Brain Development - Health and nutrition matter, but what about early experiences?
There is lots of research and science to back up the theory that health and nutrition are crucially important in the brain development of a baby. This is not disputed. However, what is becoming increasingly clear from research is that early experience plays a fundamental role as well. The interactions that a baby has, and the environment in which it is raised, together with life experiences, all contribute to the growth of the brain – healthy or otherwise.
When does brain development start?
‘A baby is born with over 100 billion brain cells’! The brain is very busy during the nine months of conception, growing, multiplying cells and forming the structures that will last for a whole life time. When ‘a baby is born its brain is only about 25% formed. By the age of 3, 90% will have been developed’. [i] Clearly the first three years of life are crucial for the development of the brain. But, is this brain development going to have a healthy and strong foundation or not? What makes the difference?
What conditions ensure healthy brain development?
Good nutrition and effective health care will positively affect the development of the brain. At the same time, experiences, interactions with adults, and environment all play a huge role. From birth children have the majority of the nerve cells or neurons that they will need for the rest of their life. However, these cells need to be connected by complex networks to help them develop in to thought processes and actions. In their early year’s babies develop these connections and networks at a rapid rate.
But, isn’t brain development all down to genes?
Our genes are responsible for the basic structure of our brains….and this is out of our control. However, the formation of the connections within the brain, and the strengthening, or weakening, of these connections, is affected by the interactions between the baby and the parents and carers. Every time a child gets a positive response from someone with a smile or a gurgle, the brain continues to grow. Every time a parent reads a story to a child, and points out the pictures, or sings a lullaby, more synapses are formed…building up a strong and healthy network in the brain.
These processes lay the foundation for all future learning and development. So, it is really a combination of genes and experience which work together to create a strong and healthy brain. The first 1000 days of life (from conception until the age of 2) are recognised as the most critical time for these connections to be influenced. The way a baby is treated during these first 1000 days, and the experiences and interactions that they have will have a long term effect on them. If a child is loved, is played with, is encouraged and appropriately challenged, and is offered a range of interesting and stimulating activities – then they will be emotionally secure and their brains will be stronger and more ready to learn.
So, is the development of my baby’s brain all down to me now then?
Don’t panic. It does sound a bit daunting. But the reality is that most parents and carers are already doing a lot to help their children build and grow strong brains with everyday interactions and activities. Most of us do this without even realising what a positive effect we are having on our child. However, understanding the importance of the environment you provide for your child and the experiences you provide for them – such as talking to them, singing with them, cuddling them, looking at them and responding to them –will make all the difference.
When you play with your baby, you and your baby can be just playing for no other reason than for the fun of it, there is great benefit in that. However, if you understand what learning your child is getting out of the play, it helps you engage in a different way, it helps you guide the language development and the skill development of your child. Helping to build stronger pathways in the brain and helping them build strong foundations for learning.
What would this look like in practice?
Take for example sitting at the dinner table and telling stories, this might seem like just something that you might or might not do, however, when you understand that it is actually helping your child learn vocabulary, which will ultimately help them with their reading, and that they are also gaining the ability to ask questions, listen, take turns, speak in a group, all of which are skills that will help with literacy. Not to mention the social and emotional and mental health benefits they will gain from being with the whole family to eat a meal, and that this can start from the earliest of days of life, suddenly you might look at telling stories at the dinner table in a different way! You are however, still just telling stories around the dinner table.
If you have found this article interesting and would like to know more, the Oliiki app is full of over 1000 age appropriate activities (from conception to two years) that are simple to do and show you how to get the learning out of the play that you do with your child. It helps you understand what your child is learning through the play, so that you can engage with them at a whole new level and help your child to develop a strong and healthy brain and prepare them for future learning as they approach school age. It is so important so keep up the good work.
If you have found this article interesting and want to know more, or you have a question, please do get in touch with Oliiki, we would love to hear what you have to say, either via Facebook or our website. You can also find us on twitter, and LinkedIn.
[i] Journals.sagepub.com. (2018). New Views on the Young Brain: Offerings from Developmental Psychology to Early Childhood Education - Di Catherwood, 2000. [online] Available at: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.2304/ciec.2000.1.1.4 [Accessed 16 Oct. 2018].