Infant brain development: Making the research work for early
Do you ever wonder how much money people are making from the
frenzy of gimmicks and techniques advertised to increase a baby’s
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:
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
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).
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!
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).
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
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.
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:
unbreakable mirrors attached to cribs; rattles; stuffed toys
with black and white patterns; music boxes; and large colorful
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.