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Brain Development

Brain Development

At birth your baby’s brain is approximately 25% of the size of an adult’s brain and by the age of three your child’s brain will be 80% of its full size.  As you can see there is a large and rapid brain growth in those precious first few years.

Brain development starts within the womb.  Just two weeks after conception a baby’s brain will start to develop and by four months a baby will be able to suck, swallow, “breathe,” stretch, and even suck their thumb! By about the 28th week in utero the nervous system is mature enough to support life. During the 29th-38th week interconnections between each individual nerve cell (neurones) develop rapidly. However, a baby is born with a brain that is hard-wired just for survival, i.e. respiration, digestion and excretion.

How the Brain Develops

The brain develops from the inside outwards. The outer layer, the cortex develops last. This is the part of the brain that makes us human. This is the “thinking brain”.  At seven months’ gestation neurones begin to develop branches known as dendrites. Each neurone is connected to another at points called synapses. They continue to develop rapidly during the first few years after birth, particularly in the first two years. Every new experience (sight, touch, smell, sound, taste and movement) will create a new brain connection within your growing baby.

The brain has been described as having three levels and these can be associated with our evolutionary development (MacLean 1979)

Brain Developemt

First Level Reptilian Brain:

  • Brain Stem (including the medulla oblongata and the pons) and Reticular formation
  • Control basic need of life (breathing, heart rate, body temperature, suckling and muscle tone) plus maintaining consciousness and arousal
  • Tiny babies’ movements can be seen to be quite reptilian when they are first born
  • Brain stem is thought to be the most ancient part of our brain

Second Level Mammalian Brain

  • Mid brain which includes the pons, the basal ganglia, the cerebellum, and the thalamus and hypothalamus (these last two form the limbic system)
  • Connects the brain stem to the thinking part of the brain the cortex
  • Babies during this stage will exhibit many mammalian movements and will learn these new skills in order: rolling, crawling, sitting, creeping and pulling up to standing
  • Midbrain controls emotions and instincts (limbic system), organization of activities (basal ganglion), control of huger, thirst, temperature (hypothalamus) and the cerebellum controls our movement.

Third Level Human Brain

  • Cortical brain which allows us to be able to stand and move independently, to use our hands and learn to assimilate information and memories, and eventually learn to organise and act upon them.
  • Eventually we become the rational, logical and linguistic animals called homosapiens.
  • The cerebral cortex includes two cerebral hemispheres (sometimes referred to as the “right brain” and “left brain”) connected by the corpus callosum. Each hemisphere is divided into four lobes: the frontal lobe, the parietal lobe, the occipital lobe, and the temporal lobe.
  • The right hemisphere is responsible for the sensing and control of movement on the left handside of the body and the left hemisphere controls the senses and movement on the right. The corpus callosum acts as a telephone exchange allowing information from both sides of the brain to be analysed and acted upon.
  • The cortical brain is responsible for all voluntary functions of the brain. When you solve a maths problem, remember someone’s name, or shake someone’s hand, this is the part of the brain you are using. Movement, memory, sensory processing, and language are all controlled by the cerebrum – it is the intellectual part
  • It is the least developed at birth.

Why does it grow so rapidly?

Within the first three years of a child’s life the brain does the majority of its growing. A study by the University of Chicago’s Benjamin Bloom concluded that by four most of the IQ is in place and that “general intelligence appears to develop as much from conception to age four as it does during the 14 years from 4-18”

During this period major developmental hurdles will be achieved in a young child’s life:

  • Visual Development: a new born baby has limited vision but by three their vision is almost as sophisticated as an adult’s. This process will see huge brain growth with the development of billions of brain connections.
  • Gross Motor Development: a reflexive new born baby with no control over their own body will be running and jumping happily by the time they are three. Their vestibular system will be more mature and their muscle tone well developed.
  • Fine Motor Skills: the ability to use their hands to manipulate objects is being refined daily
  • Language Development – basic biological noises will have been replaced with over 1000 words by the age of three.
  • Thinking, logic and problem solving are being developed throughout these three years. This is the process by which the baby begins to become the independent human being. Every day there is something new to be learnt and enjoyed and life is one long adventure.

Baby College classes offer a well balanced mix of activities which stimulate all aspects of a baby’s development and have been meticulously researched and structured to allow progression through the age groups which allows appropriate, fun and gently challenging exercises to enjoyed by all.


Ten Touching Truths For New Parents


New parents can literally give their babies a magic touch to help them develop, grow and be happy and healthy.

There are many benefits of human touch to infant growth and development. In modern western society do we touch enough? Or do we need, as a society, to promote additional activities like infant massage to encourage parents to touch their babies more for healthy growth and development. There’s a wealth of scientific evidence proving how beneficial, and indeed vital, it is for babies to experience gentle, loving touch. It’s one of the easiest and loveliest ways to bond with your baby, and here are ten reasons why:

  1. Touch and Grow: Touch can directly stimulate growth because massage sends a message to the pituitary gland to release growth hormones. This improves intellectual and motor development, and also helps regulate your baby’s temperature, heart rate and sleep/wake patterns.
  2. Touch and Glow: Endorphins are the feel good, happy hormones released when we exercise, when we relax and when we experience skin-to-skin contact. The high level of endorphins, serotonin and oxytocin and low levels of cortisol that your baby will feel when touched or during a massage will contribute to feelings of well-being.
  3. Touching Nerves: Newborn babies have underdeveloped circulatory systems and it takes a while for their bodies to get acclimatised to life outside the womb. During this transitional period, their fingers and toes don’t get a full flow of blood. Massage strengthens the circulatory system, therefore helping a baby’s blood flow to promote the healthy growth and development of their bones, muscles, nervous system and brain.
  4. Touch Down: The world is a stressful place, not just for adults but for babies too. No matter how much we try to protect them, babies inevitably suffer from stress. The process of birth itself is traumatic enough, and then there’s the noise and bustle of modern life to cope with. When stress occurs, the body releases a hormone called cortisol which reduces the flow of oxygen and nutrients around the body. In infants and children, this can be particularly damaging, affecting growth and reducing brain development. After a busy day, we might reach for a glass of wine, or a comforting cup of tea to unwind, but babies don’t have many ways to help them calm down. Just as massage can help us to feel relaxed, so too for babies. It reduces the base amount of cortisol in the blood and therefore reduces the level of toxic stress.
  5. Soft Touch: Babies are learning to work their muscles which makes them tense up, as does emotion demonstrated by crying, which babies inevitably do at some point during the day! So your baby’s little body can become a tangle of tight muscles. Touch, in the form of regular baby massage, is a highly effective way to ease this.
  6. Natural Touch: The importance of touch for premature babies was recognised back in 1979 in Colombia, where neonatal wards had a shortage of incubators for babies with severe hospital infections. Doctors turned to nature for inspiration, specifically kangaroos, which hold their young as soon as they’re born. They sent mothers home with the instruction to regularly hold their infants bare-chested between their breasts in an upright position, feeding them only breast milk. What the doctors, who coined the term ‘Kangaroo Care’, found was that this skin-to-skin contact decreased the babies’ dependency on incubators. Astonishingly, mortality rates plunged from 70 percent to 30 percent.
  7. Out of Touch: The importance of touch for a baby’s growth and development is also demonstrated by studying what happens when touch is denied. Many studies have been carried out since the 1930’s to look at the importance of touch and care. These centered around old fashioned orphanages where it was believed that babies, like plants, would grow and develop normally purely through being kept warm and fed! Failure to Thrive is a medical condition where an infant or child fails to grow or gain appropriate weight over a length of time. They’re prone to infections and heal slowly. The child may appear thin, sad, weak and pale and withdrawn, losing the motivation even to eat. This is similar to a deep depression where the baby seems to give up on living. Or they may be jumpy, irritable and angry. In orphanages, the number one cause of Failure to Thrive is simply a lack of touch, stimulation and love, and a child may even die due to missing these essential requirements for growth.
  8. Losing Touch: Research has shown a direct relationship between children’s bone growth and amount of loving touch received. A three year old child deprived of maternal affection, had half the growth in his bone size than the average three year old (Montagu, 1986: 244).
  9. Touch Off: Human beings evolved to expect to be carried 100% of the time as babies, but since the invention of the baby carriage in 1848, the majority of babies are transported in prams and buggies. Distracting technology and forward facing pushchairs are exacerbating this ‘hands off’ style of modern parenting. It’s a ticking time bomb, with sensory deprivation starting to affect visual, social and language development. There are worrying reports that up to 1 in 5 children in the UK are starting school with some sort of developmental delay.
  10. Keep in Touch: Massage is one of the best ways for your baby to experience the benefits of touch. Massage therapy for children has been found to improve medical conditions including asthma, diabetes, cancer, autism, skin problems, juvenile arthritis, eating disorders and other psychiatric syndromes. In general, children show lower anxiety and stress levels, better mood, improved sleep patterns and higher levels of attentiveness when treated to a daily massage by their parents.

“Normal” parenting levels of touch and interaction should be enough for healthy growth as suggested by Underdown, Barlow and Stewart-Brown, but in the modern western world we touch our babies more infrequently than ever before and are possibly at risk of dropping to levels where infants may not receive enough touch for “normal” development. In extreme cases this may lead to failure to thrive but may also prevent our children from achieving their potential for growth and development physically and emotionally.

Activities that promote increased human touch such as infant massage may be one way of providing the antidote and making sure that our babies from infanthood through to childhood are indeed receiving the “normal” or indeed the “required” levels of touch and interaction to achieve healthy growth and development of body and brain.


Baby Signing

Baby Waving

Most babies and toddlers don’t start using their first words until they are at least one year old and it is not until they are somewhere between 18 months and 2 years before they start putting together 2 words to form very simple sentences. Their understanding of their world develops much quicker than their language skills and this can lead to frustration and tantrums

Giving your baby a few baby signs to learn will allow them to be able to communicate with you and help reduce down these frustrations for you both.  As a parent it’s just as frustrating for you as it is for your baby – you know they are trying to tell you something but they don’t know how to and you can’t understand them.

As your baby becomes a more effective communicator you will start to understand them more easily and will be able to be more responsive and sensitive to their needs and so increasing your bond with them.

Baby signing is simply an extension of normal gesturing that your baby will start to develop from about a year old: pointing, clapping, waving, putting their arms up to be picked up.

At Baby College we use the Makaton sign language. Makaton is designed to support spoken language – signs are used with speech, in spoken word order to help children and adults to communicate.  In class you learn a few new signs each week and we also have a sign rhyme to help you remember a few more.

At home it is recommended that you:

  • Use the sign or symbol for the important word in the sentence (only use one sign per sentence)
  • Always remember to speak and sign at the same time
  • Use clear, short sentences
  • Remember to make eye contact and use facial expression, body language and gestures
  • Use real objects and mime to give reference and meaning (sign ‘ball’ show them the ball and sign ‘ball’ again)
  • You may need to guide your child’s hands to help them to make the sign
  • Reward any attempt at communication and use the sign and symbol for ‘Good’ to give praise (thumbs up!)
  • Babies’ fine motor skills are not as good as adults so be aware that your baby’s attempt at signing will not be as clear as yours so make sure you are alert for their hand gestures

Baby College posts weekly Sign of the Week videos so that you can practice your signing at home and if you are interested you can find them @babycollegeuk on Facebook or book online into our infant or toddler classes at




Why Doesn’t My Baby Sleep?


Understanding how your baby sleeps and why they sleep like they do can help you as a parent be more realistic about the length of time your baby may sleep for.  It will also allow you to make more informed and positive decisions which are right for your family.

There are many factors that affect how well and how long a baby will sleep. A baby’s stomach is roughly the size of their clenched fist, i.e. small, so the amount of milk a baby can take in one go is correspondingly small. When their tummy is empty they will be hungry and need it refilling and in the early days that is going to be often (probably every 2-3 hours).

Babies’ brain activity during sleep is different from adults. A baby has a shorter sleep cycle than an adult of about 60 minutes and, like adults, different phases of sleep. Unlike an adult who drops pretty quickly into deep “quiet” or “restorative” sleep within a few minutes of falling asleep, a baby will spend about 20 minutes in REM sleep or “active” sleep first. They can easily be awakened during this period. During this active sleep period the brain is busy making new neural connections and growing. There is recent research that shows that babies who sleep within an hour of learning something new are much more likely to retain that knowledge (a great reason for reading at bedtime).

With a sixty minute sleep cycle there will be regular times in the night where a baby can easily be wakened. It is not fully understood why some babies wake more frequently than others but there are lots of theories! Possible reasons are hunger, separation anxiety (usually from about 7 months), learning new skills and waking with the urge to practice them and of course teething or other discomforts. Learning your baby’s cues and understanding more about different development stages (you will find there are links with quite a few other Baby College topics) can help you respond to your baby’s needs in the night.

It is also worth reading about evolution to fully understand why babies sleep like they do and to make sure you set realistic expectations.

Anthropologists think about human babies differently to most other people — in trying to understand why our babies sleep the way they do, we look at humans as mammals and consider the importance of mammalian biology and evolution in understanding how we are and what we do. Western baby-care practices are rather recent developments, and the biology of human babies expects something rather different than 21st century families might provide.” – Infant Sleep Information Source (

During our discussions at the beginning of class and the handouts we give to all our parents we at Baby College help give parents lots of information about their baby’s sleep so that they can make informed decisions for their growing baby and toddler.

Visit a class near you to find our more



Sensory Development

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Research supports the theory that infants are capable of making sense of the world from birth. We are beginning to discover that babies are born with many abilities that help them begin to organise their world almost immediately. The basis for learning in infants is the sensory systems of touch, taste, smell, hearing, and sight.  We, as caregivers, need to provide an enriched environment that uses abilities that children already have and enhances those that are emerging.

The senses of taste, smell, touch, and hearing are well-developed at birth and can be used as a foundation for supporting learning,


The sense of taste actually begins to develop pre-natally. Taste buds emerge at around 7 to 8 weeks’ gestation, and the amniotic fluid is rich with different taste experiences


The sense of smell is also well-developed at birth. As with tastes, the amniotic fluid is rich with smells. Within hours after birth, babies respond much like adults to a variety of odours. They prefer the smell of a lactating woman over a non-lactating woman and they prefer the smell of their mother to the smell of other women. The sense of smell is something that infants continue to use throughout infancy.


Touch is a very important sense that has been found to affect parent-infant attachment, cognitive development, sociability, ability to withstand stress, and immunological development. Touch and massage therapies for infants have emerged as a popular method of enhancing growth and development, reducing pain, and increasing attentiveness. Infants are born with a fairly well-developed sense of touch. For example, they respond to pain in similar ways as adults. Touching infants can have both positive and negative effects on development, depending on the type of touch.


Apparently, it was originally believed that infants were born deaf! We now know that infants have a fairly well-developed sense of hearing at birth. In fact, recent research findings indicate that infants are hearing and learning about the world in utero. In fact, infants are born with a preference for their mother’s voice. Infant hearing is not as refined as adult hearing, but hearing does develop rapidly throughout the period of infancy.


Vision is the least developed sense at birth. Vision, like hearing, develops rapidly over the early years. Infants are essentially born legally blind, but do have some visual preferences that lay an important foundation. Infants are born with a preference for looking at light/dark contrasts.  The human face is endowed with such contrasts. The hairline, eyes, and mouth provide such a contrast. Research shows that these are favourite areas of focus for infants.


Caregivers need to help stimulate the development of their baby’s vision. Fortunately, many forms of stimulation can be found in our everyday environment. However, we can also enhance the environment by increasing our own awareness. To enhance sensory development, we need to do the following:

  • Provide a safe environment for exploration
  • Provide materials that infants can explore, using all their senses
  • Call the infant’s attention to stimuli in the environment
  • Provide frequent opportunities for social interaction
  • Provide a variety of stimulation, including toys and environments (get out and about)
  • Put pictures and mirrors on the walls and floors
  • Move infants around the room during the day
  • Be aware of sensory overload
  • Remove items when infants lose interest

Remember, awareness and responsive caregiving are critical in supporting sensory development.

Come learn more about your baby’s sensory development and ideas to stimulate the senses in our weekly classes. Find out more at


Learning Through Role Play

Role Play

“Imagination is more important than knowledge”
Albert Einstein

From around 18 months or so, children will start to use their imagination during play. It is also the start of what will hopefully be a lifelong curiosity to learn but this benefits from being nurtured.

Role play is an important part of child development as it builds confidence, creativity, communication, physical development and problem solving.

Role play can help a child develop self confidence as they have the opportunity to express themselves and explore language freely. Language skills are emerging and with it the ability to ask questions, and questions, and more questions. During play they can explore their feelings and find out about themselves and others. They also start to understand the need to develop co-operation, understanding of others and self control whilst playing with other children. Free play gives them the chance to make choices and decisions without the constraints of there being a right or wrong way of doing things.

Within role play a child will be able to operate within a fantasy world of their own making where creativity goes hand in hand with mathematical and science skills. Along with it being a fun activity, it also allows children to lose themselves in a character of their choice or they can act out real life roles. By allowing your child to act out real life situations you can help them learn about potentially stressful unknown situations, such as a visit to hospital. By role playing games at home beforehand you will better prepare them for real life.

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Older toddlers can come and try our Junior class at Baby College where we have a new play theme each week and parents are given lots of ideas of how to encourage their child’s imagination and creativity

Listening and Concentration


Hearing and listening are two different actions: hearing is passive and listening is proactive. Being able to actively listen to sounds, music, instructions forms the basis of concentration. Parents can have a big influence on their child’s concentration by encouraging active listening games and especially encouraging quiet time where baby and parent sit and listen to music together,

How do you know if your baby is listening? For a young baby their reaction when listening is to calm and be still and possibly turn their head towards the source of the music. As they get older the reactions will either be the same (sitting still and concentrating) or perhaps wanting to move or sing along.  If your toddler is a fan of a particular nursery rhyme you may find them joining in.  The more you practice this at home the more you will really help to reinforce this skill.

It’s not just listening to music that can help with listening and concentration. It’s very easy to ignore natural sounds within our environment. Despite our noisy world it is important to try to give babies experience of hearing birdsong, or the wind in the trees or even silence (they need some quiet time with a parent away from the TV, radio and siblings). As a parent you should just sit, or rock your baby or toddler,  make eye contact and smile.

As your baby grows through infancy into a toddler and young child their levels of concentration will increase.  It is very important that parents give their babies plenty of opportunity to play quietly with their toys without disturbing their concentration.  Practice makes perfect when gaining new skills or understanding of the world and this takes time, persistence and concentration.

Learn more at