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Baby Matters

Brain Development - The Early Years

June 25th, 2015

Submitted by the Healthy Parents, Healthy Children Team

Babies are already learning even before they are born. Brain development begins during pregnancy and continues into adult years. At birth, the brain is about one-quarter the size of an adult’s brain and is made up of billions of neurons (nerve cells that are in the brain and nervous system).

“The brain guides growth and development. By understanding how the brain works, you can help your child develop and grow,” says Suzanne Blair, Program Coordinator with the Alberta Health Services Early Childhood Team.

Building the brain is like building a house

A newborn’s brain is like a house that is being built. The walls and doors are up, but the wiring isn’t all in place. There is still a lot of work to be done.


In a house…

In the brain…

·         The structure is built starting on the ground.

·         The basic structure forms during pregnancy.

·         The base or foundation is set, the walls are built and the electrical system is wired—all in an exact order.

·         The ‘wiring’ of the brain starts as neurons begin to connect with each other.

·         The electrical wiring lets the electrical signals reach all parts of the house.

·         Connections continue to develop into the early adult years.

·         A strong foundation supports everything that’s built on top of it.

·         These connections help the brain communicate with the nervous system.

Things to know about your child’s developing brain

  • Brain structure and early brain cell connections are affected by:

  • what your child is born with—inherited traits and abilities (nature)

  • what your child experiences, the care he’s given, and the relationships he has with other people (nurture)

  • The most important time for brain development is during pregnancy and the early years. This is when the foundation is set for future learning, behaviour and health.

  • Brain cells form connections with each other so signals can pass from one part of the brain to another. These processes make it possible for children to grow, think and learn.

  • Simple connections form first. They form the basis for more complex pathways that come later. This pattern continues for many years.

  • Brain cell connections are created through everyday experiences, interactions and the things that children see, hear, touch, taste and smell.

  • The more often the experience happens, whether positive or negative, the stronger that brain connection becomes.

Interactions support brain development

For healthy brain development, children need positive relationships with their moms, dads and other important adults in their lives.

Relationships are formed through everyday interactions. Interactions go back and forth between people, like the serve-and-return interactions in a game of tennis or volleyball. For example, when your baby coos or gazes at your face, he’s ‘serving the ball’ to you. When you smile back, talk gently and return the gaze, you’re ‘returning the ball’ to him.

Positive serve-and-return interactions are important all through your child’s life because they build brain cell connections throughout the brain. These connections are needed to learn new skills in all areas of development (e.g., moving his body, regulating his emotions).

“It takes many years for the brain to develop. As your child gets older, brain connections that are frequently used are strengthened, and connections that are no longer used get pruned away,” says Blair. “This process of adding, strengthening and pruning connections will continue throughout your child’s life.”

When you take the time to:

  • watch, listen and respond to your child, he learns that he’s important

  • read and talk to him, he learns language skills

  • cuddle and care for him, he learns to trust

The above information contains excerpts from Alberta Health Services’ Healthy Parents, Healthy Children print and online resources. For more information on topics related to pregnancy and being a parent, go  

The Healthy Parents, Healthy Children project is part of the Healthy Children and Families team at Alberta Health Services.  Please go or visit your local Community/Public Health Centre for a print copy. Find us on Facebook at Healthy Parents, Healthy Children or follow us on Twitter @AHS_HPHC. For questions or comments, please contact



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