What You Need to Know about Your Child's Brain

Part 1 — Sensitive Periods of Development

What Science is Learning

Science has learned more in the last twenty years about our amazing brains than we have known in the entire span of recorded history. These new discoveries are exciting and give us importance guidance for how we raise our children.

New discoveries

  • The brain is plastic.
  • It grows and develops through experience in the environment.
  • The brain requires stimulation and exposure to sights, sounds and touch in order to develop.
  • A young child who experiences many varying sights and sounds is going to create a far richer brain than a child who remains alone in a quiet room for many hours each day.
  • Emotion plays a significant role in the development of both brain and body.

Research into the new biology tells us that feelings play a pivotal role in our physical and mental health and well-being. In a loving, harmonious and relaxed environment, you can provide a rich assortment of activities that will provide much needed stimulation.

When Does the Brain Begin to Develop?

Brain development begins before birth, within a week of conception.

  • By the time your baby is born, about 100 billion neurons, or brain cells, have been produced!
  • Brain cells form and travel to the right places in the brain for the organization of neurological functions.
  • The brain cells, or neurons, have begun to connect with each other.
  • Even before birth, your child’s brain cells are already sending and receiving messages about touch, hearing and movement.
  • The senses of taste, smell and sight are also beginning to develop.

How you can stimulate
your baby’s brain before birth

  • You can stimulate your baby’s pre-born brain when you gently rub your tummy and talk to your baby about your daily life and activities. (Both mom and dad can talk to the baby.)
  • You can tap on your tummy and ask baby to kick back. Many babies will kick in rhythm to the gentle taps.
  • Read your baby your favorite children’s story. Babies remember these stories, according to the latest research.

The Baby’s Brain at Birth

  • Your baby’s brain is not completely developed at birth.
  • Most of your newborn’s brain cells are formed during the prenatal period.
  • The architecture of the brain – connecting of neurons and strengthening of those connections – develops after birth.
  • The way brain cells connect and develop is highly dependent on the newborn’s experiences with caregivers and the environment.

Appropriate stimulation for a newborn is as simple as talking to the baby and responding to his sounds and movements. Brain research tells us that this back and forth exchange is the origin of communication. Offering meaningful conversation that describes and names what is going on around the baby helps your baby develop language.

Expressing love and teaching baby about communication


What the experts say about language

“Without being melodramatic, I think it would be very important to tell parents that they are participating with the physical development of their youngsters’ brains to the exact degree that they interact with them, communicate with them.

“Language interaction is actually building tissue in their brains…so it’s also building futures.

“The language centers of the brain are simply unable to attain full maturity without ample stimulation.”

Dr. Arnold Schiebel
Director, UCLA’s Brain Research Institute

Developing the physical senses

We also want to develop the baby’s physical senses.

  • Babies love massage. It is a powerful opportunity for relaxed bonding with your baby as well as for helping him become more aware of the boundaries of his physical body.
  • Placing baby on different surfaces and textures provides safe exploration as well as sensory stimulus.
  • The more freedom of movement your baby has, the better will be her brain development.
  • Especially in the first months of life, place your baby on the tummy as often as possible during waking hours. This position provides opportunities for baby to strengthen her neck muscles and develop cross pattern movements that assist the connection between the two hemispheres of the brain.

Education as Help to Life

Dr. Maria Montessori’s definition of education is deceptively simple. It is help to life. To help the life of the child we need to understand and cooperate with the patterns and cycles of human development. Given this definition of education, we can see that it extends throughout all of life beginning from conception.

When does education begin?

Maria Montessori was once asked, “When does education really begin?”

To the astonishment of her listeners, she answered: “Nine months before they are born!”

In the early 1900s Montessori described what she called sensitive periods of development. She explained that the child passes through periods of intense attraction to certain kinds of activities and movements. These periods correspond to inner developmental needs that require outer experiences in order to fully develop. See Sensitive Periods in the Montessori Insights section of this website.

Neurological Sensitive Periods

Recent brain research verifies Maria Montessori’s understanding of sensitive periods, and applies it to the brain.

  • Sensitive periods in development are simply references to a developmental timetable.
  • There are two categories of sensitive periods.
  • If the right stimulus isn’t available for an emerging function, the child fails to achieve maximum development. Development thus lags behind. The child may develop the skill later on in his life, but never again with the ease and perfection the sensitive period would have provided.
  • The absence of appropriate stimulation leads to devastating long-term consequences. Development fails to occur.

Nobel Prize winning research

In the 1970s, U.S. scientists, Drs. David Hubel and Torsten Weisel, sewed one eyelid shut in newborn kittens. Weeks later, they opened the eyes. The eyes that had been closed remained blind, even though they were perfectly normal. Sensory stimulation was lacking during the sensitive period for the development of vision.

Hubel and Weisel demonstrated for the first time that the absence of stimuli at specific times may leave permanent damage, in humans and in animals.

Hubel and Weisel’s research was applied to newborns with cataracts. Several decades ago, these babies had to wait about two years for surgery to remove the cataracts, as doctors thought surgery was too traumatic for young babies. But by waiting that long, the sensitive period for the connecting of visual neurons, was over and these children had compromised vision all their lives. Now, infants have surgery right away to remove the cataracts and their vision can develop normally.

When we understand the importance of the sensitive periods, learn to recognize them and offer opportunity for them to ripen, we can more effectively ensure our children’s healthy development.

Sensitive Periods in the Montessori Insights section of this website tells more about them for the toddler and the three-to-six age groups.

As the education and care of children in decades to come take greater advantage of the sensitive periods, our children will have greater opportunity to more fully develop their innate potential.


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