The first year of life

A message from Life co-author, Helen Stephenson

If you have any experience of babies, you know that they develop very quickly. They make big changes every week. We can see the changes in their bodies and the changes in the things they can do. But we can’t see the changes inside, in their brains. It’s a very interesting process. I’d like to understand it better.

A newborn baby can see, hear and feel. By the age of five, a child can talk and ride a bike. How does this development happen? We don’t really understand the way language and thinking develop in the brain. Now scientists are using new technology to help them in their studies. They are discovering new information about the way a baby’s brain develops.

A study in 2010 showed that the experiences a child has in their first few years are important. These experiences affect the development of the brain. The study showed when children receive more attention, they often have higher IQs. Babies receive information when they see, hear and feel things. This information makes connections between different parts of the brain. There are a hundred trillion connections in the brain of a three-year-old child.

One experiment studied how newborn babies’ brains react to different sounds. The sounds were in different patterns. For example, the sounds mu-ba-ba make the pattern ‘A-B-B’. And the sounds mu-ba-ge make the pattern ‘A-B-C’. The results of the study showed that babies know the two patterns are different. Patterns are important in language. The order of words is important to grammar and meaning. For example, ‘John killed the bear’ doesn’t mean the same as ‘The bear killed John.’  Both sentences have the same words, but they are in a different order. The experiment shows that babies start to learn grammar rules from the beginning of their life.

Language is important for child development. Babies can hear language in various ways: listening to television, audio books or the Internet and interacting with people. A scientist, Patricia Kuhl, compared two groups of nine-month-old American babies. Both groups heard Mandarin Chinese sounds. The first group watched videos. In the second group, people spoke the same sounds to the babies. Then they tested the babies. The second group recognised the different sounds. The first group learned nothing. Patricia Kuhl said this result was very surprising. It shows that social interaction is important to successful brain development in babies.


IQ (n) ‘intelligence quotient’, level of intelligence
speech (n) the ability to speak


feel (v) to notice something that is near you or is happening to you
hear (v) to be aware of a sound in your ears
listen (v) to give something your attention using your ears
ride (v) to travel on a bicycle, horse, or motorbike
see (v) to notice things with your eyes
sound (n) something that you can hear
speak (v) to say something using your voice or to be able to communicate in a particular language
talk (v) to say something to someone
understand (v) to know the meaning of something such as words or ideas
watch (v) to look at something and give your attention to it

Listen to a recording of the text: 

Reading comprehension: 

Read the article and choose the correct option.

1. The article ...
compares the brains of adults and children.
describes studies into brain development in babies.
explains how human brains work.

2. According to the article, which statement is true?
Different languages influence the brain in different ways.
Interactive experiences are important in brain development.
Babies can learn Mandarin Chinese easily.

Read the article again and choose the correct option.

3. According to the first paragraph ...
most five-year-olds ride bikes.
scientists understand child development very well.
technology is useful in child development studies.

4. Why are early experiences important?
They affect a baby’s relationships.
They affect brain development.
They affect how babies feel.

5. What information is given in the second paragraph?
Attention and IQ are connected.
It’s difficult to change a baby’s IQ.
Some three-year-old children have a high IQ.

6. According to the second paragraph, what makes new connections in the brain?
experiencing new information
having a high IQ
the child’s age

7. Which statement is true?
Babies’ brains can’t recognise different sound patterns.
The pattern ‘A-B-B’ is easier to understand than A-B-C’.
The pattern ‘A-B-C’ is easier to understand than A-B-B’.

8. Experiments with sound patterns show that babies …
can begin to understand grammar.
understand different words.
understand Mandarin Chinese.

9. The experiment in paragraph 3 used sound patterns because ...
word order is part of grammar.
different languages have different grammar.
words have different sounds.

10. The study described in the last paragraph shows that …
babies can understand television at the age of nine months.
social interaction has a big influence on the brain.
watching videos is a good way to develop a child’s brain.