In the first few years of life, a child’s brain is a living map, with more than 1 million new neural connections being formed every second.
Imagine roads and highways reaching out toward the sprouting rooftops of distant towns and cities, mountains pushing up, oceans unfurling like cloth, sparkling and blue. As an infant grows, this profusion of industry becomes more regulated.
In a process sometimes called “bloom and prune,” the brain trims connections and streamlines circuits, creating more efficient sensory pathways. These will be the sturdy conduits for vision and hearing and, later, language and higher cognitive functions. With more than 90 percent of a child’s brain development occurring before age 5, it’s a period of exuberant connection and infinite possibility. There are many ways for parents and caregivers to play an active role in helping to ensure optimal brain health and development.
“Environmental stimulation is crucial for the developing brain,” says Dr. Jonathan Auth, of Sea View Pediatrics in Irvine. “And this begins immediately after birth.”
In the early months of life, the boundaries of a newborn’s world are drawn by the arms of his or her parents or guardians. Numerous studies, including one headed by Dr. Tallie Z. Baram at UC Irvine, find that touch provides not only comfort, but also promotes cognitive function, builds resilience to stress and improves memory.
To work on what is called the “serve and return” relationship between parents or caregivers and children, it’s important to take time to be attentive to an infant’s needs. They have limited ways of getting your attention, so be an emotional detective, alert to even the smallest of cues. Respond to their sounds with sounds of your own. Attend to signs of distress and soothe with cuddling, gentle rocking, massage and direct eye contact. These simple, loving actions not only deepen the parent-child connection and ensure a sense of safety, but also spark brain growth.
“I encourage parents to talk and sing to newborns right away,” says Dr. Auth, “And get in the habit of keeping up an ongoing narration of daily activities.”
Dr. Mary K. Fagan, assistant professor at Chapman University’s Crean College of Health and Behavior Sciences, explains that “although word knowledge and development build across the lifespan, early delays in the number of words an infant hears can…