January 1, 2021

The first year of life is a period of incredible growth and development.

A newborn’s brain is about one-quarter of its adult weight, and will double in size by the end of the first year. From good prenatal health care and nutrition to age-appropriate early experiences during infancy, the groundwork is being laid for lifelong learning.   

While genes provide the essential “hardware” for the development of brain circuitry, the interplay of genes and experiences ultimately shape who we become. During the first few years of life, the brain’s neurons make trillions of connections; some will be “pruned” due to lack of use, while other pathways are strengthened because of repeated interactions with the world.  

Can the parent-child relationship have a major impact on key developmental domains?  

Definitely! 

For example, the amount of an infant’s babbling can be increased depending on how much adults respond by repeating the babbling back to the infant. Most importantly, if a parent provides a sense of safety and security for a baby, soothing and responsive interactions without being intrusive – using face, voice and touch – the foundation is laid for optimal development.   

Key Facts to Keep in Mind 

  • Learning is done in the context of relationships; babies need face time rather than screen time or gadgets to learn most effectively. Trusted caregivers and three-dimensional objects (toys and other materials) can provide all the stimulation they need.
  • A language-rich environment has a direct effect not only on language development, but academic readiness later. Talking about what you’re doing, what your baby is doing, looking at a book together (even if all you’re doing is showing your infant a picture while he chews on the page), and singing songs are simple ways to strengthen those neural pathways. Be mindful of chronic excessive background noise, which can make it more difficult for babies to tune into language subtleties.
  • A certain amount of stress can be tolerated by babies, but chronic, high levels of stress can make permanent changes to the brain that affect long-term cognitive and social-emotional development. Calmness and routine are important to support children in their development. Soothing, gentle touch is essential for physical, emotional, and cognitive growth.
  • Help a baby (and later, a toddler) by tending to their needs with language describing what their emotional states are: “The dog barked, and it startled you. I’m going to hold you until you feel better.”
  • Movement and exploration are important, so childproof rather than restrict too much. Make sure infants have plenty of opportunities for tummy time and safe places to explore as they begin rolling and crawling.
  • Provide a variety of play experiences (experiences involving the senses, and both fine and gross motor play). A caregiver can extend a baby’s interest in an object by commenting on their activity: “Oh, you’ve got the blocks and you’re banging them together.”  Showing delight in your baby’s activities and interactions with you creates a kind of neurological response that later supports the child as they begin to self-regulate, focus attention, and build social relationships with others. You probably never knew playing “peekaboo” had such a big payoff!  

*Shape your parenting style to your baby’s temperament by observing them. Every baby is a little different and the first few months are about learning your baby’s personal style. Do they have “big” reactions to new things and people, or are responses milder? What soothes them when upset, and what is enjoyable? 

*As a parent, seek out support and nurture your own relationships. A caregiver’s emotional well-being can have a profound impact on a child’s development.   

And finally, some parents worry about their baby’s lack of interaction with others during the pandemic.  While babies enjoy interaction with others (and parents certainly benefit from the support), parents are still an infant’s most essential source of socialization. 


Lisa Phillips, MSW, LMSW, has been a parent educator at The Parenting Center at Children’s Hospital since 2001 and is a regular contributor to the award-winning “Parenting Corner” column. She can be reached at 504.896.9591; chnola.org/parentingcenter 

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