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What Affects The Way Children’s Brains Become Wired

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The Importance Of Early Childhood Experiences For Brain Development

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Children are born ready to learn, and have many skills to learn over many years. They depend on parents, family members, and other caregivers as their first teachers to develop the right skills to become independent and lead healthy and successful lives. How the brain grows is strongly affected by the childs experiences with other people and the world. Nurturing care for the mind is critical for brain growth. Children grow and learn best in a safe environment where they are protected from neglect and from extreme or chronic stressexternal icon with plenty of opportunities to play and explore.

Parents and other caregivers can support healthy brain growth by speaking to, playing with, and caring for their child. Children learn best when parents take turns when talking and playing, and build on their childs skills and interests. Nurturing a child by understanding their needs and responding sensitively helps to protect childrens brains from stress. Speaking with children and exposing them to books, stories, and songs helps strengthen childrens language and communication, which puts them on a path towards learning and succeeding in school.

When children are at risk, tracking childrens development and making sure they reach developmental milestones can help ensure that any problems are detected early and children can receive the intervention they may need.

Learn more about supporting early childhood experiences:

Support Children And Caregivers To Understand The Link Between Traumatic Events And Cognitive Difficulties

Carers and children need an explanation for the difficulties they may be encountering. Providing an explanation for gaps or deficits in learning, organisation skills and memory can empower both children and caregivers if it leads to more realistic self-identity and a more optimistic outlook on the possibility of learning new skills. Linking pre-care experiences and poorly developed cognitive skills can help carers to persist in the face of challenging behaviour.

Providing support for their caregivers is also an important way to support the child. Caregivers who are raising children with cognitive difficulties can experience significant strain that can impact on their emotional availability and the quality of care provided . This is significant, as synchronous, nurturing caregiving has also been shown to improve children’s cognitive functioning . For example, foster parents trained in Attachment & Bio-Behavioral Catch-Up, a program focused on responsive caregiving, were able to improve cognitive skills such as perspective-taking in children .

Caregiver emotional regulation has been linked to children’s capacity for cognitive flexibility in children exposed to intimate partner violence . In the same study, positive parenting5 was linked to children’s capacity for organisation and planning, suggesting that children’s interaction with caregivers can be central to the development of cognitive skills following trauma.

The Brain Is Structured For Language

Neuroscientists tell us that a baby is born with millions of brain cells, all he or she will ever need. Each brain cell has branching appendages, called dendrites, that reach out to make connections with other brain cells. The places where brain cells connect are called synapses. When electrical signals pass from brain cell to brain cell, they cross the synapse between the cells.

When synapses are stimulated over and over, that pattern of neural connections is hard-wired in the brain. It becomes an efficient, permanent pathway that allows signals to be transmitted quickly and accurately. Advances in brain-imaging technology in recent years have confirmed this process.

New technology has allowed us to see that there are physical differences in a childs brain that has been appropriately stimulated, versus one that has suffered lack of stimulation. Connections that are not stimulated by repeated experiences atrophy, or fade away. It is truly a use-it-or-lose-it situation.

We know that reorganization of the connections between brain cells after birth is highly impacted by experiences provided by the childs environment. Parents play an invaluable role in influencing the childs cognitive, language, motor, and social emotional development. It is through providing repeated, positive experiences for their child that parents have a lasting impact on his or her childs brain development.

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The Nature Of Early Brain Development

At birth, the human brain is still preparing for full operation. The brain’s neurons exist mostly apart from one another. The brain’s task for the first 3 years is to establish and reinforce connections with other neurons. These connections are formed when impulses are sent and received between neurons. Axons send messages and dendrites receive them. These connections form synapses.

Figure 1Neurons mature when axons send mesages and dendrites receive them to form synapses.

As a child develops, the synapses become more complex, like a tree with more branches and limbs growing. During the first 3 years of life, the number of neurons stays the same and the number of synapses increases. After age 3, the creation of synapses slows until about age 10.

Between birth and age 3, the brain creates more synapses than it needs. The synapses that are used a lot become a permanent part of the brain. The synapses that are not used frequently are eliminated. This is where experience plays an important role in wiring a young child’s brain. Because we want children to succeed, we need to provide many positive social and learning opportunities so that the synapses associated with these experiences become permanent.

How the social and physical environments respond to infants and toddlers plays a big part in the creation of synapses. The child’s experiences are the stimulation that sparks the activity between axons and dendrites and creates synapses.

Early Childhood Brain Development Has Lifelong Impact

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Periodically, well be featuring content from our partners at First Things First, an organization created by Arizona voters that partners with families and communities to help our states young children be ready for success in kindergarten and beyond.

From birth to age five, a childs brain develops more rapidly than at any other time in life. And research has shown that a childs experiences in these early years positive or negative, nurtured or neglected directly affect how the brain develops, with long-term impact on the childs health and ability to learn and succeed in school and life.

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How You Can Support Healthy Brain Development

The best way to keep your developing child healthy is to keep yourself healthy. This means making sure that you are well nourished and taking a daily prenatal vitamin that contains folic acid and DHA. As for what to eat during pregnancy, eating a wide variety of healthy fruits, vegetables, and proteins is sufficient. Make sure to keep your prenatal appointments so that your doctor can keep track of your health through things like ensuring that you are gaining weight appropriately.

While there is no reliable research that confirms playing classical music for your baby makes them any smarter, some studies show that the fetus will react to music. So go ahead, sing to your baby, express your love and care for the baby, and engage their developing senses. However, dont put headphones on your baby bump, as this may be too loud for their sensitive little ears and stress them out. Amniotic fluid actually conducts sound quite well, so they can hear the music youre listening to on your radio.

Early Brain Development: When Things Go Wrong

Early development does not always proceed in a way that encourages child curiosity, creativity and self-confidence. For some children, early experiences are neither supportive nor predictable. The synapses that develop in the brain are created in response to chronic stress, or other types of abuse and neglect. And, when children are vulnerable to these risks, problematic early experiences can lead to poor outcomes.

For example, some children are born with the tendency to be irritable, impulsive and insensitive to emotions in others. When these child characteristics combine with adult caregiving that is withdrawn and neglectful, children’s brains can wire in ways that may result in unsympathetic child behavior. When these child characteristics combine with adult caregiving that is angry and abusive, children’s brains can wire in ways that result in violent and overly aggressive child behavior. If the home environment teaches children to expect danger instead of security, then poor outcomes may occur.

Adult depression can also interfere with infant brain activity. When caregivers suffer from untreated depression, they may fail to respond sensitively to infant cries or smiles. Adult emotional unavailability is linked with poor infant emotional expression. Infants with depressed caregivers do not receive the type of cognitive and emotional stimulation that encourages positive early brain development.

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Toddlers Screens And Reality

Maybe theyre watching the latest episode of Peppa Pig on the family iPad. Or shrieking with delight at the grinning face of Dad, Skyping from a conference halfway around the world. For infants and toddlers, screens can be just as attention-grabbing if not more so as they are for the rest of us. But some recent research suggests that the little ones might not be taking away much information from those experiences.

In general, under the age of 3, its relatively difficult for children to learn from video or from another kind of screen than it is to learn from another person, says Vanderbilt University psychologist Georgene Troseth.

The bulk of research shows that, unlike older children, infants and toddlers are less likely to learn from a screen than from a dynamic, face-to-face interaction a phenomenon known as video deficit. As early as the 1980s, researchers discovered that children learn language skills better from shows such as Sesame Street if an adult is watching with them and reinforcing the material. A 2007 study, published in Media Psychology, found that toddlers struggled to learn new words simply by watching television.

Some studies have suggested, though, that video chat in which parents interact with their child in real time is different. In a 2018 study, Troseth, who specializes in early childhood development, wanted to see if receiving social cues on a screen was enough for toddlers to learn new words.

Seven To 18 Months: Caring Relationships And The Brain During The Exploration Stage

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Between 7 and 18 months of age, babies are driven to search out their local environment, objects, and people to build a primitive definition of self and to test the strength and use of relationships. Using their emerging motor skills to explore, they venture from the safety of the physical closeness of their caregivers and test the strength of relationships. They come and go while carefully observing their caregivers attentiveness and emotional availability. They are, in a sense, practicing independence . Also at this stage, babies brains are preparing for a life that does not revolve entirely around physical proximity to the caregiver. Based on their caregivers reactions to their actions, babies and toddlers begin to hold in mind lessons learned, such as which independent explorations are considered socially appropriate and which are not, and what activities are dangerous, like playing near an ungated stairway.

Babies communication and language skills increase dramatically during the exploration stage. Although babies can say only a few words, they come to understand many more . The words they hear from adults stimulate the language development pathways in the brain. It is not only the words that matter, but also the larger patterns of communicationnot just what is said, but how it is said and received . After repeated exchanges with their caregivers, infants start to build a primitive sense of self. They come to expect:

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What Can You Do To Help

There are a few things you can do to help support your babys brain development, but its important to remember as long as youre healthy, theres not a whole lot you need to change to allow your childs brain to grow normally. As always, its important that you consult your doctor with any questions about your health and the babys health, and to carefully consider their advice.

The Nurture Of Early Brain Development

Infants and toddlers learn about themselves and their world during interactions with others. Brain connections that lead to later success grow out of nurturant, supportive and predictable care. This type of caregiving fosters child curiosity, creativity and self-confidence. Young children need safety, love, conversation and a stimulating environment to develop and keep important synapses in the brain.

Caring for infants and toddlers is mostly about building relationships and making the most of everyday routines and experiences. The Creative Curriculum for Infants and Toddlers says that during the first 3 years of life, infants and toddlers look to caregivers for answers to these questions:

  • Do people respond to me?
  • Can I depend on other people when I need them?
  • Am I important to others?
  • Am I competent?
  • Do people enjoy being with me?
  • What should I be afraid of?
  • Is it safe for me to show how I feel?
  • What things interest me?

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When Does A Fetus Develop A Healthy Brain

Neuron production in the fetus begins in week 3 post-conception during the embryonic period.

As neurons are produced, they migrate to different brain areas to form rudimentary structures of the developing brain, central nervous system, and peripheral nervous system.

This is a period of rapid neurological development and brain growth to create cortical and subcortical structures.

When Does Your Brain Stop Developing

How to Encourage a Child

So, at what age is a childs brain fully developed?

On average, the brain is fully developed by age 25. Although an individuals brain growth trajectory can vary slightly, most peoples healthy brain development is complete in their mid-20s.

The prefrontal cortex is the last brain region to develop.

However, it doesnt mean the brain stops changing.

Forming and changing interconnections in our brain is an ongoing process that takes places throughout our lives. But as we age, they do so at a much slower rate.

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A Pediatricians Guide To Screen Time

When you hand a child an iPad, says John Hutton, a pediatrician and researcher at Cincinnati Childrens Hospital, youre not just giving them a toy. Its a really powerful tool, he says. Its more powerful than the computers that sent rockets to space 30 years ago. And despite how quickly children might seem to adjust to new tech, that doesnt mean they know how or when to use it.

Here are a few tips from Hutton on helping kids navigate our increasingly wired world:

Remember toddlers are not small grown-ups. At different ages, childrens needs change along with their brains and emotional development. And while children under the age of 2 might be drawn in by flashing screens, theyre still not learning much from them at that age.

Go slow. For preschoolers, gradually introduce different types of media that are slower-paced and encourage learning. From there, work your way up to more challenging yet still age-appropriate content.

Help children choose their own contenT. While its important to limit your childs choices, give them some control over what theyre watching. For example, ask them if theyd rather watch Cinderella or Cars rather than letting them go hog wild.

Keep devices in a central location. You should be able to monitor how theyre being used. In other words, dont let them disappear from view. I would never let it go into a childs bedroom, says Hutton.

Critical Periods For Learning Language

Critical periods in brain development accommodate the development of specific skills, language being one of these. During certain times in the childs life, the brain is active in forming connections for specific abilities.

While critical periods are prime times for the development of specific neural synapses, skills can still be learned after a window of opportunity has closed, but with greater time and effort. It is during these critical periods that lack of stimulation or negative experiences can have the most impact.

Parents can support their childs brain development for language during these times by providing experiences that allow the child to practice emerging skills. Opportunities during the course of the day to engage in face-to-face interaction, hear language being spoken, listen to the written word read aloud, and practice associating objects with words provide language experiences without undue stress or overstimulation.

One of the first windows of opportunity for language comes early in life. We know that infants start out able to distinguish the sound of all languages, but that by six months of age they are no longer able to recognize sounds that are not heard in their native tongue. As infants hear the patterns of sound in their own language, a different cluster of neurons in the auditory cortex of the brain responds to each sound. By six months of age, infants will have difficulty picking out sounds they have not heard repeated often.

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How Brain Development Affects Physical Capabilities

Lots of muscle tone isnt much use without a robust guidance system, which is why good brain development goes hand in hand with good physical development. Your brain expertly determines which muscles need to contract and which need to relax at what time in order to make your body move in the way youd like it to. When your baby is born, they dont yet have the ability to control their bodies the way you or I do, but theyll start to take part in vigorous physical activity the moment they can do so.

How Many Brain Cells Does A Child Have

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An infants brain at birth has roughly 86 billion neurons1, almost all the neurons the human brain will ever have2.

Although a newborn has about the same number of neurons as an adult, it has only 25% of the adult size.

Thats because infants neurons are connected by only roughly 50 trillion neural connections, called synapses, whereas an adult brain has about 500 trillion of them3.

This network of synaptic connections will ultimately determine the development of behavior and cognitive functions.

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