The formation of the brain is more than
an expression of parents’ genes. The
emerging brain is also shaped by what a
baby experiences before birth.
Bryan Kolb, a professor in the
Department of Neuroscience at the
University of Lethbridge, says the
development of the prenatal brain
reflects a complex interplay of genes and
“There’s no strict genetic blueprint
on how to build a brain,” says the
neuroscientist. “Brains exposed to
different environmental events such as
sensory stimuli, drugs, diet, hormones
or stress may develop in very different
Brain cells, or neurons, begin to form
about a month after conception and peak
in the fourth month at 250,000 neurons a
minute, Kolb says.
During pregnancy, newly formed
cells rapidly sculpt the brain’s circuitry
in stages. Within the first six months
of pregnancy, basic sensory and motor
regions of the brain begin to function,
and by the last trimester an unborn baby
is capable of simple forms of learning.
What a baby experiences while
connections are forming between
different regions of the brain could
significantly alter the wiring of cells and
overall brain development.
It’s well-known that a mother’s use of
alcohol or nicotine while pregnant can
disrupt brain growth and lead to vision
or hearing problems, brain damage,
learning disabilities or birth defects.
If a mother is very depressed, her
emotional state could have a negative
and lasting effect on her child. Street
drugs and certain prescription drugs can
also affect a fetus, Kolb says.
Creating a responsive maternal
environment is one way to influence
babies’ brain development, says
Robbin Gibb, associate professor in
the Department of Neuroscience at the
University of Lethbridge and researcher
at the Canadian Centre for Behavioural
Neuroscience. For example, reading
aloud will improve a baby’s literacy
and make the brain more adaptable
and better able to deal with stresses
later in life.
“As a parent, you have a profound
effect on your baby and you have the
power to make the choices that help put
this baby on the right track,” Gibb says.
After birth, a child’s brain continues to
develop through adulthood. Some of the
most intense and important development
occurs from birth to six years old and
during the teen years.
Within the first six months of life, our
language skills begin to develop and we
recognize the spoken word and people
around us. By the time we’re toddlers,
we’re using words and can walk.
Our higher thinking functions, such
as reasoning and planning, develop
next. Over the next few years, we begin
making more complex connections
between different parts of the brain.
“Any experience a child has—whether
he’s exposed to violence or supportive
care, or has enough to eat or has toys to
play with—plays a role in determining
the circuitry of his brain,” says Deborah
Dewey, a professor in the departments
of Pediatrics and Community Health
Sciences at the University of Calgary.
Positive serve-and-return experiences,
such as cuddling or reading to a
baby, can stimulate the brains cells
responsible for language, sensory, motor
and social skills.
For sturdy brain development in the
early years, Dewey says a child needs
nurturing and stable relationships with
caregivers. Communities can pitch in,
too, by offering parenting resources, and
by helping families get some downtime
and connect with one another. |a
BUILDING BABY’S BRAIN
Dr. Robbin Gibb, an associate
professor in the Department of
Neuroscience at the University of
Lethbridge and researcher at the
Canadian Centre for Behavioural
Neuroscience, offers these
tips for healthy prenatal brain
For expectant moms
• Eat well to nourish yourself and
• Get enough sleep. This helps
baby rest, too
• Rest, sing or play music to your
• Keep stress levels down.
Moderate exercise such as
walking or yoga will help.
For expectant dads
• Create positive bonding
experiences by gently
massaging and talking to
“the bump.” A newborn can
recognize his dad’s voice right
after birth if the dad has been
talking to his unborn child. And
gently rubbing mom’s skin will
produce a protein that helps
baby’s brain development.