All of a baby's senses, and certain reflexes, work from the moment they are born. This doesn't mean your baby is born with awareness and insight about what is happening. Understanding an experience requires experience and development. It's a good idea to hold off on watching TV.
Taste and smell
Did you know that your baby can recognise the flavour of something you ate while pregnant in the breast milk when feeding?
From the moment they are born, babies can sense smells. Given a little time, they can actually seek out the nipple and its life-giving milk using their sense of smell. Babies seem to quickly learn to recognise their parents' smell.
Try letting your baby sleep on a jumper that has your scent. (Bulky, loose clothing and similar items must not be left in baby's bed while he or she is sleeping due to the risk of suffocation or sudden infant death syndrome).
The sense of touch develops early. Your baby notices the slightest nuance in how you pick up and hold them. Stroke their soft skin and hold them skin-against-skin as often as possible. This offers various benefits for babies: they are better able to stay warm and suckle, are calmer and their blood sugar is more stable.
Your baby's sense of hearing works from the moment they are born, but continues to develop for a few more weeks. Babies prefer gentle voices, which is possibly why we automatically speak a little more gently when snuggling with a baby.
We have difficulty understanding sounds that we never heard as babies, because they weren't in our parents' vocabularies. This may explain why it can be so hard to learn certain sounds in a foreign language later in life.
Talk to your child a lot. Your baby loves your voice, and hearing it makes them happy! Chat about what you're doing as you change a nappy, sing a well-known song, make interesting noises... You'll never find a more observant, curious listener.
New-born babies can sense light, colours and facial expressions. But they are still long-sighted and their vision is slightly blurred. At this point your baby most clearly at a distance of 20 centimetres – which is about how far away your face is when baby is in your lap. Isn't it amazing how well these things are worked out!
After a couple of days, babies can usually look deep into your eyes. A process of growing trust hopefully begins now: the start of a secure bond.
If you see a smile on your newborn baby's face, it is probably an infantile reflex. Only after several weeks can your baby smile in response to eye contact – what is known as social smiling. After another few weeks, babies can start to smile independently as soon as they see you, their other parent or a sibling.
During the first few weeks, your baby can look at you and mimic your facial expressions. This ability disappears at 1-2 months, but comes back again after about six months.
Try making an exaggerated face, or stick out your tongue while looking at your baby. They may do the same back! The reaction is often slightly delayed, since baby hasn't yet had much practice in communicating.
While your baby is sleeping, their brain is busy sorting out all the day's impressions
The body rests at night. There are fewer external impressions. And while the senses don't have to work as hard, the brain takes over for the night shift, while there is energy to spare for its development.
While your baby is sleeping, their little brain is more active than ever. To sort out impressions and gather memories, it has to make an infinite number of new connections, or synapses, between the nerve cells of the brain. Each new experience has to be organised via new synapses in order to be understood.
Your baby's brain really does develop at top speed, creating up to a million synapses every second!
Omega-3 fatty acids are good for the brain
Certain types of polyunsaturated fats are important in the development of your baby's brain and vision. Known as omega-3 fatty acids, the best source of these is fatty fish. Babies who do not eat fish can get omega-3 from rapeseed oil, or from margarines containing rapeseed oil. Walnuts and flaxseed oil also contain a lot of omega-3.
A varied diet is otherwise the most important thing once your baby starts eating proper food. As a rule, Swedish babies have no problem getting the nutrients that their brains need to develop.
The right amount of impressions helps the brain
Babies who are extremely understimulated can develop defects that show up in brain scans. But too much constant stimulation can also have a negative effect, and is much more common in babies and children in the western world.
Forward facing pushchairs have been criticised because they give babies too many unnecessary impressions without allowing them to “reconcile them” against their parents' reactions, since they can't actually see them at all. Young children can't judge for themselves when something is dangerous, worrying or simply funny – they usually look straight at you, their guide and protector, when something unexpected happens.
When babies are tired of stimulation and games, they will turn their head away, yawn, cry or become restless.
Skip the TV for the under twos
Putting your one-year-old down in front of the TV may give you a few minutes of peace and quiet. But babies have difficulty dealing with the stream of continuous impressions. Cuts and zooming in and out confuse young children's brains, particularly as their depth perception hasn't yet developed and their gaze easily wanders around the screen.
Watching TV alone also gives children no opportunity for interaction and bonding as it would if you played or read a book together.
Some researchers think that watching a lot of TV during those early years can cause children to develop problems with concentration, such as ADHD, later in life. However, the potential risks or benefits of TV watching are up for debate.
It is now a relatively established theory that children under two should not watch TV at all. Many paediatricians recommend a maximum of one hour per day for children between the ages of two and five.
How the senses and your baby's brain develop
All of a baby's senses are wide open, and their earliest experiences lay the foundations for the baby's ongoing development. Babies are affected by every impression, including sleep and diet.