The last column was devoted to the importance of understanding child development as a parent. The focus this week will be on infancy. Infancy is defined as the first 18 months to two years of life. There is no more important time for a developing child. The first few years of a child’s life are crucial to their brain development. Research shows that brain development in infancy and early childhood affects children emotionally, socially, and intellectually for the remainder of their lives.
At birth, the average baby’s brain is about one fourth of the size it will grow to as an adult. It doubles in size in the first year and will be almost 80 percent by age three. At age five, it will be at 90 percent.
The brain is the command center of the human body. And while an infant has all of the brain cells, or neurons, that it will have for the rest of his/her life, it’s the connections between these cells that really make the brain work. Brain connections are critical for learning, movement, growth, social and emotional development and more. During infancy and toddlerhood at least one million new connections (synapses) are made every second, more than at any other time in life. This is an extremely important time for your child’s brain to develop the connections he/she will need to be healthy, capable and successful adults.
How are brain connections built? Starting from birth, children develop brain connections through their everyday experiences. They’re built through positive interactions with their parents and caregivers and by using their senses to interact with the world. The amount and quality of care, stimulation and interaction they receive in their early years makes all the difference.
From the moment a child is born they send signals to their parents other caregivers through smiling, crying, and cooing. Each of these actions is like an invitation – an opportunity for the caregiver to be responsive to the child’s needs. This is often called “serve and return.” This process is fundamental to the wiring of the brain. Parents and caregivers who give attention, respond and interact with their child are literally building the child’s brain. That’s why it’s so important to talk, sing, read and play with young children from the day they’re born, to give them opportunities to explore their physical world, and to provide safe, stable and nurturing environments.
By making every interactions and moments to provide “serve and return” actions, you build a foundation for your child’s learning, behavior and health! Here are some to try:
• Notice when your child is focusing on something (pointing, looking, making sound or facial expression) and pay attention – notice and comment on what they are paying attention to.
• Support and encourage your infant and toddler. Offer comfort with a hug or soothing words, play with them, and acknowledge them (attend and respond).
• Talk to them! When you notice what a child is seeing, doing, feeling and name it, you help them build brain connections.
• When you do notice and respond to your infant or toddler, give them a minute to respond. This gives them time to start processing – they are building connections!
• Notice times for your child to take the lead (in changing toys, look at something new, etc.) and make a comment about what your notice.
Some overall tips for parenting your infant for healthy development include:
• Talk to your child often (using a regular voice).
• Answer your baby when they make sounds by repeating sounds and adding word.
• Sing to your baby and play music.
• Spend time loving and cuddling your infant.
• Play with them!
• Place them in an area where they can move and explore safely.
• Encourage their curiosity and ability by recognizing and naming objects. Take field trips together.
• READ to your infant – at least one time and day and increase the times, as they get older.
• If your infant or toddler gets tired or fussy, take a break by doing something else.
• If your baby is restless, remove some of the stimulators in his/her environment (noise, bright lights, number of people, etc.).
• Praise them and give them positive attention.
• Try to distract your baby when they are moving towards and touching things they should not.
• NO screen time before two (American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies do not watch screen media before two).
• Take care of yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally. Keep your screen time in check!
• Make sure to remove your child from stressful situations.
Next week we will focus on toddlerhood/early childhood. Happy parenting!