On a recent shopping excursion, I found myself standing near a family with a baby. While the adults in the group engaged in a conversation, the infant took the opportunity to check out his surroundings. When his eyes met mine, I made a funny face. I widened my eyebrows and scrunched my lips into a circle. The baby looked curious as I changed my expression to a big smile. He immediately smiled back at me, his entire face lighting up in delight. During that brief moment, we made a connection, one I’d like to believe most adults are hardwired to make as they interact with babies. However, many adults may not fully appreciate the profound importance of these early exchanges.

A 2016 survey by the Bezos Family Foundation and Zero to Three of more than 2000 parents found that most parents fail to recognize the significance of social interactions with their babies during the first year. Researchers refer to this phenomenon as the “missing first year” due to the fact that parents mistakenly believe their children’s emotional and language development begin later than science tells us. According to findings in the National Parent Survey, “34% of parents believe that talking to children starts to benefit their language skills at a year old or later, when in fact it begins at birth. 63% of parents say the benefits of talking begin at 3 months or older.”

 

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The ideal time for learning

Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience have helped researchers to better understand the critical importance of brain development during the first years of life. These discoveries support the earlier findings and hypotheses of developmental psychologists who have long studied human development and behaviors. Advancement in tools such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and electroencephalograms (EEG) offer a view of what happens inside a brain and measure the electrical activity in babies’ brains. These tools give researchers deeper insight into when and how the human brain develops.

By studying the brain, neuroscientists have determined that there are critical periods of time when the brain is optimally prepared for particular learning. Although the brain can retain some plasticity after the critical windows of opportunity have closed enabling further learning, there are ideal time periods for the development and learning of discrete skills.

Neuroscientists tell us that babies are born with billions of brain cells, or neurons, that quickly learn to communicate with each other using electrical signals within the brain. These signals form connections called circuits that are strengthened through repeated use. More than one million new neural connections are formed every second during the first few years of life.

Neurons that are not used are naturally pruned as the brain specializes and circuits grow stronger through repeated use. Throughout the critical learning period in the first year of life, the brain develops the ability to regulate the interconnected skills of motor control, behavior, language, emotion, vision and memory.

The foundation of this interconnected brain circuitry is established through social communication and bonding, and is referred to as “serve and return” interactions. Responsive interactions occur between infants and their caregivers when they engage in back and forth exchanges, often “mirroring” each other’s facial expressions and utterances. A baby may shape her mouth into an O while her mother makes the same face back to the baby. The baby coos and the mother echoes the sound before changing the sound and the expression that the baby then mimics in return.

These small interactions play a significant role in brain development as they are repeated over time and circuits are strengthened in the infant’s brain. Serve and return interactions are simple connections forming the foundation for further complex brain development.

No substitute for human interaction

During the critical first years of life babies need love in the form of consistent care, shared exchanges, and cognitive stimulation. There is no substitute for caring and responsive human interaction. Researchers at the University of Washington observed no measurable benefits from interactions between infants and audio or video recordings. Babies are social learners who need face-to-face communication with other humans in order to learn and thrive.

When children grow and develop within an environment of nurturing, responsive communication, the serve and return interactions grow increasingly more interactive and multifaceted. Infants develop emotional awareness of themselves and others within the context of their strengthening relationships. Meanwhile, their motor, language and cognitive skills are simultaneously growing over time as they engage in back and forth communication with caring individuals and as they interact within their environments. The serve and return interactions at the foundation of brain development fuels the ability of growing children to react to feedback from caring adults and teachers as they continue to grow and learn.

As parents and other caregivers of infants gain understanding of the amazing but hidden development of their children’s brains, they may find comfort in the knowledge that their presence and attention are the greatest gifts they can give their children. Picture-perfect nurseries, enrollment in baby swim classes, and other false pressures modern parents place on themselves in order to achieve parenting perfection are simply not necessary. Consistent, nurturing care for both parents and babies is key.

I enjoyed my brief encounter with the baby at the mall. I hope he has the opportunity to engage in countless small, repetitive, and responsive interactions every day. This communication, including eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, talking, and reading aloud, can have profound influence on his developing brain. Never underestimate the power of connecting and communicating with babies.