Early Brain Development

When I was in high school I took a psychology class in which we learned about the debate of Nature versus Nurture. At the time, it was unclear which one was the dominant factor in a person’s development. Were intelligence level and emotional stability based on inherited traits, or did the environment in which one grew up in influence how he or she would turn out as an adult?

These interesting questions are ones that researchers have finally been able to answer, or at least provide more insight. Everything about us stems from our brains, and although most of our brains cells, called nerve cells, are formed before birth, the majority of connections, or synapses, are made during infancy and early childhood. Babies are born with more than 100 billion nerve cells and these nerve cells need new experiences to form pathways. And pathways are not formed based on your genes, but instead on early experiences and interactions with your environment.

Children’s experiences with their environment are shaped from the five senses: vision, hearing, smell, touch and taste. These senses take in every aspect of the world and help the brain build connections that influence a child’s learning abilities. The more a child experiences, the more connections are formed. When experiences are repeated again and again, these connections become permanent. The brain has an unlimited potential for creating connections, but growth is the fastest and most critical during the first three years of a child’s life. From newborn to age six, 75% of brain development is completed; by the age of 12, brain development has slowed significantly.

Children who are extremely gifted or talented in certain areas are usually not born that way. For example, a child who knows how to multiply and divide by the age of five is a product of their parent’s dedication to their education, not just a natural phenomenon. Even parents belonging to the lowest socioeconomic status and who have not completed high school can raise a child who has an extremely high IQ score. All they have to do is invest time into their child and provide them with ample opportunities to stimulate their brain. It doesn’t require expensive toys – just exploring different textures, making new sounds and examining the world around them helps babies and toddlers form brain connections that make them more intelligent.

What are the most crucial aspects of healthy brain development in early life? Parental and caregiver attention and love is essential to normal and healthy growth. Young children need positive encouragement and feedback from adults whom they know and trust. Their brains are also stimulated by talking, singing, playing and reading. Talking and reading to children provides an important foundation for learning language early on in life. When given the opportunity, a child who is in kindergarten can learn to read well beyond their age. Believe it or not, a three year old’s brain is twice as active as an adult’s, having formed about 1,000 trillion connections. By the time the child is 11, the brain begins to weed out extra connections that are not used, leaving only the most powerful and efficient connections.

Parents should be aware of how critical it is to provide positive learning environments for children starting at birth. The right kind of nurture will ensure that a child grows up smart, responsible, emotionally stable and with good social abilities that will lead to a successful future.