Early childhood is a time of tremendous brain development. The young developing brain literally changes shape and size in response to everything encountered in the early years. New environments, life experiences, caretakers and relationships can all affect the way complex brain circuits are wired. This network of synaptic connections will ultimately determine brain function and the development of behaviour. Even if those early “conversations” with your newborn may seem a little one-sided at first, you’re building your baby’s brain by recognising, acknowledging and responding to their cues.
This rapid brain growth is key to physiological and behavioural functions and capacities, including physical abilities, early language skills, learning and memory, and emotional development. The period between birth to the age of two – often called the first 1,000 days – is particularly crucial.
Substantial brain growth occurs in utero, and at birth babies’ brains are just over a quarter the size of the adult brain. By the first year, the brain has already more than doubled in volume, and it reaches 80% of adult size by the age of two!
Before birth, certainly by the second trimester, many parts of your baby’s hearing system are functional. There is evidence that sound recognition and learning occur in utero. For example, newborns tend to prefer their mother’s voice to a stranger’s, their mother’s native language to another language, and even a story that had been read along during gestation compared to a new story. So do take the time to talk, read and even sing to your baby during this time.
After birth, repeated skin-to-skin contact stimulates many physiological changes in both mother and newborn that help establish bonding immediately and in the longer term. Skin-to-skin care promotes the release of maternal oxytocin, a hormone that plays a role in social interaction and bonding by countering stress responses and promoting growth.
Infancy (0-2 years)
Consistent affectionate touch from a parent has established benefits for the infant including regulating stress responses and immune function and promoting psychosocial development and secure attachment. For young infants, simple games such as copycat, peekaboo and naming objects can help them to focus attention, use working memory, build language connections, develop self-control and build trust in the adult.
Early Childhood (2-5 years)
Spending meaningful time with a young child in a way that involves their growing interest helps promote bonding. A good example is shared book reading. This experience can be enhanced if the parent and child review the book content together with questions, answers and comments. As children are read to, they begin to strengthen their language skills. For example, if they repeatedly hear a word pronounced, their brains will register that pronunciation.
Although each child develops at their own cognitive rate, the best way to ensure your child’s brain power is off to a good start is by meeting their needs and giving them endless amounts of love. Your love alone has the power to fuel your child’s early learning and brain development! However, take heed that developmental milestones are something to be aware of, but not obsessed over. Don’t forget that every child learns at their own rate!