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The foundation for my literacy had undoubtedly been laid down from infancy, during countless encouraging moments, letter by letter, phoneme by phoneme, word by word, by my first teachers — my parents. Thirty-six years later I’m a new parent myself, and I can’t remember how they did it. Did my mother sing the “ABC” song to me nightly to lull me to sleep in a subtle learning-by-osmosis method? Or was it my father, while swaddling me tight in a receiving blanket, who casually tossed out such rhymes as “I before E except after C”?

Like all parents, I want the best start for my six-month old son Oliver, but teaching the beginnings of the English language seems like a cabalistic art. How does one go from babble to “button” in six years? When does the “blob phase” of babies end and the learning begin?

As it turns out, babies don’t have a blob phase when it comes to cognitive development, even though in the first months they appear to need you only for milk, constant rocking and diaper changes. In fact, recent scientific research shows babies’ brains are learning about their world from the moment of birth, and that early experiences are vital to the development and growth of a baby’s brain.

We are all born with trillions of neurons, or nerve cells, but after birth, in most areas of the brain, no new neurons are created. The development of the brain happens through a constant wiring and re-wiring process whereby connections, called synapses, are formed, while others that are not being used are pruned away for efficiency. There is a prime time of opportunity in the early years, from birth to three years old, when the brain is more “plastic” or changeable, and if an infant is deprived of normal early learning experiences then synapses may be “pruned” away before the brain has correctly organized itself. This means that it’s the first caregivers, the parents, who are the most important teachers.

When I discover that I’ve got only a short window of opportunity with which to “organize” Oliver’s brain, I feel a little panicky. Before he arrived, I was neat, tidy, detailed, and on-time, but since then any concept of organization has vaporized. The house is a pigsty. I’ve tried to ease the loss of my formerly tidy self by saying defiantly, “If I have a messy house it’s because I have a child who’s well-loved.” So I’ve dispensed with frivolities like dusting and putting clothes in drawers. Now I simply have two mountains of clothes, dirty and clean, which also means I don’t have to vacuum because I haven’t seen the bedroom floor in weeks. Even the cat has asked to move back to WAG. Still, it’s troubling; if I can’t even fold laundry how am I going to handle the organization of my baby’s brain?

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