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How your baby’s brain develops

5-minute read

The experiences and relationships your baby has in their early years help shape the adult they will become. Creating a supportive, loving environment filled with warm, gentle interactions helps your baby’s brain to develop. It lays the foundation for your baby’s future development and learning.

Play is the main way your baby learns and develops. It helps them solve problems, explore and experiment. Other factors that can influence healthy brain development are:

  • your baby’s health
  • the food your baby eats
  • genes
  • the quality of the relationship your baby has with you and other carers
  • how active your baby is
  • the experiences your baby has

While babies develop skills at different times, development happens in the same order in most children. For example, children learn to walk before they learn to run.

Your baby’s brain development

Your baby’s brain has been developing since they were in your womb. In the first trimester of pregnancy nerve connections are built that enable your baby to move around in the womb. While in the second trimester, more nerve connections and brain tissue are formed.

In the third trimester, the cerebral cortex starts to take over from the brain stem, preparing your baby for future learning.

By the time your baby arrives, they can hear (they will know your voice!) and also see a little. Their brain will then continue to grow and develop for many years.

The human brain has 3 main parts:

Brain stem and cerebellum — these connect the brain to the spinal cord and control the body's breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, balance and reflexes.

Limbic system — this sits on top of the brain stem and looks after many different functions including emotion, thirst, hunger, memory, learning, and the body's daily rhythms.

Cerebral cortex — this consists of a left and right hemisphere and sits on top of the limbic system. The cerebral cortex contains:

  • occipital lobe — for vision
  • temporal lobe — for hearing, language and social interaction
  • frontal lobe — for memory, self-regulation, planning and problem solving
  • parietal lobe — for bodily sensations like pain, pressure, heat and cold

Diagram showing different parts of the brain.

Loving relationships and stimulating experiences are vital for your baby's development since they give your baby opportunities to communicate, move and learn about their world.

How you can help your baby’s brain develop

Your baby's brain develops through use — by your baby interacting, observing and doing things.

You can help your baby's development by creating an interesting environment with different types of activities that offer your baby the chance to play. It's through play that your baby will learn important skills like talking, listening, moving, thinking, solving problems and socialising.

You can play and spend time with your baby by:

Creating a warm, loving environment helps your baby feel safe and loved. This promotes brain development. Everyday moments, such as having a bath and eating, are great opportunities for you to get to know each other and build your relationship.

It's these moments that help your baby's brain form new connections. This in turn prepares your baby for the next stage in their development.

Other things your baby needs include:

  • Healthy food to help them grow. Good foods for your baby are breast milk (or formula). Once your baby is ready for solid foods, iron rich foods and a balanced diet of fresh vegetables, fruit, grains, dairy and proteins (such as meat, chicken and eggs) is important.
  • Moving and being active to develop their motor skills. This allows them to explore their surroundings, which helps them think and learn.
  • Loving relationships and interactions with others. This will boost your baby’s communication skills and understanding about the world around them.
  • Sleep helps your baby’s development. While all babies sleep in different ways at different times, you can help them sleep to help their development.

Milestones

Milestones are developmental achievements and they are helpful for keeping track of your baby’s development. They can be grouped into 6 categories:

  1. Gross motor skills — the control and coordination of large muscles. For example: walking, lifting, throwing and sitting.
  2. Fine motor skills — the control and coordination of small muscles. For example: holding or picking up items.
  3. Vision
  4. Hearing
  5. Speech and language
  6. Social and emotional development — learning to interact with others and to understand and control your emotions.

You can find more information about each milestone and when to expect them in your baby’s infant health record (Child Health Record Book). This book records important information about your baby from birth. You can also speak to your child health nurse.

Where to get help and support

See your doctor or child and family health nurse if:

  • your baby isn’t meeting the milestones listed in their child health record book
  • you think that there’s something wrong with your baby’s vision, hearing, communication, behaviour, movement or growth

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: June 2022


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This information is for your general information and use only and is not intended to be used as medical advice and should not be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any medical condition, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes.

The information is not a substitute for independent professional advice and should not be used as an alternative to professional health care. If you have a particular medical problem, please consult a healthcare professional.

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