How to make the most of everyday experiences to shape a baby’s brain

A newborn baby’s brain is ready to attune itself to any type of environment. Babies need to learn how to be “human” in a social context and this is why they instinctively pay special attention to the details that are imbedded in their daily experiences.

Written by Lizette van Huyssteen (B.Soc.Sc), Founder of the Practica Programme:

A newborn baby’s brain is ready to attune itself to any type of environment.

The world is a village nowadays and it may be hard to imagine that, only a few hundred years ago, people lived in closed communities that each one had a social structure, one language, unique traditions, recreational activities, musical preferences, status symbols and educational expectations that were vastly different from the others.

Cultural differences impacted on many areas of people’s lives, for example, food preferences, child rearing practices, what they regarded as aesthetically pleasing, how they solved conflicts and how they acquired what they needed to survive from day to day.

*Cultures blend more nowadays, and it is therefore no longer obvious how important it is for a baby to be integrated into a certain social context. In fact, many modern-day parents assume that their children will automatically learn how to take their place in society, as if learning to do so is genetically predetermined, which is not the case.

Babies need to learn how to be “human” in a social context and this is why they instinctively pay special attention to the details that are imbedded in their daily experiences.

Babies are acute students of their environment so that they can pick up on everything that may help them to fit in. They continue to do this today, just as they used to hundreds of years ago when social groups were much more unique.

This makes them hypersensitive to the details that are imbedded in their everyday experiences. In fact, their brain wiring literally changes over time to give preference to what they experience most often. 1

Here are a few practical examples:

  • Language: Babies’ brains adapt during the second half of the first year to pay more attention to the sounds that are innate to their native language, whilst learning to ignore the unique sounds of languages that they never hear.2 Babies develop larger vocabularies when they hear more language and their brain wiring changes as a result to make it easier for them to process language.3
  • Food preferences: Babies are so bent on fitting in and becoming like the people around them that they assume that people like the same foods when they speak the same language, and they change their own preferences to align with what same-group members eat.4
  • Curiosity: Babies, who are exposed to a stimulating environment, are more curious and excited about learning when they are older.5
  • Musical preferences: At 12 months of age, babies show an adult-like, culture-specific pattern of responding to musical rhythms, in contrast to the culture-general way in which 6-month-old babies respond to musical rhythms.6 And, they also learn to prefer the music that they hear in the company of people who speak their native language.7
  • Social preferences: They are also more likely to trust people that act predictably and in ways that are familiar to them.8

*Most importantly, they also pay close attention to how their primary caregivers interact with them and each other so that they can learn to predict other people’s reactions. This is their way of trying to feel emotionally safe, develop a concept of themselves as social beings and discover what one is expected to feel, and when, where and with whom one may express different feelings.9

Babies also use their environment as a blueprint for adopting certain attitudes towards people and life in general.

Dr Burton White describes in his classic book, The First Three Years of Life, how the observations of his research team lead to the conclusion that babies instinctively study people’s expectations and their responses in everyday situations.

They do this between the ages of 8 and 24 months to develop a “social contract” with their caregivers that can serve as a frame of reference for them as they respond to discipline and guidance later on in their lives.

This social contract also tells them what other people expect from them and what they can expect from the important people in their lives, and people in general.10

*To this day, there are significant differences in the way that people from different cultures manage their emotions. In fact, researchers report that people from different backgrounds still transfer a repertoire of emotional responses and attitudes to their children in certain unique and predictable ways.11

The basic premise is that the details of a baby’s day to day experiences are hugely important, as they add up to create what a baby perceives as his or her world.

Practically speaking, this means that we need to pay close attention to many things, such as the quality and variety of the music that we let our babies listen to, the tone of voice that we use as we speak to one another, the quality of the language that we use in front of them, the way in which we provide routine and create structure to our days, how we respond to learning opportunities, respond to mistakes, interact with technological devices and books and treat people who are within and outside our immediate social circle.

We need to also pay attention to how and when we spend money and the quality and the variety of the food that we eat in front of our children, as well as what we dish up for them. Why? Because children do not learn to like foods that they don’t eat regularly, especially when they don’t eat them in a social context, in other words, sitting at a table with family.  

*Researchers differentiate between “experience expectant stimulation” and “experience dependent stimulation” to highlight the difference between input that is universally necessary for normal development and input that is defined by context. For example, all babies need to hear a certain amount of good quality language for normal development to take place (experience expectant stimulation), but the specific language that a child hears is determined by context (experience dependent stimulation).12

Against this backdrop, there are 4 basic things that babies need universally to set the stage for both normal and optimal brain development.

  1. Babies have a universal need for emotional security. We need to provide emotional stability and a loving, nurturing environment for our babies and make sure that they develop secure attachments with emotionally responsive caregivers if they spend time in day care.13
  2. Babies have a universal need for spending large amounts of time in a language rich environment. Language differentiates humans from animals, and one of the first requirements for developing any of the higher skills that are necessary for success as a human being is that every child needs to hear huge amounts of good quality language that relates to what he or she experiences in the moment. They also need to be personally engaged and actively involved in these language experiences.14
  3. All babies need freedom, time and a supportive environment in which they can play in various ways.  Play is so important for normal development that it is regarded as a basic human right for children. (This also includes imaginative and physical play.)15
  4. Babies and children need a screen-free environment during the first 18 months, with no more than 1 hour of screen time per day from 2 to 6 years of age. Since screens stimulate developing brains in atypical ways, when it is presented inappropriately, it results in atypical brain wiring that is likely to undermine balanced and well-rounded development.16

*The screen-free period should be extended to 24 months if parents are unsure of the age-appropriate way in which screens should be introduced for only 5 to 10 minutes a day between 18 and 24 months. 

The next step is for parents to find out more about what can be expected at different ages, so that they can provide the right experiences at the right times.

We discussed in a previous post that trillions of preliminary pathways develop in a baby’s brain during the first two years that need to be hardwired into the brain’s circuitry through experience.

Interestingly, preliminary pathways emerge spontaneously in different parts of the brain in a predictable order, and this causes children to develop through the same steps as they grow older.

This also explains why, in spite of some variation in every child’s individual pace, we can expect a typical baby to become ready for making certain new discoveries and learning certain new skills at roughly predictable ages.17

With this in mind, it’s very exciting for parents to gather information about how babies typically develop, and then prepare in advance to play the right games and create the best experiences for the development of the skills that emerge naturally at every age.

As parents, we are our children’s first teachers, but initially, our role is not to impart knowledge by sitting them down and creating a “school set-up” where we teach information and facts. Instead, our role is to create a balanced and enriched environment that encourages them to practise the new skills that naturally emerge at every age.

*By doing this, we help to hardwire more and more pathways into their brains to build the most extensive brain maps possible and lay the best possible foundation for future learning and personality development. 18

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  13. Raikes, Helen. A Secure Base for Babies: Applying Attachment Concepts to the Infant Care Setting. Young Children, vol. 51(5), 59–67 (1996)
  14. Zauche, Lauren H., et al. The Power of Language Nutrition for Children’s Brain Development, Health, and Future Academic Achievement. Journal of pediatric health care: official publication of National Association of Pediatric Nurse Associates & Practitioners, vol. 31(4):493-503 (2017)
  15. Yogman, Michael., et al. The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children. Pediatrics, vol. 142(3):2018-58 (2018)
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