Infant development – a finely tuned neurological cycle

By Barbara Hanrahan – Registered nurse and midwife, DnEd, MCur


There are well known milestones for development from birth to 2 years. New parents need to be aware that these milestones are a guide to an infant’s development, rather than a rigid checklist. When new mothers mix with other new mothers they need to refrain from comparing their children’s attainment of milestones, including behavioural milestones such as sleeping through the night. Parents are naturally curious about what they can expect from this baby and the developmental milestones give the parents a time framed map.

Infants all have unique neurological wiring and development occurs in neurological bursts. Neurological development is fueled by finely tuned internal and external triggers. Infants can be very unsettled in the process of achieving developmental growth. The infant has internal drive to reach something, but as the synaptic connections are being made, the infant may get frustrated which leads to behavioural disorganization – crying, kicking heels, needing close contact – but as his wiring continues his internal drive will propel him. For example. Hanging a mobile over the baby – hang a soft object like a felt ball just out of the baby’s reach. The colour and shape is the external source. As the baby tries – affirm his attempts – another external source of drive. No delicate bauble of worth should go on the mobile. When the baby detaches the lowest bauble – laugh and praise him, rather than chastising the baby. Move another attractive bauble to just out of the infant’s successful reach and start the process all over again.

Development comes in repetitive cycles into young adulthood. An exasperated mother may say to her teenager “you are behaving just like a two year old”. Not too far off the mark. The teenager wants the closeness but also wants autonomy. Just as an infant and toddler do when they have achieved crawling, walking and feeding themselves. Similar burst of neurological cycles.

A reflective exercise all parents can do is to reflect on the positive and negative issues in their own childhood and what they have or have not learnt from the way they were each parented. Sharing these with each other, couples will pick up what they would and would not like to influence their parenting of this infant. Conflicting parenting expectations should be consciously explored in pregnancy or before conception as they can cause considerable friction between the couple and possibly within their immediate families. It’s often empowering for couples to realize they have a choice in how they will parent this baby and infant.

Usually it is the parents who first pick up developmental delays and problems – some of the solutions may be simple and others may require professional diagnosis and assistance. Occupational therapists are magicians in helping reprogram the infant’s brain to reach specific development. If problems are detected early and intervention started early, the more positive the outcomes. If a baby can’t move his body in a coordinated way he will not be able to roll over and reach for things. Sometimes advice from an experienced and trusted friend is all the parents need. The most important early development achievements are holding the head in the midline, strengthening the neck and shoulder girdle. For the development of the shoulder girdle a baby needs to be put on his stomach for several, short periods a day when he is in the cycle of wakeful and responsiveness. Not only does he learn to lift and move his head from side to side, but as the shoulder girdle strengthens he can start pushing his head and chest up on his elbows and move toward lifting his head and chest right up from his hands. It’s all in internal and external drivers and neuro muscular cycles.

Each child is unique. Babies are born with innate characteristics that determine how they respond to their worlds. These characteristics are called temperament. Parents can help a baby or a child shape their particular qualities in the most advantageous ways. The way parents relate to the world influences their interactions with their child’s temperament.

Temperament can be identified and described.

  • activity the level of motor activity; regularity is the predictability of biological functions
  • approach or withdrawal – in response to new or changed situations
  • adaptability which is long term responses to new or changed situations
  • sensory stimulation to evoke a response
  • mood being friendly, joyful contrasted with crying and unfriendly behaviour
  • intensity is the energy level of positive and negative responses
  • distractibility is how effective an outside stimulus interferes with ongoing behaviour
  • persistence is continuing an activity in the face of obstacles
  • attention span is the time an activity is pursued without interruption.

Identified patterns of temperament are referred to as the easy child, the difficult child, the slow to warm up child and the spirited child.

Development guides a parent’s understanding of anticipated behaviour, whilst temperament helps parents know what is usual for their child. Temperament helps a parent answer how children can be so different.

What is important is the demands and expectations of parents needs to fit with a child’s abilities and temperament. This is the key to healthy development in the young child.

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