Brains under construction

Parenting advice is everywhere. A lot of this advice is from either the toy industry or companies who want to sell well-meaning parents products that will give their baby an ‘advantage’. 

The best advice we know, based on our understanding of the first three months of development of an unborn baby, is to leave baby alone. Life in the uterus is dark, moist, warm, safe and much quieter than the outside world. This relative lack of stimulation is what your baby needs for brain growth. Morning sickness is natures way of ensuring we don’t interfere. 

Building brains

Brain development begins from day one, conception – the joining of the sperm and egg. Once these two cells are joined, they produce lots of cells in a small space, at an incredible rate. The human embryo soon looks like a tiny mulberry. Within the mulberry certain cells are assigned to creating the placenta and the water balloon in which the embryo will float, the amniotic sac.  Certain cells are given the duty of constructing the embryo, creating a knot of internal tissues termed the inner cell mass. The inner cell mass at this point possesses a cell whose entire offspring will form the human brain. This has all happened before you have missed a period and realized you are pregnant. 

The Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne – Brain builders video  

Folic acid

One of the first things you can do to aid in the development of your baby’s brain is to take folic acid. Women who take folic acid around conception and during the first few weeks of pregnancy are 76 percent less likely to create a fetus with a neural tube defect. 

Parents’ health

The health of the mother and father are equally important at conception and it is important to remember that the health of both parents will have a lasting impact on the unborn baby. 

Drugs (including alcohol and nicotine) can damage a baby’s brain during pregnancy. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is the result of the consumption of alcohol during the crucial period of brain development. 

High levels of stress can also affect brain development in babies and may result  in smaller head size, delays in mental and motor development, and increased irritability.  

Baby’s senses

Babies learn about the world through their senses. From touch and smell to hearing and vision, babies have an increasingly active mental life in the womb. 

Factors proven to help baby’s brain development in the womb, especially important in the second half of the pregnancy, are: 

  • Eating the right foods (internal link to 2.4). Healthy food promotes health, growth and development.  A balanced diet that incorporates all the food groups is the best start a pregnant mother can give her baby’s developing brain. 
  • Avoiding stress. Too much stress is not good for pregnant women or their babies. For the best development of your baby’s brain try to avoid stress, especially in the last few months of your pregnancy. There are plenty of ways to actively practice general stress relief. Exercise is one of them. 
  • Exercise (internal link to AN 6.1) just the right amount. Women who exercise regularly have a much easier time giving birth than unfit women. It is thought that the direct affect of aerobic exercise on the baby’s developing brain is of benefit, but also exercise can reduce the mother’s stress. Getting the balance right is important as strenuous exercise in the later stages of pregnancy can have a negative impact. Moderate, regular, aerobic exercise for 30 minutes per day is ideal.  
  • Gaining just the right amount of weight (internal link to AN 6.6), this will vary depending on whether you are overweight or underweight at the start of your pregnancy. Your doctor or midwife will be able to advise you. 

Want to know more?

Raising Children Network – Newborns Development 

Raising Children Network – Smoking, alcohol and other drugs in pregnancy: men 

Frequently asked questions

Why are babies born with a brain not yet fully grown? 
  • Physical- Corresponds to the size of the pelvic outlet- at birth the newborn baby’s brain weighs 400grams, at the end of the critical period a three year olds brain weighs 1100 grams. 
  • Cognitive- The brain requires stimulation and nurturing to grow it to maturity. We are complex beings with higher functioning than all other mammals on earth

Ways to boost your emotional health

As a mother you may also wear many other ‘hats’:  partner, wife, daughter, sister, friend or employee. These different roles also put additional demands on your time and emotions. 

Pregnancy can make you feel stressed as different demands and hormone changes cause your mood to change more than usual. 

You can improve your mood through exercise, doing things you enjoy, and talking with people who support you. 

Managing emotions: what others say

Some suggestions from other new or expectant mothers to help manage emotions include: 

“Going for a daily walk was a ritual I started during pregnancy. I either went by myself or with my partner, a friend, or a family member. It was a fail-proof way of relaxing that I really started to look forward to.”  – More about physical activity

“I was feeling a bit snowed under with the preparations for the new addition to our family. Once I made a start getting the house organised and preparing the nursery I felt more on top of things.” 

“I was one of the first of my friends to have a baby so I was worried it would change our friendships but keeping in contact with them was actually a big support and a great break from my new role as a mum.” 

 “It’s so easy to stop doing the things you enjoy just because you’re pregnant. Yes it does take a bit more effort but once I was out of the house I felt so much better.” 

“I liked to wander down to the local park, or just sit in my back garden and read my baby bible. It was nice to get out, get a healthy amount of sun and just relax.” 

I knew life was just going to get busier so I decided to do something I always wanted to do, enrol in a Spanish language class. It was a great way to meet new people and have some time to myself – so much so that I’m still doing it now.” – More about socialising

“Pregnancy was quite stressful for me and there were times I didn’t feel as if I was coping. I soon worked out that keeping my concerns to myself just made me feel worse so I made an exerted effort to talk about my worries, however big or small, to anyone that would listen – mainly friends, my mum, sister or GP.” 

Want to know more?

  • If you need more help, you could see your doctor, midwife, child health nurse (if you already have a child) or a counsellor. 
  • For more information see professional help.   
  • If you feel like you need more help, call the Ngala Parenting Line on 9368 9368 or 1800 111 546 for country callers. 
  • Department of Health – More about emotional health during pregnancy 
  • If you live in Perth consider involving yourself in the Mummy Buddy research program that is being run through UWA. Buddy up with a new mum and have the benefit of her recent experience. 

Approaching puberty

As children approach the final years of primary school, they are undergoing a number of significant developmental changes.  

Physical and emotional changes

Typically, young people in this age group are beginning to enter puberty and will start to experience a range of physical changes. Pre-teens may find these physical changes difficult to negotiate and understand, which can lead to different emotional reactions.  

Emotionally, young people are beginning to develop their own sense of identity and individuality. As a result they are more likely to start challenging rules and ideas as a way of increasing their own ideas about how life works.  

Risk-taking behaviour and challenging authority often results. Remember that this is a natural way of developing their identity and managing feelings. However, as they are often identifying more with their peer group than their family members, peer group pressure may make this harder to manage. 

Supporting growing independence

Pre-teens often want to be more independent and can seek an increase in personal responsibility. Offering some opportunities for independent activities that are safe and have appropriate boundaries may demonstrate your understanding of these feelings.  

Pre-teens may also begin experimenting with the beginning of romantic relationships as a way of exploring their own sense of self, the world, and their place in it.  

These are natural stages of development.

Keep communicating

This is a great time to ensure you develop and maintain open communication with your child. Be approachable and open to discussing some of the more difficult questions that begin to arise.  

It is okay to let young people know that you may not know the answers to some of their questions.

Reassure them that you can support them in understanding what is happening during this period where they have started changing from a child to an adolescent.  

Want to know more? 

Raising Children Network – Understanding Puberty 

Learning potential – Encouraging resilience in your pre-teen 

Growing and learning

Middle childhood brings many changes in a child’s life. They are becoming more independent and enjoy making small decisions for themselves. These decisions could include what food to eat and what clothes to wear.  

The middle years

In middle childhood, life is all about school, friends, and after-school activities. Although children at this stage are connecting more with their peers, spending time with their family is still very important to them. 

At the same time, children’s morals and values are developing. This leads to strong opinions about right and wrong.  

All children develop differently, some more quickly than others. It is helpful to know what to expect, so it is good to do some reading about these middle years. 

Causes for concern

If you are concerned about your child’s development, it is important to seek professional advice. This might be if your child: 

  • is finding it difficult to speak in full sentences, or stutters;  
  • has difficulty following simple instructions;  
  • is very withdrawn or doesn’t interact well with others;  
  • finds it hard to make friends;  
  • can’t skip, hop or jump;  
  • has trouble sitting still for a time;  
  • can’t get dressed by themselves;  
  • still soils their pants during the day;  
  • has trouble falling asleep at night; or 
  • experiences a noticeable loss of skills they once had.  

Want to know more? 

Raising Children Network – School-age development 

KidsMatter – Social development 

Learning Potential – Primary school 

Australian Childhood Foundation – Bringing Up Great Kids: downloadable resources 

Becoming a teenager

Adolescence is a time of huge change, physically, emotionally and socially.

Teenagers are developing their own sense of identity and self, which is influenced by their friends. 

It is normal, and necessary, for teenagers to develop their independence and own ideas of where they fit into the world.  

Pushing boundaries and taking risks

Teenagers often challenge beliefs and rules to establish their independence. This can lead to difficult behaviours and the pushing of boundaries.  

Teenager’s emotions are often up and down as they attempt to find ways of dealing with peers and other adults. They may challenge acceptable ways of behaving. This may lead to conflicts and disagreements with parents, teachers and other authority figures.

Teenagers are likely to take risks as their brains are still developing. Part of this development is learning to predict what could happen when they do something risky. 

Being there for your teen

It is important to allow teenagers to understand you are there to support them, even when they make mistakes.

  • Respect their privacy and support them in developing their own unique identity.
  • Let them know you are willing to listen and assist them to solve problems or difficulties they may be having.  
  • Show interest in their ideas, feelings, and friends. 
  • Show them that you are willing to understand their need for independence. 

Want to know more?

Raising Children Network – Teens development 

Headspace – Understanding adolescence: for families 

Psychology Today – The essence of adolescence 

Happy, healthy brain development

Did you know your child is born with 100 billion brain cells – the most they will ever have – and that their brain grows faster during the first three years of life than at any other stage?  

The brain grows from around 400g to 1100g by three years of age. 

What supports healthy brain development?

A healthy brain provides a strong foundation for learning, behaviour and positive mental health. Research has found that nurturing and responsive relationships help build healthy brains.

Good nutrition is necessary for healthy brain development, especially during pregnancy and infancy. These are crucial periods for the formation of the brain 

Everyday experiences and communication with caring and responsive adults are the keys to healthy brain development. 

New experiences and brain connections are developed through the senses of touch, smell, sight, and hearing. It is important to expose your child to new experiences, and to reinforce positive experiences by repeating them. This will help make sure that the brain connections become strong and work better together. 

While a person’s brain does not reach maturity until about 25 years of age, there are many things to learn during the long journey from birth to adulthood. For example, eating, drinking, using tools (spoon and fork), toilet training and social skills. That’s quite a list for little people to learn! 

How can you help?

  • Sing nursery rhymes with your child. Try to find songs that have movements of the hands, feet, or whole body. 
  • Do activities that involve building, jumping, hopping or running. These can be adapted to suit indoor and outdoor play. Make an obstacle course with hoops or build a couch fortress. 
  • Drawing, writing, painting, stamping are all great low-cost activities. 
  • Get outside and explore together. Go to the local park or backyard. What can you see and find? 
  • Involve your child in tasks you are doing. While it may seem simple, they are watching and learning all the time. 
  • Allow plenty of positive opportunities with other adults, family and friends. Positive exposure in a loving and caring environment is extremely important. 

Want to know more?

Raising Children Network –Toddlers development

Pregnancy, Birth and Baby – Developmental milestones

Understanding your toddler

It can be challenging for parents to support their toddlers as they struggle to manage their feelings and behaviour. It can help to know what’s happening for them developmentally so you, as parents, can encourage their independence, help them learn and keep them safe. 

Between one and three years of age, children move from being babies who need you to do everything for them, to becoming separate, independent people.

Toddlers want your love and to feel safe and close to you, while also wanting freedom to explore and do things for themselves.  

Toddlers are… 

  • active and curious – they have to touch, open, shut, explore, run, climb and throw 
  • learning who they are – what they like and don’t like, and testing out their will 
  • learning to be in charge of themselves – to walk, talk, feed and dress themselves and use the toilet 
  • learning to live with others – how to show love, share and take turns, and to not hurt others 

Toddlers will often… 

  • say ‘no’ and show they have a mind of their own 
  • get angry and frustrated, and sometimes have a tantrum 
  • not be ready to share because they are just learning about ‘me’ and ‘mine’ (for a them, everything is ‘mine’) 
  • want to make some choices for themselves 
  • find it hard to cope with changes 
  • want to be like their parents, e.g. try on lipsticks, use parents’ phones and keys. 

Toddlers are not able to…

  • understand your reasons – they are not yet able  see things from your point of view 
  • sit still, wait, share or control their feelings – these things take time and support to learn 
  • always stop themselves from doing what they have been told not to – they don’t mean to disobey you. 

How can you help?

Toddlers are on the way to learning self-control but haven’t quite got there yet. They still need adults to gently remind them and keep them safe.

They are learning lots of new skills as they become more independent.  

Try to be patient. We, as adults, often expect too much of them. 

Want to know more?

The Raising Children Network – Building good parent-child relationships 

Zero to Three – Positive Parenting Approaches 

Work and family

It is important for couples to openly discuss their roles within the home and outside the home. These roles can dramatically change once a baby comes along. 

Three areas of major change in time-demands include: 

  • paid work,  
  • house work, and 
  • daily infant care.  

Parenting as a team

Communicating openly and staying flexible can help to reduce the stress of parenting in the early years. This will make the whole experience more enjoyable. 

Most new parents feel a bit ‘all over the place’. They often feel excited and proud about the new baby, but equally overwhelmed and exhausted by the whole process and the amount of work involved. 

Many parents may be confused and not really know what they think or feel about it all. There is no right or wrong way to feel. All responses at these times are natural. However, it is important to pay attention to each other’s wellbeing following the arrival of your child. 

Socialising – even when you or your partner go back to work

Once you or your partner go back to work, keeping up your social life may become even more difficult.  

If your partner goes back to work and you are at home alone with your baby and perhaps your other children, try to: 

  • Have friends around or join a playgroup. This way you won’t feel so alone.    
  • Try to have a rest when your baby is sleeping. Try not to fall into the trap of thinking this is the time you can get everything done.   
  • When your partner gets home from work, ask them to join you with the baby to sit outside or in the garden. Let them take over with the baby for a while so that you can relax and do something you want to do.   
  • Encourage your partner to do things with the baby when they come home, like bathing or feeding.   

If it is you who has gone back to work, you may enjoy having more variety in your life and other things to think about. But equally, you may feel guilty about leaving your baby with someone else. You may feel stressed at having to do so much extra work, and concerned that you’re not as focused on your work as you used to be.   

Try to remember that parenting is a journey and that there is no right or wrong answer to your unique situation. 

Parents working away

You may be one of the many families who have a partner who works away in a fly in fly out (FIFO) role or a drive in drive out (DIDO) role. More information can be found at Parents who work away. 

 Want to know more?

Raising Children Network – Grown-ups: going back to work 

Raising Children Network – Relationships with extended family in your blended family 

Raising Children Network – Blended families and stepfamilies 

Raising Children Network – New baby: helping school-age children and teenagers adjust  

Just for dads

Dads and father figures play a unique and important role in children’s development. As a new dad, it’s important you are involved in getting to know your baby and contributing as an equal partner in the parenting team from the start.   

With all that is happening with a new baby, there are two important points for all dads to remember: 

  • Support and work with your partner as part of the parenting team; and 
  • Bond with your new baby. 

The parenting team

Each parent brings something unique and important to parenting and to children’s development. The best parenting happens when parents work together as a team and support each other.

At this time, when your baby is very young, your partner will be totally focused on baby’s needs and will need lots of support. Remember: 

  • Try to understand the challenges that your partner is facing  
  • Do your share around the house (of course!) 
  • Give lots of encouragement and praise 
  • Spend lots of time getting to know baby (bathing, changing, feeding) and developing your confidence  
  • Offer your partner self-care time as you spend time with your baby 
  • Recognise you have an important role to play as a parent  
  • Take care of yourself as well as your partner.  

Understanding what new mums are experiencing

  • Expectations: It is easy to think that new mums already have all the skills to be a parent. But, just like you, they have to learn as they go along, and can feel lots of pressure to do things right. Mums often feel that others (other mums, parents, in-laws, and society) are watching and judging them, which is why your support and encouragement is so important. 
  • It is nonstop: Caring for a baby 24/7 is emotionally and physically draining. It is common for new mums to feel overwhelmed through lack of sleep, feeding 8 to 12 times a day, and lots of crying from baby. Help with night feeds and spend time with baby as much as you can. 
  • Physical changes: Along from hormonal changes, many new mums are conscious of changes to their body. This can affect their self-esteem. “Perfect” photos of new mums on social media don’t help! 
  • Baby blues: Many mums experience this following the birth and, although normal, this still needs your support 
  • Post-natal depression (PND): Up to one in six new mums experience PND, and your role in reaching out for support is vital. Be aware of your own mental wellbeing too – fathers can also experience PND. 

Bonding with baby

It may seem like your newborn baby is “not doing anything”. New dads often wonder what they should be doing with their baby. 

Far from doing nothing, your baby is trying to form a relationship with you by staring at your face, seeking your response. Making eye contact with baby and communicating with your face and eyes is called ‘mutual gaze’. This forms the foundations for bonding and a lifelong relationship with your child. 

Bonding hints
  • Mutual gaze: Your baby will look at you seeking to make a connection. It is important that you acknowledge this by looking back. This is called “serve and return” and also affects brain development 
  • Talk to and sing with your baby. Use different voices and facial expressions. 
  • Skin to skin contact with baby is very important so they can learn your touch, feel and smell, and so you can learn theirs. 
  • Reading: it is never too soon to read to your baby! 
  • Remember, every opportunity you have to spend with your baby is a chance to build a bond. This includes changing nappies, bathing, helping with feeding and playing and hanging out with baby 
  • You may notice that you and your partner do some things differently with baby. As long as baby feels safe and loved, these differences are good for baby’s brain development. 
  • Settling baby: Apart from being able to breastfeed, mums have no more natural ability to bond with or settle baby than you. It just takes patience and practice. Don’t automatically hand your crying baby to your partner!  

 Remember, you and your partner can form strong bonds with your baby, all it takes is time and effort.  

Hearing from other dads

It is important that new dads find opportunities to talk with, and hear, from other dads. There are a number of workshops and playgroups for dads, which offer a great chance to talk about fatherhood and learn new things. 

There are also some great online resources to find out what other dads are saying and thinking: 

Support for dads and father figures

Parenting activities

  • Contact your Council for Neighbourhood Centres 
  • Playgroup WA for local playgroups, including playgroups with dads – 1800 171 882  
  • Meerilinga – Promoting Positive Childhoods 

Courses for dads

  • Ngala workshops
  • Mensplace – Aims to support and enable men to address relationship and family issues, whether single, partnered, separated or re-partnered. 
  • Menstime – Anglicare’s program designed to assist, empower and educate men on a variety of issues, and develop their own self-reliance. 
  • The Blokes’ BookA directory of services for men in WA 

Other resources for dads