Baby brain

“If you want to make them ‘brainy’, then focus on your attachment”, says neuroscience educator, NATHAN WALLIS. By KATE BARBER.

A baby’s brain is genetically and biologically designed to gather data as it wires up for life, says Nathan, and the complexity of this data is determined largely by the quality of their primary relationship in the first 1000 days, from conception until they are about two and a half years old.

In his presentations, Nathan provides a crash course on the neurosequential model of the brain: how it is built from the bottom up, with the development of different “brains” taking centre stage at different times. The frontal cortex (Brain 4 in this model) is what distinguishes the human brain from that of other animals. As Nathan says, “Everything that makes you brainy plus everything that makes you a nice person happens in Brain 4”. The same “brain” you use for processing language also allows you to regulate your emotions, to see another person’s point of view and to have resilience, he says. 

Nathan’s core message is that a baby’s interactions in the first 1000 days, within what the literature refers to as the “dyad” relationship (that is, their primary relationship with the person who’s most responsive to them), are critical in terms of building their brains – in particular their frontal cortex. “If you want to make them ‘brainy’, then focus on your attachment”, he says. 

We are told that “it takes a village to raise a child” – and Nathan says that surrounding yourself and your baby in rich, caring relationships is incredibly valuable, and necessary – but, while a baby might have other close relationships, Nathan explains that they are biologically programmed to “attach to the most responsive person”, which is usually (but not always) Mum. 

Nathan is quick to debunk the notion that we need to “socialise” our babies through putting them with other babies. “Any social skills a baby develops come from the quality of the dyad relationship they develop in their first two and a half years”, he says – not by putting them alongside other babies.

“We can statistically predict your kid’s outcomes when they are 32 [how highly qualified they are and how much they earn] with a really high degree of accuracy, based on the data [gathered] by the time they are three years old,” he says. What’s important to understand is the complexity of this data comes primarily from the quality of this dyad relationship: “the more emotionally connected you are,
the more complex the data that your baby is processing,” says Nathan. 

The amount of time you spend “in your baby’s face”, making eye contact and talking with them the better (the subject doesn’t matter), he says. But, it is not just the number of words they hear that matters: they need to be “emotionally connected” in order to “tune in”. 

We know that reading to our babies and children is important, not least because it requires us to sit down and spend intimate time with them. As Nathan says, “using the book as a tool to facilitate interactions with your baby” is where the benefits really lie. Noticing what your baby is looking at or doing, and responding to that – rather than simply reading the words on each page – exemplifies the sort of responsive relationship that lights up a baby’s brain. 

The more you can interact with your baby the better. “The thing to look for is your baby pulling away, which can mean that they are overstimulated,” he says. “If your baby is loving it, that’s great!”

In an earnest attempt to seize every opportunity to make them brainy, you don’t need to (nor should you) be “teaching” them, says Nathan. “Stop teaching your kids, and just be with them.” He adds that teaching them can cause you and your baby to “detach” emotionally.

It all comes down to the everyday, ordinary interactions you have with your baby: noticing what they are noticing and sharing this attention, recognising their attempts at communication (eye contact, babbling, gesturing…), and responding to their emotions and needs. “Enjoy being with your baby,” he says – “and follow his lead”. He reminds parents that “a baby will learn language quicker if, when they poke out their tongue, you poke out yours, rather than say ‘Mum, Mum, Mum’”. The “golden word”, says Nathan, is being “responsive”. 

As Nathan says, “interaction is so much more complex than input [teaching them]”. Not only does it build their brain architecture, it also helps develop a secure attachment where they are nurtured and affirmed. 

Only 30 per cent of our genes are set at birth – like our eye colour; over 70 per cent are determined through our interactions with our environment, says Nathan.

Neuroscience presenter and director of X-Factor Education, Nathan Wallis provides an informative narrative on the different stages of children’s neurological development. facebook.com/nathanwallisxfactoreducation