Advances in brain-imaging technology enable scientists to study brain development in greater detail than ever before. Such studies indicate that early childhood is a critical time for developing the brain functions necessary to handle information, express emotions normally, and become proficient in language. “Brain connections are being wired at an extraordinarily rapid rate in the early years, as the landscape of the brain is shaped by moment-to-moment interactions of genetic information and environmental stimuli,” reports Nation magazine.
Scientists believe that the majority of these connections, called synapses, are made in the first few years of life. This is when “a baby’s potential future wiring for intelligence, sense of self, trust and motivation for learning is laid down,” according to Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, a professional in the field of child development.
A baby’s brain grows dramatically in size, structure, and function during the first few years. In an environment that is rich in stimulation and learning experiences, synaptic connections multiply, creating a broad network of neural pathways in the brain. These pathways make thinking, learning, and reasoning possible.
It may be that the more stimulation an infant brain gets, the more nerve cells get turned on and the more connections are made between them. Interestingly, this stimulation is not merely intellectual, acquired through exposure to facts, figures, or language. Scientists have found that emotional stimulation is also needed. Research indicates that infants who are not held and touched and are not played with or stimulated will form fewer of these synaptic connections.
Nurturing and Potential
Eventually, as children get older, a sort of pruning takes place. The body appears to discard synaptic wiring that may be unnecessary. This could have a profound effect on a child’s potential. “If a child does not get the right kind of stimulus at the right age,” says brain researcher Max Cynader, “then the neurological circuits will not develop properly.” According to Dr. J. Fraser Mustard, the result can be lower IQ, poor verbal and mathematical skills, health problems as an adult, and even behavioral problems.
So it seems that the experiences a person has as an infant can have a definite effect on his adult life. Whether the person is resilient or fragile, whether he learns to think in abstract terms or is lacking in this ability, and whether he becomes empathetic or not can be influenced by his early childhood experiences. So the role of parents is especially important. “One of the most critical aspects of this early experience,” notes a pediatrician, “is a sensitive parenting figure.”
That may sound simple enough. Nurture and care for your children, and they will prosper. Unfortunately, parents know that understanding how to care for children properly is not always so simple. Effective parenting is not always intuitive.