Brain Development in Early Childhood

It's important to understand basic brain development in early childhood to ensure that your child gets started living a healthy and safe life.

What You Need to Know to Give Your Child the Best Start

Common sense is making a comeback. Dietitians are telling us not to eat so much. Financial advisors counsel against high-risk investments. And when it comes to child development, experts are taking a back-to-basics approach. The way to promote healthy brain growth in your child is not by playing classical music or buying fancy high-tech toys. It's with lots of love, a stable home and caring, supportive adults.

The latest brain studies indicate that our basic nurturing impulses as parents give babies exactly what their growing brains want. But all too often, experts warn, in our attempts to make our kids smarter with so-called brain-building gadgets, activity-filled schedules and complex computer games, we don't make time for the types of personal interaction that promote the best environment for developing brains.

"Young children need hours of positive, attentive caregiving. Quantities of quality time help children meet their potential," says Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D., a neuroscientist on the forefront of brain research and senior fellow at the Houston-based Child Trauma Academy, an organization working to improve the lives of traumatized and maltreated children and their families.

This may seem obvious to many parents. But research and an emphasis on early brain development in the mid-1990s led many parents to feel pressured to capitalize on every learning opportunity for their infants and toddlers. The result was a notable increase in high-tech learning toys, classical music recordings and structured play and learning programs.

The media, the business world and even parents misinterpreted this brain research and set out to create brainy babies, says renowned parenting and child-development expert Penelope Leach, Ph.D.

"I think we're sufficiently anxious as parents that when the world of media, and particularly the world of commerce, picks this up and runs with the idea that we could be producing better kids or doing better than we're doing, then there are a lot of people who don't dispute it," Leach says. "It's a tragedy … that what is known has been misinterpreted and translated almost into a book of rules. There are no rules!"

Bonding and the Brain
To understand the link between early emotional bonding and brain development, it helps to know what's going on in your baby's brain. You've heard that a baby's brain grows most rapidly during the first three years of life. During the first year, brain cells are busy making millions of connections. The connections peak at about one year and, in a process called "pruning," they are eliminated if they are not used. The connections that you regularly use are the ones that you keep.

Parents' efforts to bond with their child strengthen healthy connections, according to child-development educator Stephen Santos Rico, M.A. "The brain is use-dependent, so the more that it's experiencing something, the stronger it makes the connection. In the absence of some of those experiences, connections are not made," Rico explains.

As a parent, you know that your child depends on you for survival. What you may not realize is just how influential you are to your child's growing brain.

"The most important thing that parents need to know is that their interactions with their infant, toddler and child literally help shape the biology of their child's brain," Perry says. "And, through simple interactions - holding, rocking, singing, reading, laughing and playing with their child - they are helping express the underlying genetic gifts of their child."

Brain-Building Through the Senses
One of the reasons why fancy toys and lessons don't work is that during the first 10 years of life a child's brain is focused on sensory processing - not solely on intellectual processing. The brain structures that mediate social and emotional functioning begin to develop during this time in a manner that appears to be dependent upon interpersonal experience. Meaningful relationships are essential for this to happen.

If you think back to your own childhood, it's most likely the simple pleasures that stick with you.

"We really must pay attention to the sensory experiences that children need, like movement, crawling and swinging," Rico says. "Things like lying on the grass and looking at the clouds and making up stories about them, that's the kind of thing that brains need."

That's not to say you can lie down on the job. A child's healthy brain development depends on involved, engaged adults.

"Children who are talked with, held, rocked, listened to and who have their curiosity answered by present and attentive caregivers, do very well," says Perry. "We have much to learn, but what we do know is that passive caregiving does not lead to optimal development."

Finding Balance
That's not to suggest that parents must bend over backward to stimulate their children every second of the day, Leach warns. She cautions against unfounded fear of idle time or boredom and the notion that children need high-tech toys and learning devices for optimal development.

Parents with only one child may find it harder to entertain that child than parents of several children, while siblings can often entertain themselves, Leach notes. "I'm not romanticizing bigger families," she says, but suggests that in communities where there are more one-child families and fewer kids out playing in the neighborhood, "you have got a potentially boring situation for both the child and the adult."

Some parents may also worry that if they're not teaching their kids something at a young age, then they're missing a window of opportunity. But rushing to classes and drilling your kids in lessons too early can have a negative impact on brain development. Perry and Rico both warn that overcrowded schedules can stress kids out.

"When children are tired, overwhelmed, in new situations or anxious," Perry says, "no pushing, coaxing, coaching, formal instruction or any other of our attempts will really promote efficient learning."

A stressed-out brain produces a hormone called cortisol. Brain researchers have detected an overabundance of cortisol in the brains of neglected children, but it can also affect over-scheduled children.

"When children are stressed out by overly complicated, overly scheduled lives, even though it looks like they are engaged in learning, if you looked at it neurologically, that wouldn't be the case," Rico notes.

Of course, all parents want their kids to be smart. But you can't accelerate brain development.

Sharon Greenip, M.Ed., of Zero-to-Three, an organization that promotes healthy childhood development, says one easy way of stimulating intellectual growth is by simply supporting the development that's happening naturally in the context of a child's daily life. "Research doesn't show you what you can do to speed up a baby's development," she says. "It only shows us what can cause ill effects."

The Zero-to-Three organization encourages parents to look for learning experiences in their family's ordinary habits.

"We like to talk about the magic of everyday moments," Greenip says. "It's those normal routines that can be learning experiences."

As for Baby Mozart and Baby Einstein, she adds, "if you find it joyful and your child finds it joyful, creativity will occur and bonding will occur."

The Importance of Community
Loving, cuddling, hugging - that all sounds wonderful for babies. As your child grows, however, you'll want to continue to promote healthy brain development in order for your child to forge healthy relationships, make smart choices and do well in school. New findings in brain research indicate that as a child grows, widening the circle of a loving family to a supportive community is a key factor in a child's long-term health and intelligence.

One of the conclusions to come out of Perry's research is the importance of a network of caring individuals around your child. "While it may seem somewhat distant from the classic mother-child or caregiver-child interactions which we know are so important to children, it turns out that the overall health of a community is a powerful determinant of what makes a child healthy," Perry says.

There comes a time in every parent's life when you need to turn your child over to the world. If you've created a foundation of a stable home - and by extension a stable community - the child will fare much better and possibly avoid the pitfalls of peer pressure and risky behavior. The latest findings from the brain research done by Perry and other early-childhood experts point out "the critical nature of community in shaping global health," Perry says.

This theory is corroborated by research from The Search Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the well-being of adolescents and children. The Search Institute has developed a list of experiences and influences, called 40 Assets, which they've identified as essential for sound development. The first 20 are external assets - positive experiences that kids get from the people and institutions in their lives. The other 20 are internal assets, qualities a child must develop within himself.

Sandra Harris, a Search Institute speaker and trainer, points to an involved community as a key to building both sets of assets.

"When I think about the life span of a child, all of us have a role in assuring that our children are healthy," she says. "What I love about the asset approach is that everyone can do something. Everyone in a child's sphere of influence has a role to play - whether they're a parent, a pastor, a teacher or a principal."

Harris urges positive, deliberate interaction and behavior toward children and youth to begin the process of asset-building. She advocates a back-to-basics approach.

"The asset approach has adults intentionally - and that's the key - interact and be a part of children's lives in a way that will help them succeed. Smile at them. Notice them, learn their names. It's common sense - but it's not common behavior."

Leach urges parents to have fun with their kids. "That's where the good stimulation comes from. It's from that fit of giggles that you and your 1-year-old have because someone made a really funny face in the supermarket checkout line."

Common sense is the consensus among early-childhood experts. Loving our children, playing with them, reading to them - it turns out that the simple pleasures we can share with our kids are building blocks of brain development. Again and again, we've all heard that as parents we should follow our instincts. Our instincts are right.

Caroline Knorr is a former editor for United Parenting Publications (a Dominion Parenting Media property). Deirdre Wilson, the national senior editor with Dominion Parenting Media and Parenthood.com, also contributed to this piece.

Resources
• The Search Institute - This nonprofit organization works to advance the well-being of adolescents and children. At the heart of its work is a framework of 40 developmental assets, which are positive experiences, relationships, opportunities and personal qualities that young people need to grow up healthy, caring and responsible. This framework is grounded in research on child and adolescent development, risk prevention and resiliency. Check out the Search Institute's Web site for more on these all-important assets.

• Zero-to-Three - www.zerotothree.org - For 25 years, this organization has worked to promote the healthy development of infants and toddlers by supporting and strengthening families, communities and those who work on their behalf. It offers publications and reference guides to programs, as well as an informative Web site, which includes a Brain Wonders section highlighting what parents should know about early childhood brain development and how they can stimulate their children's healthy development.

© Parenthood.com, used with permission.

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