Nancy Slessenger, a brain expert, explains how your baby’s brain continually grows and develops throughout pregnancy and explains why diet and the lifestyle choices that you make can have such an impact upon your unborn child. The anticipation that a pregnant woman experiences whilst awaiting the birth of her child can be excruciating: counting down the weeks, estimating its size and stage of development. We are all familiar with the images of the foetus growing in the womb – but there is another highly significant area of growth invisible to the naked eye – the brain. Nancy Slessenger, a brain expert, explains how your baby’s brain continually grows and develops throughout pregnancy.
At what stage in the womb does a baby’s brain start working?
From the moment of conception, the foetus is continually developing and growing, both physically and mentally. There are times when a baby’s brain is making a quarter of a million new neurons every minute which is one of the reasons why pregnant women get so tired – creating brain cells is hard work! In the womb, your baby’s brain is developing all the time, growing neurons and also making links between those neurons.
Babies can recognise their mother’s voice, which shows that they developed that memory before they were born, so the brain was ‘working’ at that stage. This is one of the reasons why diet and the lifestyle choices that you make can have such an impact upon the unborn child.
At this stage, and throughout life, the brain is incredibly elastic. If, for example, your mother drank a lot when she was pregnant with you, your brain might very well end up being organised in a different way because the brain cells simply didn’t know where to go while your brain was forming.
Some people have little ‘ectopic areas’ of their brain – imagine little mushrooms of brain cells on the outside of their brain – sometimes linked with dyslexia. These people have brain cells in areas where other people wouldn’t have them: you could say that their brains are wired up differently due to the factors they experienced whilst still in the womb.
Brain development from birth
When a baby is born, its brain is about one quarter developed, which makes sense when you compare its head size to that of a fully grown adult.
There is a distressing story about events in Nairobi: some mothers simply didn’t eat protein whilst they were pregnant so that the baby’s head would be smaller, and the birth easier. The head would be physically smaller than normal at birth because the brain is less well developed due to the lack of protein in their diet. The babies were indeed born underweight, but also showed signs of delayed mental development. Marian Diamond, one of the leading researchers in this field, gave these women a very high-protein diet after the birth while they were still breast-feeding. This built up the baby’s brain, but not quite to the extent that it would have been if those mothers had been eating a balanced diet that included protein all the way through pregnancy, proving its significance in foetal brain development.
In the first 10 years of life, your child’s brain will have made billions and billions of connections. The connections which are no longer needed will wither away. When a child is a foetus in the womb, the toes and fingers are webbed, and then the webbing dies away as it is no longer needed. The brain develops in the same way: many connections are formed at random, but only the connections that are used will actually remain.
The first year of development is very rapid – any parent will tell you that! You see phenomenal changes in a child: in its behaviour, its understanding, and in the way it interacts with the world in the first year of life. After that first year, the brain looks like the brain of a normal adult. By about three, the brain has a thousand trillion connections – that’s about twice as many as an adult. From about the age of three to 10, the child undergoes very rapid intellectual, emotional and social development. Think about some of the children you know, and you can see it happening in them. The brain activity is huge, about twice the level of adult brain activity and is never really fully developed as it can continue changing and growing throughout life.
Physically, boys’ brains develop in a different way from girls’ brains. A boy’s brain develops from the back (the doing part) towards the front (the thinking part), whereas a girl’s brain develops more from front to back. So, boys develop motor skills, their physical abilities, before they start to think about them; whereas girls develop more of their thinking and language skills first. This accounts for many of the differences in learning styles displayed by the sexes from birth and throughout their schooling.
Is a child’s brain more active than an adult’s?
The simple answer is yes – there is so much new information going on in a child’s brain. They have new experiences much more frequently than an adult does – unless you are someone who does lots and lots of new things all the time. And then, at about age 11, the pruning starts – like the webbed fingers in the womb, the bits of the brain that the child is not using get pruned away.
We only keep those connections in our brain that are actively used. Other parts of your brain are still developing, as you grow into your twenties – in fact, the brain never really stops growing and developing – but that’s a whole new chapter.
About Nancy Slessenger
Nancy Slessenger has spent fifteen years researching the area of brain activity and learning. She has written several books on a range of issues, including how to deal with difficult people and the use of praise and appraisal. Nancy also runs a consultancy which focuses on helping organisations find practical solutions to complex people problems. Her new book, ‘Brain Magic’, co-written with Andy Gilbert, explains how simple everyday actions can keep the brain healthier for longer has just been published and is available now by visiting www.brainmagic.co.uk