The 1001 Critical Days – The importance of Conception to Age 2 Period

Developmental Physiotherapist and Infant Massage Instructor Rachel Pailes discusses this crucial period and why Baby Massage is the perfect way to start  infant development out on the right track.

The in-utero environment and early years of life are a key time for brain development.  As science improves as does our understanding of how the events that happen to children and babies, lead to structural changes in the brain with life-long implications.

When a baby is first born, understandably the most active parts of the brain are the structures associated with reflex activity (related to survival) for example the sucking and rooting reflex which help establish successful feeding.  The sensory pathways (vision and hearing) that connect the baby to the outside world are then the first to develop after birth.  Shortly followed by early language and emotional development.   At 1 year of age the windows for brain development are all open and it has been calculated that at 18 months of age brain connections are being created at the rate of 1 million per second.  But by the end of the second year, much of a child’s brain growth and density is complete and only ‘the fittest or most used connections have been selected, although fine tuning continues for many years after birth’ (Hart 2008).

Genetics are important for brain development however genes require experience in order to be activated.  Dendritic growth, synapse selection and even myelination are influenced by a child’s early experiences (Huttenlocher 2002).  The critical period for basic sensory abilities such as vision and hearing end much earlier than those for more complex skills such as language and emotion (Nugent (2007).  Experiences in the environment during pregnancy and infancy activate and silence useful and unhelpful genes that are crucial for mental wellbeing, social and emotional development.  For very young children, secure relationships (i.e. parenting which is highly sensitive and responsive to the baby’s signals and cues) promote emotional health, effect cognitive and language development and other learning (Wave Trust 2013).

Touch is the first sense to develop in utero and is therefore a language that babies instantly understand.  In some cultures baby massage has been a tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years due to its physical and emotional benefits.  These benefits are now recognised throughout the world and massage programmes such as those taught by the International Association of Infant Massage (IAIM) are taught in over 50 countries worldwide.  Baby massage classes are only the start of the journey of positive and nurturing touch between a baby and its parents.  It aims to provide a life skill that will help children feel loved, valued and respected, which starts during this critical period of brain development to promote strong emotional, social and physical health throughout childhood and in the longer term.


Hart (2008) – Brain, attachment, personality: An introduction to neuroaffective development. London: Karnac Books Ltd

Huttenlocher (2002) – Neural Plasticity: The effects of environment on the development of the cerebral cortex. Cambridge, M.A: Harvard University Press

Nugent (2007) – Understanding Newborn Behaviour & Early Relationships: The Newborn Behavioural Observations (NBO) System Handbook. Maryland, Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Wave Trust 2013 – Conception to age 2 – the age of opportunity (