Your baby’s brain develops rapidly during the first three years of life. According to Factsforlifeglobal.org, a collaboration between the United Nations, UNICEF and World Health Organisation, among others, your baby’s brain grows as she engages all of her senses to see, hear, taste, smell and feel the world around her. Each time she engages one of her senses, a neural connection is made in her brain. Repeated new experiences help make these connections, which in turn, will shape how she feels, thinks, behaves and learns, both now and in the future.
Scientists believe the brain, considered to be the most immature of all organs at birth, continues to grow and develop after birth. Protein, good fats, vitamins and minerals are equally as important for the growing brain, as are interactions with others. Different experiences cause the brain to develop in different ways.
As her brain develops, so do her emotions. How those close to her react to her and around her, help create the person she will be. Equally, your child’s brain can adapt and change in response to the environment she is exposed to – it’s nature vs nurture.
This isn’t to say your child won’t be influenced by individual genetic differences, but science does show experiences can affect how these genes are expressed. Good early childhood experiences can promote healthy brain development, while negative experiences with have the opposite effect. According to research, very young children can experience stress if they are exposed to abuse or violence, neglected or live in families with severe mental health concerns, such as depression or substance abuse. These stressors, in turn, can lead to cognitive, social and emotional delays, as well as behavioural problems in later life.
Martha Farah, director of the Centre for Neuroscience and Society at the University of Pennsylvania, looked at how experiences in childhood could influence the development of the brain, for her study presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans. Her team also looked at “parental nurturance”, how much love, support and care the child received from the parent. The long-term study reviewed the children at age eight, and again at 17 and 19. The study found that “those early years are especially influential”. The research again highlights the impact that family and friends have in helping children to develop cognitive, social and emotional skills.
Here are some ways you can help “programme” your baby for the better:
Negative language can affect your baby’s emotional, cognitive and social development – before she evens starts to speak
Your baby understands more than you think, and she will react to the tone of voice as well as facial expressions. Try to avoid negative language, as well as yelling or arguing around her as much as possible.
Giving her cuddles can improve her IQ
Cuddling your baby, particularly skin-to-skin, not only helps to calm her, but has been linked to higher IQ levels later in life. A study, published in Current Biology, reveals that “supportive touch” and cuddles impact how your baby’s brain processes touch, which is necessary for learning and social-emotional connections and is considered to be a building block in communication. Plus, there are benefits for you as well, as you feel happier and more relaxed.
Too much sugar can lead to a sugar addiction later in life
Did you know you can become addicted to sugar? Research shows that just like drugs, your brain will require more sugar to get the same pleasure response to it. A high sugar intake is linked to diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity. Make sure you teach your child healthy habits from a young age and be careful how much sugary products you introduce your toddler to. Rather stick to sweet fruits and veggies and avoid processed sugar.
Extended periods of time apart from your child may lead to anxiety in later life
Attachment research has found that children who thrive need to feel safe and soothed. Toddlers who are separated from one or both of their parents for extended periods of time may develop anxiety later in life. This doesn’t mean avoiding daycare or a weekend away, but finding the right balance and ensuring your baby feels safe and loved when you are around. It’s all essential to make sure your little one is surrounded by a loving support system when you aren’t around.
Toys and clothes can have an impact on gender identity
Multiple studies have found how gender can be influenced from a young age. The toys your child plays with and the colours of her clothes can form stereotypical views of gender and identity. There is a strong drive to raise children as gender neutral or “genderless”, such as Kate Hudson with her two sons and new baby daughter, who she says she raises to be individuals in a genderless approach. Angelina Jolie is another celebrity who has embraced this for several years, with her daughter Shiloh Jolie-Pitt (now 12). Angelina was quoted as saying they have allowed Shiloh to follow her own gender expression from a young age. “You don’t know who your children are until they show you who they are. They are just becoming whoever they want to be,” she said.
Kim Bell is a wife, mother of two teenagers and a lover of research and the way words flow and meld together. She has been in the media industry for over 20 years, and yet still learns more about life from her children everyday.