Immaturity of a baby’s brain?

During medical school, I was taught colic was an intestinal problem. Soon afterward, however, that theory was pushed aside by the concept of – brain immaturity. As we discovered more about our babies’ nervous systems, we came to believe colic was the result of their immature brains getting over-stimulated by all the new experiences they encountered after birth.

Your Baby’s Amazing Brain – Mental abilities your baby was born with
Imagine that you’re taking a very long trip, but can only bring 1 suitcase with you. Now, imagine that your suitcase is…tiny. In a funny way, that’s exactly the situation your baby was in as he was preparing for birth. He had to select the bare minimum brain abilities he would need once he left the protection of your womb. And, he somehow had to fit all that stuff into his small brain.

If you could have helped him pack, what abilities would you have considered so important that you would have told him, “Don’t leave home without it”? Walking? Smiling? Saying, “I love you Mommy”?

It turns out that, over millions of years, Mother Nature picked 4 indispensable survival tools to carefully fit into the apple- sized brains of our fetuses. They are:

1) Life support controls - the ability to maintain blood pressure, breathing, etc.

2) Reflexes – dozens of important automatic behaviors that help newborns do things like sneeze, suck, swallow…and, cry.

3) Limited control of muscles and senses – once babies can breathe and eat, these very limited abilities allow them to touch, taste, look around and interact with the world.

4) State control – after babies start interacting with their families and their exciting new world, state control enables them turn their attention on (to watch and learn) and off (to recover and sleep).

State Control – Your baby’s ability to tune the world in…or shut it out

State describes your baby’s level of wakefulness or sleep, in other words, his state of alertness. States range from deep sleep, to light sleep, to fussiness, to full out screaming. And, right in the middle of all these is perhaps the most magical state of all – quiet alertness. It’s easy to tell when your baby is in this state; his eyes will be bright and open and his face will be peacefully relaxed as he surveys the sights around him.

Maintaining his level of alertness and not jerking in and out of different states is one of the earliest jobs your baby’s brain must accomplish. His ability to stop his crying, keep awake or stay asleep is called his “state control”. I like to think of state control as your baby’s TV remote. It allows him to pay attention when something on TV is interesting, to “change channels” when he gets bored, and to shut the “show” off altogether if it starts upsetting him or it’s time to go to bed.

Many young infants have excellent state control. These “I can do it myself” babies focus intensely on something for a while yet easily pull away whenever they want. They are “self-calmers” who shift between sleeping, alertness and crying with poise and grace.

I know it’s easy to lose your confidence when your little baby is locked into screaming, but please don’t give up. Much better state control will be coming to rescue both of you in just a few months.

Granted that many newborns have poor state control, the question still remains, how could this type of brain immaturity cause some babies to have hours of uncontrollable crying? The answer to that question may well reside in two common situations that our babies are exposed to every day: over-stimulation and under-stimulation.

“Help Me…The World Is Too Big!” – How “over-stimulation” causes crying?

We can all relate to the idea of being over-stimulated. And, young infants encounter a flood of new sensations. Considering how exciting the world is, it’s a wonder that all babies don’t get over-stimulated! Fortunately, most are great at shutting out the world when they need to. However, if your baby has poor state control, even a low level of activity may push him into frantic crying. He may start to sob because of a tiny upset, like a burp or loud noise, but then get so wound-up – by his own yelling – that he’s soon raging out of control.

These babies cry because they get over-stimulated…and then stuck in “cry mode”. If one could translate their shrieks into English, they would probably mean something like, “Please…help me…the world is too big!”

“Help Me…I’m Stuck In A Closet!” – How “under-stimulation” causes crying?

The idea that your baby wants to be left in a quiet, dark room is one of the biggest myths that our culture has taught us about newborns. To get a sense of what this stillness is like for your new baby, imagine you’ve been working in a noisy, hectic office for 9 months. One morning, you come to work and find yourself totally alone. There’s no chatter, no ringing phones, no commotion, just the occasional low rumble of a truck passing outside. Then you discover you’re locked in. After a while, the stillness starts getting on your nerves. You begin pacing and muttering to yourself, and then you lose it and start to screaming, “Get me out of here!”

Believe it or not, that scene is very similar to the way babies experience the world when they come home from the hospital. Although our image of the perfect nursery is one where our little angel sleeps in serene quiet, to a newborn that feels like being stuck in a closet.

As strange as it sounds, your baby doesn’t want – or need – peace and quiet. What he yearns for are the pulsating rhythms that constantly surrounded him in his womb-world. In fact, the under-stimulation and stillness of our homes can drive a sensitive newborn every bit as nuts as chaotic over-stimulation can!

Immaturity of our babies’ brains certainly may play a role in whatever it is that pushes infants over the edge into colic but it clearly isn’t the whole explanation.

2 Responses to “Immaturity of a baby’s brain?”

  1. Lindsey Says:

    How do you handle a 14 week old that has poor state control and continues to fight her sleep and is overly tierd. We’ve tried naps when she first starts looking tierd, take an hour to get her to sleep for 20a mins then wakes up screaming, even swaddled in her swing with white noise and a pacifier. She yawns and is still overly tierd but just can’t shut down. How long does this last???

  2. Dr_Karp Says:

    Hi Lindsey,
    This is a bit longer than I can go into here…but I encourage you to take a look at my sleep book….it will guide you now (and has advice for great sleep for the next 5 years)
    All best,

    Dr. K

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