Thoughtful Parenting: Brain development in infants and toddlers
August 27, 2013
Steamboat Springs — One of the biggest changes in raising children during the past 25 years is the number of babies in out-of-home child care. That fact has brought about a demand for competent, compassionate, well-educated caregivers. In First Impressions of Routt County’s effort to increase the quality of child care, organization officials have found that many young parents in Routt County also are wondering what it takes to be better parents. In our work with Expanding Quality (a class offered at Colorado Mountain College for caregivers of infants and toddlers), the topic that amazes most people is the unit on brain development. Formerly, parents and caregivers with a quiet baby in an infant seat would just leave them be. Why rock the boat? Once they learn what is going on in that little brain, parents take a different approach.
A child is born with more than 100 billion brain cells and will not grow any more. Unused brain cells and connections will wither away. Each brain cell connects with thousands of other brain cells to create the functional architecture of a child's brain. Most of these connections are formed from stimuli from the outside environment in the first three years of life. That is why we, as parents and caregivers, have to be very careful about what that "outside environment" looks, sounds and feels like.
In the brain, the pathways that become the strongest are the ones that are reinforced most frequently. If a baby sees a smiling happy face when he wakes up and someone comes to him quickly when he cries, he learns to trust that people care about him. Babies who grow up with calm, friendly voices tend to use those sounds, as well, because that is what was reinforced the most and therefore developed the strongest connection.
Although we are learning new things about the brain daily, some things never have changed. What we really know is that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. I often tell parents that they need to be the person they want their children to be. To raise a child who is generous, kind and loyal and a child who has courage, integrity and a sense of justice doesn't happen by accident. They need to see those values and behaviors modeled on a regular basis. The neural pathways developed in those first couple of years will be strongest in areas — including sight, hearing, touch and even smell — that are experienced most frequently.
We have learned that babies and small children have windows of opportunity for learning certain things. The window for vision is strongest from 2 to 4 months old and is the reason doctors will remove a cataract from an infant usually within the first month to optimize vision. We now know that a child easily can learn two languages right from birth. If not from birth, the optimal window for learning a foreign language is 4 to 9 years old. If acquired during that time, the child will be able to speak without an accent and with much less difficulty. Right around puberty, the brain begins to prune itself, getting rid of any of the cells it is not using. If you haven't strengthened your foreign language or musical connections by then, you lose the capacity to do it at the same level as you could have.
Early parent-child relationships have powerful effects on children's emotional well-being, their basic coping and problem-solving abilities and their future capacity for relationships. Warm, sensitive and responsive caregiving provides the foundation for healthy brain development and increases the odds for success in school and life.
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Kathy Northcutt is the director of Horizons Child and Family Services and has been a First Impressions Council member since 2002.