Up to age four, your child’s brain is primed for, and receptive to, particular kinds of learning.

The neuroplasticity of your baby’s brain allows him to learn at an accelerated rate. Yet, synapses form and are pruned at specific times and in specific brain locations, leading to critical windows for certain competencies to develop. But the actual timeline relates to your child’s experiences.

For example, at approximately eight months of age, development of the hippocampus, where language and learning live, is completed. For this reason, by this time, babies can remember what they have learned, meaning that they can respond appropriately. For example, when mother smiles, baby learns to smile back in response.

Timing is especially critical where language is concerned. Because the brain stem develops before the cerebral cortex, infants gain control of their five senses first, which means they start out being able to distinguish and imitate sounds, even if they can’t make sense of them. This receptivity of language begins four months after gestation.

Dr. Patricia Kohl from the University of Washington says that your baby learns the beginnings of her native language by listening to your voice in utero. Thus, your child is born into the world ready to learn whatever language he hears. If your child is exposed to many languages consistently during this window from birth to 4 years old, she can learn them all-as long as one language is spoken at a time-and she can learn it with greater ease and speed than at any other time in her life.

By three years of age, the portal of receptivity begins to close and the window for language acquisition actually begins to shut down by the age of five. This means that if a child learns a new language at the onset of adolescence, as is common in American schools, he may learn to speak the language, but will do so with an accent.

A vital window of opportunity exists for literacy as well. The best thing you can do to help your child read is to read to her early and often and, even though your newborn will not understand a thing that you are reading, she will benefit greatly from the sound of your voice, the warmth of your body, and the time spent together. If you pick a favorite book and read and re-read it consistently, your child will learn to anticipate what is to happen next. Soon, your toddler will learn to recognize familiar words as she starts to mimic your reading. By allowing your child to tell you the story as if she is reading it, without correcting her, she will ultimately connect the symbols she sees with the words on the page.

Like all learning, reading can happen early and easily if you are there to support it. You can also create a print rich environment by labeling objects in large print, as well as pointing out objects around the house and in the neighborhood.

The connection between language, reading and the development of your baby’s brain cannot be overemphasized. Talk to your baby constantly. Every word, song, story, and lullaby builds those critical synapses in the brain, the associative mass that builds more and more connections from which to learn. The language your baby hears helps prepare him to read. That is the first step that your child will take to read, but he won’t take it alone. Either you will be there to guide him by creating the correct atmosphere, or you will forfeit your role to a babysitter, nanny or daycare.

In my next post, we’ll discuss more about compensating for your time away from your baby, as well as just how critical these windows of opportunity really are.


  • Dr. Gail Gross

    Author and Parenting, Relationships, and Human Behavior Expert

    Dr. Gail Gross, Ph.D., Ed.D., M.Ed., a member of the American Psychological Association (APA) and member of APA Division 39, is a nationally recognized family, child development, and human behavior expert, author, and educator. Her positive and integrative approach to difficult issues helps families navigate today’s complex problems. Dr. Gross is frequently called upon by national and regional media to offer her insight on topics involving family relationships, education, behavior, and development issues. A dependable authority, Dr. Gross has contributed to broadcast, print and online media including CNN, the Today Show, CNBC's The Doctors, Hollywood Reporter, FOX radio, FOX’s The O’Reilly Factor, MSNBC, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Times of India, People magazine, Parents magazine, Scholastic Parent and Child Magazine, USA Today, Univision, ABC, CBS, and KHOU's Great Day Houston Show. She is a veteran radio talk show host as well as the host of the nationally syndicated PBS program, “Let’s Talk.” Also, Dr. Gross has written a semi-weekly blog for The Huffington Post and has blogged at EmpowHER.com since 2013. Recently, Houston Women's Magazine named her One of Houston's Most Influential Women of 2016. Dr. Gross is a longtime leader in finding solutions to the nation’s toughest education challenges. She co-founded the first-of-its kind Cuney Home School with her husband Jenard, in partnership with Texas Southern University. The school serves as a national model for improving the academic performance of students from housing projects by engaging the parents. Dr. Gross also has a public school elementary and secondary campus in Texas that has been named for her. Additionally, she recently completed leading a landmark, year-long study in the Houston Independent School District to examine how stress-reduction affects academics, attendance, and bullying in elementary school students, and a second study on stress and its effects on learning. Such work has earned her accolades from distinguished leaders such as the Dalai Lama, who presented her with the first Spirit of Freedom award in 1998. More recently, she was honored in 2013 with the Jung Institute award. She also received the Good Heart Humanitarian Award from Jewish Women International, Perth Amboy High School Hall of Fame Award, the Great Texan of the Year Award, the Houston Best Dressed Hall of Fame Award, Trailblazer Award, Get Real New York City Convention's 2014 Blogging Award, and Woman of Influence Award. Dr. Gross’ book, The Only Way Out Is Through, is available on Amazon now and offers strategies for life’s transitions including coping with loss, drawing from dealing with the death of her own daughter. Her next book, How to Build Your Baby’s Brain, is also available on Amazon now and teaches parents how to enhance their child’s learning potential by understanding and recognizing their various development stages. And her first research book was published by Random House in 1987 on health and skin care titled Beautiful Skin. Dr. Gross has created 8 audio tapes on relaxation and stress reduction that can be purchased on Amazon.com. Most recently, Dr. Gross’s book, The Only Way Out is Through, was named a Next Generation Indie Book Awards Silver Medal finalist in 2020 and Winner of the 2021 Independent Press Awards in the categories of Death & Dying as well as Grief. Her latest book, How to Build Your Baby’s Brain, was the National Parenting Product Awards winner in 2019, the Nautilus Book Awards winner in 2019, ranked the No. 1 Best New Parenting Book in 2019 and listed among the Top 10 Parenting Books to Read in 2020 by BookAuthority, as well as the Next Generation Indie Book Awards Gold Medal winner in 2020 and Winner of the 2021 Independent Press Awards in the category of How-To. Dr. Gross received a BS in Education and an Ed.D. (Doctorate of Education) with a specialty in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Houston. She earned her Master’s degree in Secondary Education with a focus on Psychology from the University of St. Thomas in Houston. Dr. Gross received her second PhD in Psychology, with a concentration in Jungian studies. Dr. Gross was the recipient of Kappa Delta Pi An International Honor Society in Education. Dr. Gross was elected member of the International English Honor Society Sigma Tau Delta.