Baby's Brain: Prime Times for Learning
are designed to have different needs at different times. For example,
there is nothing like a cold glass of water when you are really thirsty.
Or getting a full night of sleep when you are tired to the bone.
By Don Bower, DPA, CFCS
also know that some skills are learned more easily at certain ages.
School-agers are expert at roller-blading after only a few minutes
of practice, but grandfathers usually take a little longer. And
some adults give up on ever being able to learn how to program the
We have known for a long time that different parts of the brain
control different parts of who we are--our ability to throw a ball,
to remain calm under stress, to figure out an algebra problem, or
to play the piano. We can help (or hinder) the development of different
parts of our brains by how we exercise it.
the case of muscles. Our brain, like our muscles, becomes stronger
when we exercise. If we only run, our leg muscles grow stronger
than our arm muscles. If we only watch TV and never talk, nerve
connections in the part of our brain in charge of speaking will
Times for Brain Development
New research in brain development shows that we learn certain skills
most easily during particular windows of opportunity.
These are times--a few weeks or months--when a part of the brain
absorbs new information more easily than at any other time in life.
Not surprisingly, most of these windows open and close during the
critical first few years of life.
windows are prime times for learning because each part
of the brain actually grows a little larger, and a lot more active,
in response to what the five senses absorb.
are some of these prime times for learning? Here are some guidelines:
development: birth to 4 years. During this time, babies need
to see shapes, colors, objects at varying distances, and movement.
All these images help shape the brains ability to recognize
and organize visual information. The brain actually learns to see!
For this reason, anything that interferes with clear vision, such
as cataracts or nearsightedness, should be corrected early.
development: birth to 10 years. Babies are born with the ability
to learn any language. Of course, they understand and babble in
the language that they hear the most (including accents). Generally,
the more talking, singing, and reading that a baby hears, the more
words she will understand and use. Babies also learn the syntax
of language, which is the way that sentences are constructed to
make sense. Since the prime time for language learning is the first
few years of life, babies are also able to learn second or third
languages much more easily during this period.
attachment: birth to 18 months. Recent research shows that a
persons IQ predicts only a small part of career performance--emotional
intelligence predicts about 80 percent of your career success. The
part of the brain that regulates emotions, called the amygdala,
learns very early how to be a good citizen. This means
that emotions such as empathy, happiness, hopefulness, and sadness
are shaped by how the infant is nurtured. The amygdala continues
being shaped through adolescence, but early experiences (as well
as inborn tendencies in temperament) are very important in regulating
the brains emotional wiring.
and math skills: 1 year to 5 years. Research has shown that
the cortex, the area of the brain that hears music, is the same
area that does mathematical calculations. Much has been made of
the value of exposing infants to rich, complex music. Such music
seems to help wire the brain not only for understanding music, but
also for improved spatial reasoning that math requires. We also
know that the earlier a child studies a musical instrument, the
more of his cortex is devoted to playing it. So, if you want your
child to excel in math, dont overlook his music lessons as
What Can You Do?
First, and most important, do not feel guilty because you may not
have taken maximum advantage of this information when your child
was younger! All of us continue learning throughout life. Just think
of all the fantastically gifted musicians, athletes, caregivers,
and scientists whose parents never knew any of this research.
you interact with young children, recognize their immense capability
to absorb everything around them. Since the early windows of learning
are so important, it becomes even more critical to provide the best
environments possible for our future generations. Remember: the
first years last forever!
Laliberte, R. (1997). Inside your babys brain. Parents (September):
J. (1997). New brain development research: A wonderful window of
opportunity. Young Children (May): 4-9.
C. (1997). Up with emotional health.Educational Leadership (May):
R. (1997). Rethinking the brain: New insights into early development.
New York: Families and Work Institute.
Bower, DPA, CFCS is an Associate Professor and Human Development
Specialist, Department of Child and Family Development at the University
of Georgia.Reprinted with permission from the University of Georgia.
Bower, D. (1998). Building Baby's Brain: Prime Times for Learning.
Athens, GA: University of Georgia, College of Family and Consumer