When a baby is born, her brain is about a-quarter the size of the brain she will have as an adult. Many of her brain cells are waiting to be connected. They get connected by being used. If they aren’t used, they disappear.
She will undergo an amazing period of development in her first three years of life. She will produce more than a million neural connections each second.
Her brain development is influenced by many factors, including her relationships, experiences and environment.
In recent years we have learned more and more about the importance of the early years of a child’s life. Here are some of the things we’ve discovered:
• The brain never stops changing throughout a person’s life.
• The most intense period of growth of the brain is during the first three years.
• Even at age 3, a child’s brain is twice as active as an adult’s brain.
• A child’s brain develops based on her genetics and her experience.
• The quality of relationships and experiences in the first three years has a deep and lasting impact on how the brain becomes “wired.”
• This early wiring of the brain sets the foundation for development in every aspect of her life.
• Brain development and behavior are bound together; they continually influence each other.
• Each brain can develop in many different ways depending on genetics, experience, relationships, health and nutrition.
• As a parent, you need to learn what you can do in everyday moments to help your baby develop healthy brain connections.
The importance of what you do as a parent begins earlier than we used to think it did. This is not something that should cause you anxiety. It is an opportunity to make parenting more rewarding than ever while still being one of the most exciting and joyful opportunities a parent will ever have.
We now know the brain begins forming early in your baby’s pre-natal life in fact, just three weeks after she was conceived.
While everyone’s brains continue to change, the baby’s brain is far more impressionable in these early days. This is both positive and negative. On the positive side, it means that young children’s brains are more open to learning and enriching influences. On the negative side, it also means that young children’s brains are more vulnerable to developmental problems should their environment prove to be impoverished or un-nurturing.
This is where you, the parent, come in.
Scientists have not discovered special tricks for improving the natural wiring phase in a child’s brain development. The goal of parents is to provide normal, loving, responsive caregiving. That seems to provide a baby with the ideal environment for encouraging their own exploration. This is the best kind of learning.
The one form of stimulation that has been shown to make a difference is language. Infants and children who parents talk with, read to, and have lots of verbal interaction show somewhat more advanced linguistic skills than children who are not as verbally engaged by their caregivers.
Because language is fundamental to most of the rest of cognitive development, this simple action — talking and listening to your child — is one of the best ways to make the most of his or her critical brain-building years.
So enjoy your baby. Talk with her. Read her books. Listen to her. You are building a very special person so make every day count (see www.zertothree.org).
Cynthia Martin is the founder of the First Teacher program and former executive director of Parenting Matters Foundation, which publishes newsletters for parents, caregivers and grandparents. Email to [email protected].