By Angela Thomas
Author’s Note: This article and the next are two of the most important ones that I have written. The period of infancy has such potential and can go either way depending on the relationships and experiences a child has. Brain wiring affects children for life.
Peyton is almost four months old. Her growth and weight are on track and she has a mother who is good at reading her cues… there is not a lot of crying going on in her house. While some of you may think that the child is being spoiled, experts agree that she is being taught that she makes a difference. Children whose needs are ignored, learn that they have “no voice” and will either start acting out or stop communicating altogether.
The first four years of life, from conception to around a child’s third birthday, is the most critical period of a human’s development. During this time, researchers say, all things are possible – learning to walk, talk and fit into society are just a few of the accomplishments children are mastering.
It is during this time that the nerve cells within each child’s brain make important connections. These connections need to be reinforced over and over to make them “stick.” And, the number and organization of these connections are what enable the brain to do everything from recognize the letters of the alphabet to create and maintain relationships with other humans.
As a person matures, the brain physically changes due to outside experiences. But, during the first three years of life, with the bombardment of new experiences, more rapid changes occur than at any other time in a human’s life. It is at this time that the brain is at its most flexible and prepared to learn.
Researchers have determined that there are 10 basic necessities that an infant needs in order to help the brain grow. The first five are:
Infants are learning from about the time of conception. Interactions with people and objects are as necessary to the baby as protein, fat and vitamins. All are vital nutrients for the growing and developing brain. Different experiences will cause the brain to develop in different ways due to its plasticity. A real key to interaction is in matching the adult’s behavior to the needs of the child.
Of all the sensory experiences, touch is how the infant first knows he is loved. It is the source of comfort; it is reassuring in the face of strangeness. Touch literally sends signals to the brain telling it to grow (make connections). There is much research about infant massage. In preemies, massage causes faster growth, calmer babies and better development. Babies who are massaged daily are said to develop movement earlier, sleep more soundly and have less colic. While in utero, babies actually are “massaged” much of the time as a result of the mother’s physical mobility and movements. Infants need this experience to grow. For both the brain and the body, touch is a critical nutrient, as critical as vitamins. Touch lets the child know that “Yes, I am a wanted and it is worth survival.”
3. Stable Relationships
Infancy is like being in a foreign land where no one can understand you or speak your language. Infants need a loving, trusting adult to act as the interpreter of life’s experiences otherwise those experiences have no meaning.
Studies about the production of a stress hormone called “cortisol” have been done by Dr. Megan Gunnar of the University of Minnesota. If levels of cortisol get too high, the heart rate, digestive system and ability to think are affected.
According to Gunnar, the brain is the major target of cortisol. Frequent and prolonged exposure to elevated cortisol may affect the development of brain areas involved in memory, negative emotions, and attention regulation. Secure emotional relationships with sensitive and responsive caregivers may protect the developing brain and thereby reduce later stress reactivity.
A loving, consistent relationship can offset even the most stressful situation. Without it, growth can by stunted both mentally and physically. Every time a child learns something new, the brain works seven times harder than normal. This in itself is a stressful event.
So, the early secure relationship acts as a prevention for difficulties in handling stress later in childhood. Children with a history of secure care come to expect their worlds to be controllable and predictable. These expectations may provide further stress inoculation.
4. Safe, Healthy Environment
Safe, child-proof, and toxin free environments allow children opportunities for independent discovery. At the base of the hierarchy of needs described by Abraham Maslow, is the need for food, water and shelter. The second level of his pyramid describes the need for security, and freedom from danger. According to Maslow, these needs have to be met before a child can proceed to higher levels of the hierarchy which include establishing relationships with others and learning.
5. Self Esteem
The root of all emotional feeling is in the brain stem. It takes nearly one and a half years for a child to learn how to control her feelings. How well she does this depends solely on parents, their behavior and their reaction towards the child.
Dr. T. Barry Brazelton, a well-known American pediatrician, has said that he can recognize by eight months which children expect themselves to succeed and which do not. Children mirror what is around them – like sponges, they absorb. If a child is in a violent environment, he needs a calm, nurturing and predictable caregiver to balance his fears and to feel secure. In fact, a child’s future relationships are based on his primary relationship, usually the child’s mother. If she is consistent with responses to the child he will grow up trusting and will expect others to be trustworthy. If a mother is inconsistent meeting her child’s needs, he will grow up cautious of others and expecting of disappointments.