she can look back and see you or call for you and hear you, she experiences emotional stability, solidifying the intellectual, physical, and emotional progress made in each foray. The secure feeling that comes from strong bonding lowers anxiety, leading to a strong central core, the resource nec essary for emotional maturity—which is why your child will learn more at her mother’s knee than anywhere else. When your child learns to trust you, she learns to trust herself. At no other point in your child’s life will your presence be such a viable and invaluable gift. 

WITH BONDING, MORE IS MORE 

Until three years of age, your baby sees you as a physical appendage and extension of himself. He does not yet understand that the two of you are separate. And just as you’d be terrified if your child were kidnapped or torn from your arms by a stranger, your baby experiences separation anx iety every time you two are apart. That anxiety bathes your child’s brain in potent stress hormones, specifically cortisol, which, while it has other critical functions in the human body, when overproduced can have disas trous effects on its development. Psychologist Daniel Goleman explains, “Cortisol stimulates the amygdala, while it impairs the hippocampus, forc ing our attention onto the emotions we feel, while restricting our ability to take in new information.” He explains that the amygdala overrides the prefrontal cortex when the brain is in “fight-or-flight” mode.? Your hippo campus and prefrontal cortex are the regions of your brain responsible for learning, memory, and high-level thinking (executive function). Therefore, if stress is bathing your baby’s developing brain in cortisol, it’s also blocking the brain’s capacity to build the higher-level thinking and reason needed for your child to thrive. 

Not convinced? According to a 2001 study by Flinn et. al., published in Development and Psychopathology and cited in the journal Neuroscience Behaviors, a child’s cortisol levels measurably increase the longer a parent is away from him, which can result in long-term dysfunction in the neurobi ological system, with negative effects on emotional health, digestion, and even your child’s immune system. 

That means you have to be there. Your presence isn’t merely a bonus or a positive influence; your absence negatively impacts your child. More important, nursery schools, babysitters, and nannies are not equipped to understand the developmental needs of your child and thus can’t deliberately or attentively guide the transition from one stage to the next. Timing is everything. In order to unlock your child’s gifted potential, her brain’s neurons must be stimulated and guided during her optimal windows of growth. When you’re not present, you risk leaving that development to chance, and your absence can cause the overproduction of the stress hormones that may literally change the brain’s neurological and emotional framework. When cortisol is produced to excess, or persists over a long duration, it washes over the developing brain like battery acid, changing its structure and affecting neurotransmitters.

I’m not saying that you can’t have a career, but you must compensate and accommodate to override the stress that your child experiences when waiting to be reunited with you. Our society does not make it easy to be present—as a working mother, I can attest to the very real obstacles, frus trations, and struggles that working parents experience. But I believe that those obstacles raise the stakes and require an even deeper understanding of which of your emotional assets wields the most influence over your child’s growth and success. Nothing is more important than your time. 

YOUR TIME IS MORE POWERFUL THAN YOUR MONEY 

You may believe, like so many, that more money means more opportunity, and that quality time is a necessary casualty in the rat race to buy your child more things, better schools, memberships, and opportunities to succeed. A study conducted by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2009 indicates that this is a cultural myth. According to PISA’s findings, your socioeconomic status accounts for only 10 percent of the variance in your child’s academic success. 

In a research project in England in 1984, Sarah Bayliss and her team set out to determine whether a parent-involvement program was able to close the gap in education between third graders from poor working-class families and their wealthier upper-middle-class counterparts. They found that the pupils from the poor working-class families, whose parents were involved and supported their children, outperformed those pupils from wealthier families, even those who were given private tutoring from professionals. The only variable in this study was that the children from poorer families were emotionally supported by parents who were involved in their daily activities. 

Here in the United States, a similar study confirms the same. Dr. Burton White conducted a three-year study called the Missouri Project, which involved three hundred families and demonstrated that when parents are taught about child development—including how to structure dis cipline without suppressing natural curiosity and the impulse to explore children thrive. Students whose parents participated in the study reached higher than average levels of aptitude in linguistic and cognitive ability by the age of three. 10 As a result, it was White who argued that education should begin at birth. White’s study led to one of the most groundbreak ing programs for parents interested in parental involvement in early educa tion. Because the Missouri Project convinced officials that parents were the most powerful force in early education, Missouri funded PAT (Parents as 

Teachers) to teach parents how to actively be involved in their child’s early education. The PAT program is so successful that it now has both national and international affiliates. The longitudinal results of the PAT programs in California and Missouri indicate that those children whose parents are actively involved in their nurturing and education from birth to three years score significantly higher than comparable children on almost all levels, including linguistic, cognitive, social, and academic abilities.

Because of the results obtained in the Missouri Project, White discovered that after the age of three, it becomes much more difficult to try to remediate both linguistic and intellectual deficits; therefore, a commitment to early childhood education is critical. However, educators now believe that the effects of parental involvement in early education are cumulative and still continue far beyond age three. Children likely retain the posi tive benefits of the active role their parents played in their early education throughout their lives. 

The best news of all? Making that impact isn’t nearly as time-consuming as you’d think; you can start seeing results in a matter of weeks, not years. Professor of education Lowell Madden, reporting on the remediation of poor readers in elementary school, states that parents who were taught how to interact with their children by reading in their own home over a six to-eight-week period multiplied their children’s comprehension rate by six times the normal rate. 13 Even more stunning, researchers today believe that 85 percent of all children in the United States labeled educable but mentally challenged could have attained average intelligence had they received suf ficient stimulation in their families of origin in their developmental years. What that means, for you and your child, is that regardless of your income or education level, you can learn how to expand your child’s learning ability if you act during pivotal times in her life. 

All this research together illuminates–and refutes—the social fiction that your child needs socioeconomic advantages to have a limitless future. It simply isn’t true. You just have to be prepped and present to take advantage of critical, optimal windows of opportunity in your child’s development. 

OPTIMIZE THE WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY

So you’re a parent, you’re ready to get started … and you’re probably pan icking because you don’t know what to do. You don’t need to be a formal teacher or have an advanced degree to foster your child’s social, emotional, and intellectual growth. What you can do, as your child’s most important teacher, is create an environment that is not only secure, but rich in learning materials, print, and objects to manipulate and observe. These tools can help your child develop the emotional skills that in turn contribute to social and intellectual growth and ultimately academic and personal success. 

For example, language starts earlier than you may think, as babies start learning rhythm, meter, and sounds listening to your voice from the fourth month on, in the womb. If you want to expand her potential exponen tially, you have to learn to speak in complex language and listen actively. 

In this book, I’ll teach you how to communicate with your child to spur higher-level neurological development. You’ll learn the active listening skills that enable you to catch red flags, spot hidden talents, and internalize the important feedback that your child shares with you. In addition, you’ll learn why the old adage “children should speak only when spoken to” rips apart the scaffolding you’ve worked so hard to build for your child. 

The connection between language, reading, and the development of your baby’s brain cannot be overemphasized. Talk to your baby constantly. Timing is especially critical where language and reading are concerned. Because the brain stem develops before the cerebral cortex, infants gain control of their five senses first, which means they start out being able to distinguish and imitate sounds, even if they can’t make sense of them. This receptivity of language begins four months after gestation; renowned speech scientist and psychologist Dr. Patricia Kuhl says that your baby learns the beginning of her native language from listening to your voice in utero. Thus, your child can learn whatever language she hears. After birth, if your child is exposed to many languages consistently during this window between birth and five years of age, she can learn them all (as long as each language is spoken specifically by one person at a time), and she can learn them with greater ease and speed than at any other time in her life. The important window for language acquisition begins to shut down by the age of five, so if a child learns a new language at the onset of adolescence, she may learn to speak it but will do so with a foreign accent. In due course, language acquisition evolves into reading and writing.

Teachers universally agree that reading is one of the most important fac tors in your child’s academic success. The key to boosting your child’s literacy lies in reading to her early and often. And I mean early: while a newborn can’t comprehend what you’re saying, her associative map is expanded just by the sound and rhythm of your voice, the warmth of your body, and the time spent together. Gradually, your child will learn to anticipate what’s coming next and begin to mimic your reading. By allowing your child to “read to you by reciting what she’s memorized, without bothering to correct her, you are paving the way for her to start connecting symbols, sounds, and words. You can also create a print-rich environment by labeling objects in large print, as well as pointing out objects around the house and in the neighborhood. 

THE IMPORTANT ROLE OF DAD 

While almost any man can father a child, there is so much more to the important role of being Dad in a child’s life. Let’s look at who Father is, and why he is so important. 

Fathers are central to the emotional well-being of their children; they are capable caretakers and disciplinarians. Studies show that if your child’s father is affectionate, supportive, and involved, he can contribute greatly to her cognitive, linguistic, and social development, resulting in academic achievement, a strong inner core resource, sense of well-being, good self esteem, and authenticity.

HOW FATHERS INFLUENCE OUR RELATIONSHIPS 

Your child’s primary relationship with his father can affect all of his rela tionships from birth to death, including those with friends, lovers, and spouses. Those early patterns of interactions with Father are the very pat terns that will be projected outward onto all relationships: not only your child’s intrinsic idea of who he is as he relates to others, but also the range of what your child considers acceptable and loving. 

Girls will look for men who hold the patterns of good old Dad, for after all, they know how to do that.” Therefore, if Father was kind, loving, and gentle, they will reach for those characteristics in men. Girls will look for in others what they have experienced and become familiar with in childhood. Because they’ve gotten used to those familial and historic behavioral pat terns, they think that they can handle them in relationships. 

Boys, on the other hand, will model themselves after their fathers. They will look for their father’s approval in everything they do and copy those behaviors that they recognize as both successful and familiar. Thus, if Dad was abusive, controlling, and dominating, those will be the patterns that his sons will imitate and emulate. However, if Father is loving, kind, support ive, and protective, boys will want to be that. 

Human beings are social animals, and we learn by modeling behavior. In fact, all primates learn how to survive and function successfully in the world through social imitation. Those early patterns of interaction are all children know, and it is those patterns that affect how they feel about themselves and how they develop. Your child is vulnerable to those early patterns and incor porates those behavioral qualities in his or her repertoire of social interaction. 

It is impossible to overestimate the importance of Dad. For example, girls who have good relationships with their fathers tend to do better in math at the eighth-grade level. Well-bonded boys develop securely with a stable and sustained sense of self. Also, children of involved fathers are less likely to get upset when detached from a parent. This is probably because fathers reassure children that they’re okay by giving them more freedom and space to explore their surroundings. This ability to stay back and observe chil dren without too much interference encourages individuation. Parenting styles of fathers seem to reinsure and challenge emotional growth, while the parenting styles of mothers is more protective. Fathers allow children to venture out two times the distance that Mother would find comfortable. Moreover, when exposed to a new situation, mothers immediately move in, while fathers stay back and let baby work it out. Both styles are important to baby’s psychological growth. Consequently, children of involved fathers have high IQs, greater social skills, greater impulse control, and display less violent behavior. 16 Who we are and who we are to be, we are becoming, and now we know that fathers are central to that outcome. 

HANGING FAMILY ROLES 

Only 20 percent of American households consist of married couples with children.’? Filling the gap are family structures of all kinds, with dads step ping up to the plate and taking on myriad roles. When they are engaged, fathers can really make a difference. They may be classically married, single, divorced, widowed, gay, straight, adoptive, stepfather, a stay-at-home dad, or the primary family provider—the only important thing is that he be involved. 

The emergence of women into the job market has forever changed how society views the traditional roles of fathers and mothers. Feminism and financial power have shifted classic parenting trends, and today approx imately 60 percent of women work.18 Add to that the shift in marriage, divorce, lowered birth rates, and family structures of all types, and you can see the emergence of a softening and changing of traditional parenting roles. This transition in economics, urbanization, and sexual roles has led to more open, flexible, and undefined functions for fathers. 

A recent study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development indicates that dads are more engaged in caretaking than ever before. The reasons for this are varied, but they include mothers working more hours and receiving higher salaries; fathers working less; and more psychological consciousness, better coping skills, mental illness interven tion, intimacy in marriage, social connection, and better role-modeling for children. 

Children who are well bonded with and loved by involved fathers tend to have fewer behavioral problems and are somewhat inoculated against alcohol and drug abuse. When fathers are less engaged, children are more likely to drop out of school earlier and to exhibit more problems in behavior and substance abuse. Research indicates that fathers are as important as moth ers in their respective roles as caregivers, protectors, financial supporters, and, most important, models for social and emotional behavior. In fact, a relatively new familial structure that has emerged in our culture is the stay at-home dad. This prototype is growing daily, thanks in part to women’s strong financial gain, the recent recession, increase in corporate layoffs, and men’s emerging strong sense of self. 

Even when fathers are physically removed from their families, there are ways for them to nurture healthy relationships with their children. For instance, recognizing the important role fathers play in daughters’ lives, Angela Patton started a program in which young girls went to visit their fathers in prison for a father-daughter dance. It was a successful program that has spread across the country and not only helped daughters find connection, love, and support from their fathers, but also helped fathers feel important in the lives of their daughters. 

When fathers are separated from their children after a divorce, there are many ways they can remain bonded with their children. Though divorce is traumatizing to boys and girls alike, strong, consistent, and loving parent ing from fathers can help make the transition successful. 

Excerpted from How to Build Your Baby’s Brain: A Parent’s Guide to Using New Gene Science to Raise a Smart, Secure, and Successful Child by Dr. Gail Gross with permission from the author and publisher.

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