Last time I wrote about sensory integration, I told you what happens by the age of 7 if a brain is well organized. Now, I’m going to start at the beginning and tell you how it all progresses until then.
A Newborn’s Brain
At birth, an infant possesses all the neurons he or she will ever have (billions of them), and a nearly unlimited potential for connections between those nerve cells. They begin the process of brain development with nerve cells that have very sparse branches. During the first few years of life the dendrites (branches) of the nerve cells proliferate. Making these new neural connections is the basis for learning.
A newborn can experience sensations (like the unpleasantness of a wet diaper), or the touch of his mom, but without these neural connections, he can’t tell very well where on his body the touch is occurring.
At this age, touching an infant is the most important thing you can do to help brain development. Every time an infant has a sensory experience, neural pathways are formed. The greater the number of neural pathways, the greater the brain power.
As any mom can tell you, infants loved to be carried and rocked. It is very soothing and calming to a baby. Why? The gentle movements she feels are actually helping to integrate her brain. The clue that this is happening? She’s happy. Her little brain is beginning to organize all the sensory input and thus learn to adapt to her environment. This makes her calm and happy.
An “adaptive response” is defined as “an appropriate response to an environmental demand”. Here’s how it works in newborn as the brain begins to organize itself. If you put a four week old with her head on your shoulder, she’ll try to lift her head occasionally.
Gravity actually stimulates the part of her brain that activates the neck muscles that raise her head. The same thing happens with adults, but we’ve had so much practice at holding our heads upright that we don’t wobble. (And our muscles are stronger, too.)
By the time a baby is a month old, a baby should be pretty good at sucking. Sucking is an adaptive response to taste and smell, which scientists believe were pretty well organized at birth. A one month old will also be responding to the sound of a voice or bell or movement. These responses were already in the nervous system before he was born, but are actually “turned on” by the sensations of movement, touch and gravity that an infant experiences after birth.
If these adaptive responses don’t occur, the brain can’t integrate sensations properly. If that happens, then more adaptive responses (learning) are difficult later.
Here’s an illustration: Rob is our own sensory child. After two years of therapy, we hit a plateau that no amount of different therapies could get us past. When we took him to see a Sensori-Motor Developmentalist, he told us that Rob was missing a reflex that all infants should be born with. When an infant is sleeping on his tummy, one arm will usually be bent at the elbow and raised up next to his head. His head will be turned toward the bent arm.
If you put that arm down next to his body, and put the other hand next to his head (while sleeping), he will automatically turn his head toward the bent arm. In Rob, that wasn’t an automatic reflex. Just try this on yourself (while you are awake!) You’ll find it very uncomfortable NOT to have your head turned toward your upright arm.
For weeks, we moved Rob’s arm’s and legs in a Spiderman-like pattern while he lay on the floor on his tummy, until he could do it himself easily in all sorts of variations. We were essentially creating the neural pathways for this reflex. And guess what? He got “unstuck” and could then continue developing his adaptive responses and learn. And an organized brain leads to happiness. (Remember the infant you rocked?)
-posted by Miss Analiisa, who gets tired just thinking about how much work a one month old infant is doing!