The first three years of life is a vital period for your baby’s development. A new-born’s brain is about 25 percent of its approximate adult weight. But by age 3, it has grown dramatically by producing billions of cells and hundreds of trillions of connections, or synapses, between these cells.
Did you know that the human brain begins forming very early in prenatal life (just three weeks after conception), but in many ways, brain development is a lifelong project. That is because the same events that shape the brain during development are also responsible for storing information, new skills and memories throughout life. The major difference between brain development in a child versus learning an adult is a matter of degree: the brain is far more impressionable (neuroscientists use the term plastic) in early life than in maturity. This plasticity has both a positive and a negative side. On the positive side, it means that young children’s brains are more open to learning and enriching influences. On the negative side, it also means that young children’s brains are more vulnerable to developmental problems should their environment prove especially impoverished or un-nurturing.
Here are some very important facts, every mother and mother to be should know about.
When does brain development begin?
Brain development begins with the formation and closure of the neural tube, the earliest nervous tissue that looks like a fat earthworm stretched out along the entire back of the embryo. The neural tube forms from the neural plate, which begins forming just sixteen days after conception. This plate lengthens and starts folding up, forming a groove at around eighteen days, which then begins fusing shut into a tube around twenty-two days post-conception. By 27 days, the tube is fully closed and has already begun its transformation into the brain and spinal cord of the embryo.
When the brain is fully developed?
Our brains are continually re-shaping themselves to meet the demands of everyday life, even throughout adulthood. However, there are certain aspects of brain structure and function that do level off during development. For example, the number of neurons peaks even before birth; some 100 billion are formed during just the first five months of gestation. In spite of the great number of neurons present at birth, brain size itself increases more gradually: a new-born’s brain is only about one-quarter the size of an adult’s. It grows to about 80 percent of adult size by three years of age and 90 percent by age five. This growth is largely due to changes in individual neurons, which are structured much like trees. Thus, each brain cell begins as a tiny sapling and only gradually sprouts its hundreds of long, branching dendrites. Brain growth (measured as either weight or volume) is largely due to the growth of these dendrites, which serve as the receiving point for synaptic input from other neurons.
How does nutrition affect the developing brain?
Brain development is most sensitive to a baby’s nutrition between mid-gestation and two years of age. Children who are malnourished–not just fussy eaters but truly deprived of adequate calories and protein in their diet–throughout this period do not adequately grow, either physically or mentally. Their brains are smaller than normal, because of reduced dendritic growth, reduced myelination, and the production of fewer glia (supporting cells in the brain which continue to form after birth and are responsible for producing myelin). Inadequate brain growth explains why children who were malnourished as foetuses and infants suffer often lasting behavioural and cognitive deficits, including slower language and fine motor development, lower IQ, and poorer school performance.
A baby’s birth weight and brain size do depend on the quality of his or her mother’s nutrition during pregnancy. Pregnant women should gain about 20 percent of their ideal pre-pregnancy weight (e.g., 26 pounds for a 130-lb woman) to insure adequate foetal growth. This requires consuming an extra 300 calories per day, including 10-12 extra grams of protein.