Everything that a child experiences during the first years of life has a permanent impact on the structure of the developing brain.
If I were to describe the subject of today’s post in a nutshell, I would say:
Good experiences provide good conditions for brain development. Bad experiences, on the other hand, pose a risk that a genetically healthy child may struggle with various problems. They can range from trouble making decisions, concentration disorders, problems interacting with other people — to even depression or mental retardation…
There is so much for parents to know about brain development to help with DAILY INTERACTIONS WITH YOUR BABIES. 🙂
Some basics about the brain:
At the time of birth, the brain is the most immature structure of all. How it shapes and develops largely depends on how it is used.
Of course, genetic programming is also important here because it constitutes the base, but EXPERIENCES are what make the brain function the way it’s supposed to. Just as proteins and fats are important building blocks for the brain, experiences and interaction with people and objects play an important role in the process of its development.
A good example of a beneficial brain exercise is learning… languages. 😉
After all, each of us masters the skills of using a certain language — even if only our own. But the LANGUAGE that we speak depends on our EXPERIENCE. If the infant is raised among people who speak English, it will become the child’s first language and the process of learning will come naturally. But if the same baby was raised among people speaking Chinese, this particular language would be his or her natural choice.
The human brain is divided into areas. They contain millions of nerve cells that communicate with each other through synapses. Their amount and organization determine a variety of functions — from the simplest to the most complex — and are meant to solve even the most complicated correlations.
In fact, after birth, most areas of the brain no longer develop by creating new nerve cells — but by creating a network of connections between them. A child’s brain produces a lot of synapses. (Hence, the plasticity of a little child’s brain is the greatest. If one of the “roadways” is damaged, there’s usually a chance of finding a detour. ;)) Some of them will actually become useful in the future, while others will never be used and they will eventually… “disappear”. (By the way, that’s a very good sign! Remember the golden rule: “Everything in moderation.” An efficient, well-organized brain that is able to cope with many different challenges — that’s what we want! Any sort of clutter could make this much more difficult to achieve!)
IMAGINE IT LIKE THIS:
Nerve cells, i.e. neurons, connect with each other in order to transmit information to/from different parts of the brain — we already know that, but how do we understand and remember things?
Let’s compare these connections to roads that lead from one town to another. If information is transmitted often, this connection is strengthened — it becomes tighter, and the information is transferred much faster (if a road from one town to another is used very often, it is hardened, rebuilt and expanded over time — it may even become a highway). 😉
If, on the other hand, a particular road is not used that often (or maybe not even used at all), over time it becomes more and more difficult to get through by using it… until, finally… it disappears off the map.
I couldn’t think of a better example. 😉
Here is a video that shows this very nicely:
WHAT’S THE PARENTS’ ROLE IN ALL OF THIS?
As parents, we have great influence over which “roads” will be used and strengthened, and which will not. In a way, we can decide whether our child’s brain will be well-organized, will work efficiently, and will cope with different challenges along the way, or if our child will have some sort of difficulties in these areas.
HOW DO WE INFLUENCE OUR BABY’S BRAIN?
1. By responding to the signals that our baby gives us.
Yes, it is an extremely important rule. If we really respond with love to the child’s needs (I mean basic needs, such as closeness, sense of security, satisfying hunger, etc. while not fulfilling every single wish — that’s another story ;)), then the baby will feel safe and will be able to focus on discovering the world. But, if we neglect a child’s needs, his or her behavior will focus primarily on getting someone’s attention. Then, there will be no energy left for anything else. A baby who is neglected like that in childhood may find it difficult to interact with other people in the future. He or she could even develop cognitive, social, or emotional barriers.
2. By caring.
This is so obvious, yet so significant — and it relates to the previous point. Of course, we should always make sure that our baby is not hungry, has a dry diaper, etc. But care means so much more than that! It’s also about all of our interactions with the child. Playtime, “talking”, and also recognizing the moment when the baby is just simply fed up with something and needs some peace and quiet. Fortunately, if we just pay attention to the baby we usually are able to learn very quickly how to recognize the signals that our child gives us. (For example, after over 10 years of marriage, my husband can recognize my emotions in a split second, he can read every look on my face… how does he do it??? ;))
OK, but let’s get back to the topic. 🙂
We should remember that not only the QUANTITY is important here — the QUALITY of the experiences that we give our baby is what really matters. HOW we play with our children, HOW we respond to their needs, HOW we take care of them.
It’s really amazing to think that nature has endowed us with an instinct that can tell us what to do. So don’t try to quiet that voice in your mind — it’s usually right. 😉
3. By providing stable relationships.
Stability means security. Safety is a child’s basic need that must be met in order for a child to realize his or her potential (and make use of it!). Stable relationships also means having a support system, and support is the key to success. 😉
Does this mean that we should wrap our baby in cotton wool so that nothing stressful ever happens?
Of course not! Sometimes, stress is necessary, as it mobilizes the body’s strength. What should be avoided, however, is TOXIC STRESS.
When we feel threatened, our body activates a natural defensive reaction — the number of heartbeats per minute increases, as well as blood pressure and the level of cortisol, the stress hormone. And it’s OK if the baby gets some help or assistance in such a situation. Helping the child to cope with a difficult situation is something that can make things get back to normal much faster.
The situation is different when we deal with so-called TOXIC STRESS. This is prolonged, strong and frequent stress; with which the child, left without parental support, cannot cope. Research shows that this type of stress has a destructive effect on the developing brain and may lead to the kinds of issues I’ve mentioned earlier.
HOW DOES THIS APPLY TO MOTOR DEVELOPMENT?
Motor development is also a science. Or, rather, it is a learning PROCESS in which the experiences gained by the child are analyzed, processed, used and, thanks to feedback — are also perfected. 😉
That is why interaction is so important — giving the child opportunities to safely and freely explore the world, paying attention to the QUALITY of the things you do together, making sure the child has a chance to have various kinds of experiences.
(Why is variety so significant here? The answer is in the phenomenon of HABITUATION, i.e. getting used to a stimulus. A stimulus which a child gets used to does not cause such a spectacular and engaging reaction anymore.)
Now everything is starting to fall into place, right? 😉
And finally… SOME INTERESTING FACTS:
– Although the process of brain development lasts until the age of 25 or so, the time of the greatest neuroplasticity and maturation occurs in the first three years — but the first year of life is of the utmost importance.
– In early childhood, the brain retains the ability to learn sounds that were originally rejected — hence, young children have a natural facility to learn foreign languages and, interestingly enough, they usually do it without the accent associated with their mother tongue. After the age of 10, this ease decreases relatively quickly, so if you want your child to learn more than one language, this is the best time to think about it. 😉
But beware! 🙂
To all those who now imagine that they should start to showing their children cartoons in Spanish, Japanese, Chinese or any other language, I’d like to say that neither listening to the language via TV nor even being in the company of adults speaking the foreign language will bring spectacular results… Why?
Simply put, it’s not possible to lose weight just by looking at the treadmill. (Trust me, I’ve tried 😉 ). You need to use it! By this analogy I mean that INTERACTION and COMMITMENT are keys to success — because we make use of our hidden resources and potential, and we are able to learn more efficiently.
– TALKING TO A BABY? Yes, of course!!! It is very important to talk to a child — even to the youngest one and even when we think that he or she “doesn’t understand anything we say”. By their second year of life, research shows that children whose parents talked to them during their infancy have vocabularies 300 words richer than children who weren’t spoken to in early childhood.
And on this optimistic note I’d like to finish the post — I’ve got my five-month-old to go talk to. 😉
You may also be interested in:
Learn how to take control of your baby’s development and to be a more confident parent. Here is a resource of ideas of how to ‘play’ with your baby to enhance your bond and your baby’s proper growth. I’ve called it playtime – because it’s fun!
E-book: A COLLECTION OF IDEAS FOR THE MOST FUN PLAYTIME WITH YOUR CHILD
- National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2006). Early Influences on Brain Architecture.
- Hawley, T. (2000). Starting Smart: How Early Experiences Affect Brain Development (2nd ed.). Zero to Three.
- Huttenlocher PR, Dabholkar AS. Regional differences in synaptogenesis in human cerebral cortex. J Comp Neurol. 1997;387(2):167-178.
- Risley, T. R., Hart, B., & Bloom, L. (1995). Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children. Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.
- Huttenlocher J, Haight W, Bryk A, et al. Early vocabulary growth: relation to language input and gender. Dev Psychol. 1991;27:236–48.