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Infant brain development: Making the research work for early childhood programs

Do you ever wonder how much money people are making from the frenzy of gimmicks and techniques advertised to increase a baby’s brain power?
Do you fear for teachers and caregivers who don’t know what to believe about how infants develop?
Are you concerned that parents will look elsewhere for child care if you don’t provide the latest and greatest?
Since 1997 we have seen an increased public awareness of ongoing research on early brain development. You may have read numerous articles and heard news reports about the latest research and wondered, “Where do I start?”

What research shows
Early brain development focuses on children from the prenatal period to age 3. Current research shows that the quality of children’s interactions and experiences determine their emotional, social, and intellectual development. Those early years are key in predicting ultimate success in school and life . Researchers agree that we can support healthy development of the brain in three ways: 1) good prenatal care, 2) warm and loving attachments between young children and adults, and 3) positive stimulation from the time of birth.
At birth, the child’s brain contains 100 billion brain cells, or neurons. Few of these are connected, like those that govern involuntary reflexes such as startling and sucking. These neuron connections are made through life experiences and attachments with adults during a baby’s first few years. These connections are called . As more and more connections are formed, the brain becomes a complex network of synapses (Gramann, 1998). This is referred to as the of the brain. The number of synapses develops rapidly during early childhood (Stephens, 1999). A 3-year-old has twice as many connections as an adult. The synapses that are not nurtured and used repeatedly are pruned back and lost (Shore, 1997).
In order for these connections to remain active and become permanent, they must be strengthened through repetition (Stephens, 1999). These experiences in the early years interact with each child’s genetic makeup to determine not only how they think, but whether they become mentally retarded, sick, aggressive, or violent. Intellectual, emotional, social, and physical experiences are laid down on the trillions of connections between brain cells that make learning and memory possible (Kotulak, 1996). Rima Shore, in states:

New knowledge about brain function should end the “nature or nurture” debate once and for all. A great deal of new research leads to this conclusion: How humans develop and learn depends critically and continually on the interplay between nature (an individual’s genetic endowment) and nurture (the nutrition, surroundings, care, and stimulation, and teaching that are provided or withheld)…. And both are crucial.

The importance of attachment
You may be asking yourself, “What is attachment?” and “What is bonding?” Dr. Bruce Perry, renowned professor of child psychiatry, has done extensive research into infant brain development. He defines as “the nature and quality of the relationship between an infant and a primary caregiver.” We often hear the term in conjunction with attachment. Dr. Perry describes bonding as “the process of forming an attachment.” A caregiver can strengthen the relationship with an infant by holding, rocking, singing, feeding, gazing, kissing, and other nurturing behaviors. These are all bonding experiences.
Scientists believe the most important factor in creating attachment is positive physical contact (Perry, 1998). Children who are touched, held, and played with regularly develop brains that are larger, with stronger connections between brain cells, than those who are not . The campaign has been an important catalyst for public education in the field of early childhood brain development and the importance of the first three years of life. The campaign publishes a number of quality materials for training parents and caregivers that focus on how important it is for caregivers to provide warm, loving, and responsive care for infants.
When children receive this type of care, they are more likely to feel safe and secure with their caregivers. These strong relationships are referred to as . Recent research has confirmed that not only do children thrive when they feel secure, but they are better able to cope with difficult situations more easily later in life. These children who have secure attachments are more curious, get along better with other children, and perform better in school than children who are less securely attached (I Am Your Child, 1997).
The implications for those who work with infants and toddlers are phenomenal. The children you work with on a daily basis depend on you as they work to establish secure attachments. You may want to read additional information by Dr. Perry about the effects of other influences on bonding and attachment such as genetics, abuse and neglect, and the environment. (See the resource section for information.)

Windows of opportunity
Research shows us that young children’s brains have optimal periods of development for each function. We know that the number of connections the child’s brain makes depends on the variety and richness of learning experiences the child is exposed to (Oregon’s Child, 1997). Children learn certain skills most easily during particular windows of opportunity. These are the few weeks or months when a part of the brain absorbs new information more easily than at any other time in life. These windows are so important because each part of the brain actually grows a little larger, and a lot more active, in response to what the five senses absorb. During these first few years of life, these windows open and close quickly, making your interactions vitally important (Bower, 1998).

Language development
This window is most wide open from birth to 2 years; but it does extend to 10 years of age. During this time, children learn their primary language (American Association for Gifted Children, 1997). Children incorporate new vocabulary into that language even if they are not speaking. Children whose caregivers speak to them frequently know about 300 more words by the age of 2 than those whose caregivers talk to them less. In order to take advantage of this window, talk and sing face-to-face with babies; talk to young children often in simple words (not baby talk); connect words to objects; and repeat the babbles, noises, and words the children say to you (Oregon’s Child, 1997).
It is vital that you speak to children using proper vocabulary. Children will model your speech. When an older infant or toddler says a word to you that may not be correct, repeat the word to the child correctly. For example, if a child points and says, “wa-wa” for water; you might respond, “Water? Would you like some water?” Always avoid making fun of or joking about a child’s speech pattern or vocabulary. Speak to infants continually during the day—during diapering, feeding, play time, and cuddling. Remember that the window of language is open wide!

Visual development
The optimal age for visual development is from birth to 4 years. During this time, children need to see shapes, colors, objects at varying distances, and movement. All these images help shape the brain’s ability to recognize and organize visual information. The brain actually learns to see (Bower, 1998). Caregivers can provide a variety of opportunities to enhance visual development by putting attractive things, like mobiles and pictures, in the baby’s line of sight. Make sure that the baby’s eyes are always looking at something interesting. Be sure that babies older than 6 months have something near the crib that they can look at and touch, like busy boxes and baby-safe mirrors. This will also help to develop eye-hand coordination (American Association for Gifted Children, 1997).

Motor coordination
At birth, babies can move their limbs, but in a jerky, uncontrolled fashion. From birth to age 4 or 5, the brain progressively refines the circuitry for reaching, grabbing, sitting, crawling, walking, and running. Infants should be allowed as many opportunities to explore as safely possible. Provide activities to stimulate crawling, rolling, pushing, pulling, and reaching (Oregon’s Child, 1997).
Give infants ample floor time to try out their arms and legs and develop skills that will eventually enable them to sit up, crawl, and walk. Equipment such as walkers and swings often are used to contain babies when they are not in their cribs. Research shows that children’s mobility is limited in these types of equipment and that they often do no more than restrain.
When babies are in their cribs, provide toys they can reach for, shake, and throw. Developmental psychologists consistently remind us that play is children’s work. Playing with toys involves a kind of thinking that is critical for the development of motor skills in infants and young children.
As children grow and develop, introduce a variety of equipment to stimulate motor skills that are appropriate for the child’s developmental level. The American Association for Gifted Children suggests the following toys and games for children:

1-3 months—mobiles; unbreakable mirrors attached to cribs; rattles; stuffed toys with black and white patterns; music boxes; and large colorful rings.
4-6 months—beach balls; chunky bracelets; paper streamers hanging for view; cloth or vinyl books; and playing peek-a-boo.
7-9 months—stuffed animals; nesting cylinders; pop-up toys; large dolls and puppets; bath toys; and playing pat-a-cake.
10-12 months—push and pull toys; ordinary household objects like empty egg cartons and large spoons; stacked rings on a spindle; and playing simple ball games.
19-21 months—rocking horse; toys to take apart and put back together; rubber balls; digging toys; large crayons; kiddie cars; water games; toddler puzzles; playing hide-and-seek.
22-24 months—child-size household equipment like shopping carts, lawn mowers, and vacuum cleaners for pushing; make-believe props for kitchen and wood shop centers; construction sets; blocks; action toys like airplanes and trains;
baskets and purses; and containers with lids.
2-3 years—beginner tricycles; roller skates; easel; paints and markers; cassette players; puzzles; writing equipment; woodworking sets. (See also “Classroom materials and essentials,” , Summer 1999.)

Of course, age-appropriate items such as books, blocks, pictures, and sensory materials are essential. Always be mindful of safety. Anything a baby can hold will likely make its way into the baby’s mouth. A way to make sure that toys are not too small for infants and toddlers is to use an empty toilet tissue tube. If the object can pass through the tube, then it is small enough that a child may choke on it.