Brain Development


A Baby’s Brain Develops How Many Neural Connections Each Second?

A child’s brain undergoes an amazing period of development from birth to three—producing more than a million neural connections each second. The age of zero to three is the most critical period for a child’s brain growth.

The human brain begins forming very early in prenatal life, just three weeks after conception. But, in many ways, brain development is lifelong. That’s because the same events that shape the brain during development are also responsible for storing new skills and memories throughout life.

At birth, babies come equipped with roughly half of their limbic system developed and functioning… and it’s the lower half. The brain stem, which controls breathing, heart rate, reflexes, and other involuntary functions necessary for survival, has been “online” since early pregnancy. The amygdala is well developed and connected to the brain stem at birth. That means newborns respond to discomfort with the full range of involuntary physical distress responses, such as elevated heart rate, rapid breathing, a facial grimace, and tense body. Newborns respond to pleasant, familiar sounds, smells, tastes, sights, and touches with all the involuntary physical signs of contentment. In other words, newborn brains and bodies react to both pleasant and unpleasant situations with basic emotional expressions.

But the growth of the neural wiring of the higher limbic system—the structures that enable awareness, thought, control of and intentional response to emotional signals—takes about 2 years for the brain to complete. And that’s just the basic wiring. It then takes many, many more years for those connections to become insulated with myelin, a substance that ensures signals between areas of the brain are strong, clear, and efficient. In fact, the part of the higher limbic system that allows us to choose to act differently than we feel like acting is one of the slowest areas of brain to become myelinated.

The major difference between brain development in a child versus 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.

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