Early Brain Development
Over the past decade numerous advances have been made in the research regarding brain development. We now know there is far more that takes place to shape a child's development in the first five years than was previously thought. In fact this is a critical time in shaping a child's positive growth and brain development.
While it takes 15-20 years for the brain to fully develop, most of the critical connections are made during a child's early years of life. What parents and caregivers do with children, positive or negative, will affect how a child's brain develops. It is these early interactions that are key in influencing how the brain circuits are wired.
By the time a child is three years old, the brain will form over 1,000 trillion connections. This is twice the amount of connections in adult brains. The connections neurons make with each other are called synapses. The peak period for synapses development is from birth to age ten.
The capacity to learn is a combination of nature (genetics) and nurture (environment). Nature provides a complex system of brain circuitry, but how it is wired depends upon a child's environment (surroundings, stimulation, nutrition, etc).
Karen DeBord, Ph.D., Child Development Specialist from North Carolina Cooperative Extension gives the following suggestions to caregivers for nurturing positive brain development:
- Give consistent loving care. If a child is in a loving setting, they will learn to love. Children who are ignored or not nurtured will not fully develop all areas of their brains.
- Touch infants. In research with infants, it was shown that gently massaging premature infants three times per day for 15 minutes helped them gain weight, be more alert, and cry less. These infants were released from the hospital sooner than infants who were not massaged.
- Pay attention to language and hearing. Repetition forms connections. Talk to the baby so they will begin babbling. Name what you are doing, name items, point and show expression on your face. It is easier for children to learn two languages than it is for adults. For example, children whose parents speak Spanish and English create two maps and strengthen their use of both languages when both these areas of the brain are used in childhood. Ear infections can slow down language development because babies cannot hear the words spoken to them very well.
- Watch babies notice the world at 2 to 4 months. Notice the health of the eyes to assure babies are taking in the colors, faces, and shapes around them. Each neuron is attaching to 15,000 other neurons during the first months. The development of a baby's vision peaks at eight months.
- Look for teachable moments. The things you do every day offer windows of learning for children. For example, when you are having a meal or snack, name the foods, their colors, and count them. When you can, name things that are the same, different, bigger, smaller, hot, cold, etc.
- Use music because it relates to math skills. By exposing children to complex musical sounds such as Mozart, children will develop the same areas of the brain required for math and spatial reasoning. Playing rhythmic games and singing songs will also trigger new connections in the brain.
- Know that emotional connections can be stressful or relaxed. Vivid memories are often tied to emotional reactions to particular situations. The more vivid the memory, the stronger the print in the brain. The limbic system regulates emotional impulses and helps us make decisions about what to do... run, cry, react, whine, turn away. If the goal in childhood is survival and coping skills around survival are taught, this will become permanent. If trust is nurtured, then this will become part of the child's nature.
- Be gently physical. Children need opportunities to move and develop their small and large body parts. Expose children to a safe variety of physical activities as they grow. This will also help to build strength and coordination. During the child's preschool years, think of all areas - climbing, splashing, slow and fast movement, hard and soft areas, different textures like clay and paint.
- Mirror behaviors you want in children. Children will pick up many behaviors of the adults around them. If adult voices are loud, children may be loud; if adults use soft warm touches, children will learn the same. If children see patience in adults looking for solutions to problems, they will see that learning is a process with many steps.
Additional suggestions for promoting positive brain development in children include:
- Touch, feel, smell, hear, and see. All kinds of sensory activities benefit brain development. New connections are created when children explore their environment through their senses. About 95% of all information is received through seeing, touching, and hearing.
- Establish routines. Create routines around meal times, nap time, and other important parts of the day. Being predictable in your routines helps children feel secure.
- Cuddle, hug, and hold. Caring physical contact also makes children feel secure. They are able to form caring relationships with others and continue their healthy development.
- Provide proper nutrition. Serve a variety of foods that are nutritious and follow the recommended number of servings and serving sizes according to the MyPyramid.
- Read, read, read. One of the most important things that can be done to enhance brain development is to read aloud every day with the children.
Remember that brain development is not a step by step process, but rather a spiral with waves that lasts a lifetime.
Karen DeBord's information is reprinted with permission from the NCSU Dept. of Family and Consumer Sciences. DeBord, K. (1997). *Brain development* [Extension Publication]. Raleigh, NC: North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service.