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Brain Development

The experiences young children receive in the first three years of life are crucial to brain development. As your child receives loving care and stimulation, neural connections are formed between his brain cells. These connections form the wiring system of the brain. Your child's early experiences largely determine the strength and function of her brain's wiring system. Warm responsive parents, who cuddle and talk to their children and provide challenging learning experiences, promote healthy brain development for their children.

Brain Facts: Understanding the latest research

New technology allows the thorough study of the brain, like we've never seen before. These studies prove that a child's early development is determined by his daily environment and experiences, rather than genetics alone. Researchers now believe it is the plasticity of the brain, its ability to develop and change in response to the demands of the environment, that enables a child to learn to use computers, solve mathematical problems and learn foreign languages. In order to fully understand this information, we must first understand how a child's brain works and develops.

Brain Facts

  • Child PaintingMAKING CONNECTIONS A child is born with over 100 billion neurons or brain cells. That's enough neurons to last a lifetime, since no more neurons will develop after birth. These neurons form connections, called synapses, which make up the wiring of the brain. (Don't worry, these terms are defined later)
  • EARLY EXPERIENCES At age eight months an infant may have 1,000 trillion synapses. However, by age 10 the number of synapses decrease to about 500 trillion. The final number of synapses is largely determined by a child's early experiences, which can increase or decrease the number of synapses by as much as 25 percent.
  • "USE IT OR LOSE IT!" The brain operates on a "use it or lose it" principle: only those connections and pathways that are frequently activated are retained. Other connections that are not consistently used will be pruned or discarded so the active connections can become stronger.
  • DEFINING LANGUAGE SKILLS When an infant is three months old, his brain can distinguish several hundred different spoken sounds. Over the next several months, his brain will organize itself more efficiently so that it only recognizes those sounds that are part of the language he regularly hears. During early childhood, the brain retains the ability to relearn sounds it has discarded, so young children typically learn new languages easily and without an accent.
  • THE POWER OF THE SPOKEN WORD The power of early adult-child interactions is remarkable. Researchers found that when mothers frequently spoke to their infants, their children learned almost 300 more words by age two than did their peers whose mothers rarely spoke to them. However, mere exposure to language through television or adult conversation provided little benefit. Infants need to interact directly with others. Children need to hear people talk to them about what they are seeing and experiencing, in order for their brains to fully develop language skills.
  • THE LOVING TOUCH Warm, responsive caregiving not only meets an infant's basic, day-to-day needs for nourishment and warmth, but also responds to their preferences, moods and rhythms. Recent research suggests that this kind of consistent caregiving is not only comforting for an infant, it plays a vital role in healthy development. The way that parents, families and other caregivers relate and respond to their young children, and the way they respond to their children's contact with the environment, directly affect the formation of the brain's neural pathways.
  • CREATING ONE STABLE BOND Researchers who examine the life histories of children who have succeeded despite many challenges, have consistently found that these children have had at least one stable, supportive relationship with an adult early in life.

What does this brain research mean?

Tips for Promoting Healthy Development

bulletBe warm, loving and responsive
bulletRespond to the child's cues and clues
bulletTalk, read, and sing to your child
bulletEstablish routines and rituals
bulletEncourage safe exploration and play
bulletMake TV watching selective
bulletUse discipline as an opportunity to teach
bulletRecognize that each child is unique
bulletChoose quality child care and stay involved
bulletTake care of yourself

- from I Am Your Child

Also see: How early experiences affect the brain (The Ounce of Prevention Fund)

The implications of this research are far reaching. It should be used to educate parents and caregivers about the critical window of opportunity in a child's life that can ensure a child's healthy development.

Parents play the most important role in providing the nurturing and stimulation that children require, but many parents need information and support to develop good parenting skills. There is much that communities can also do to help families promote their child's healthy brain development, through programs like Parents As Teachers.

PARENT EDUCATION Parents must be educated about the importance of proper early experiences. The little things that parents do, like talking to an infant, reading to him at an early age and helping him play simple games, have many lasting effects.

CHILD ABUSE AND NEGLECT PREVENTION It is important, as always, to stress the prevention of child abuse and neglect during the developmental years. Greater attention must be given to preventing maltreatment before it starts. High-quality home visitation programs which start working with families as soon as the child is born have proven to be effective in preventing abuse and neglect. These programs help parents manage the stresses of raising children and prevent unhealthy patterns from developing.

PROPER PRENATAL CARE Many studies have shown the devastating effects on intelligence and brain development from a lack of basic nutrients at the prenatal stage, in infancy and early childhood. Educational and outreach campaigns to alert women to the importance of nutrition during pregnancy would also be helpful in preventing problems that can arise in this critical period when brain cells begin to form.

CHILD CARE PROVIDER EDUCATION Consistent, healthy care from child care providers is another factor affecting proper brain development. An increasing number of infants and toddlers are spending most of their day in child care arrangements so parents can work. This relationship is one of the most important a child will ever form. However, too often child care providers are poorly trained, underpaid, and do not provide children with appropriate stimulation. Research has shown that in the majority of infant care arrangements in the U.S., children are not talked to and played with enough, and they do not have the opportunity to form the kind of comfortable, secure relationships with a caregiver that will promote their healthy emotional development. Programs like T.E.A.C.H. can assist in educating child care providers.

CHOOSING QUALITY CHILD CARE Parents should be given information about how to choose high quality child care for their children, as is available from many child care resource and referral offices around North Carolina. In addition, special attention must be given to the development and enforcement of child care licensing standards that promote high-quality care.

Our increasingly technically and socially complex society cannot afford to continue to allow large numbers of children to miss out on the positive experiences they need in infancy and early childhood; the costs in terms of lost intellectual potential and increased rates of emotional and behavioral problems, are too high. The new developments in brain research show us what children need; our challenge is to ensure that every child receives it!

The Effect of Abuse and Neglect on Brain Development

At the CIVITAS Child Trauma Programs at Baylor College of Medicine, Bruce Perry and co-workers have studied the impact of neglect and trauma on the neurobiology of over 1,000 abused and neglected children. In one study, 20 children who had been raised in globally under-stimulating environments- children who were rarely touched or spoken to and who had little opportunity to explore and experiment with toys- were examined with sophisticated new brain-imaging techniques and other measures of brain growth. The children were found to have brains that were physically 20 to 30 percent smaller than most children their age and, in over half the cases, parts of the children's brains appeared to have literally wasted away. --- Starting Smart: How early experiences affect brain development, An Ounce of Prevention Fund, 1996.

Brain development makes economic sense

To invest early in a child's life to build a good foundation for learning and emotional development can save taxpayers a tremendous amount of money. Here are a few examples:

  • Risk vs. Opportunity- Specific cost benefit ratios:

Family Planning- Save $4.40 for every $1
Quality Preschool- Save $7.16 for every $1
Home Visits- Save $5.63 for every $1
School-Based Clinics- Save $7 for every $1

  • Get businesses involved - To increase the productivity of any business, employees need to be assured the care their child is receiving is adequate, reliable and of high quality. To have a well-qualified workforce tomorrow, we must start with nurturing today's growing brains.

Glossary of Brain Terms

Dendrite - finger-like extensions of a neuron that receives signals or chemical messages and stimulates activity in the receiving neuron

Neurons - brain cells which are rapidly developed before birth, but are no longer formed after birth

Neurotransmitters - an on/off switch that acts as a chemical switchboard which regulates the brain's senses and behavior. Types of neurotransmitters include melatonin, seratonin, endorphins, cortisol, noradrenaline, melatonin, seratonin, endorphins, cortisol, noradrenaline

Melatonin - chemical which promotes sleep and is activated by calcium and darkness
Seratonin - low levels of this chemical are associated with aggression and anger; moderate levels- relaxation and sleep
Endorphin - chemical released in presence of pain, vigorous exercise and relaxation
Cortisol - found in saliva, this chemical regulates stress to protect our body from physical danger
Noradrenaline - leads to heightened awareness, rapid heart beat; puts body in fight or flight mode

PET Scan - (positron-emission tomography) new technology that allows scientists to see and measure the brain's activity

Plasticity - the brain's ability to develop and change in response to the demands of the environment

Pruning - the elimination of excess synapses or connections that creates a more powerful and efficient system of connections or pathways; pruning also allows the remaining synapses to function at a higher level

Synapse - a neuron connection made depending on the stimuli or signals from the brain

Wiring - the architectural design of the brain; the network of connections which allows thinking and learning

Information for this report was obtained from the Families & Work Institute, An Ounce of Prevention Fund, Dr. Dorothy Routh of Florida State University, and the national I Am Your Child campaign.