Last Updated: Jan 10th, 2011 - 11:11:15
| Nature, Nurture and Early Brain Development
By Sara Gable, State Extension Specialist, Human Development
May 3, 2008, 10:11 PST
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Nurture and Early Brain Development
Sara Gable, State Extension
Specialist, Human Development
Melissa Hunting, Undergraduate Intern, Human Development
For some time, we have known
that development results from the dynamic interplay of nature and nurture. From
birth on, we grow and learn because our biology is programmed to do so and because
our social and physical environment provides stimulation.
New research on early brain development provides a wonderful opportunity to
examine how nature and nurture work together to shape human development. Through
the use of sophisticated technology, scientists have discovered how early brain
development and caregiver-child relationships interact to create a foundation
for future growing and learning. For this guide, the word caregiver includes
anyone who cares for young children, such as parents, grandparents, child care
providers or preschool teachers.
The nature of early
At birth, the human brain is
still preparing for full operation. The brain's neurons exist mostly apart from
one another. The brain's task for the first 3 years is to establish and reinforce
connections with other neurons. These connections are formed when impulses are
sent and received between neurons. Axons send messages and dendrites receive them.
These connections form synapses. (See Figure 1.)
Figure 1. Neurons mature when axons send mesages and dendrites receive them
to form synapses.
As a child develops, the
synapses become more complex, like a tree with more branches and limbs growing.
During the first 3 years of life, the number of neurons stays the same and the
number of synapses increases. After age 3, the creation of synapses slows until
about age 10.
Between birth and age 3,
the brain creates more synapses than it needs. The synapses that are used a
lot become a permanent part of the brain. The synapses that are not used frequently
are eliminated. This is where experience plays an important role in wiring a
young child's brain. Because we want children to succeed, we need to provide
many positive social and learning opportunities so that the synapses associated
with these experiences become permanent.
How the social and physical
environments respond to infants and toddlers plays a big part in the creation
of synapses. The child's experiences are the stimulation that sparks the activity
between axons and dendrites and creates synapses.
and sensitive periods: What's the difference?
Brain development research
distinguishes between sensitive periods and critical periods
of development. Understanding the difference is very important for recognizing
what infants and toddlers need early in life. The information presented
in this guide centers mostly on sensitive periods.
periods represent a narrow window of time during which a specific
part of the body is most vulnerable to the absence of stimulation or to
environmental influences. Vision is a good example: Unless an infant sees
light during the first 6 months, the nerves leading from the eye to the
visual cortex of the brain that processes those signals will degenerate
the period before a baby is born, also includes critical periods. Remember
the drug thalidomide and its effects on prenatal development? Women who
took the drug between the 38th and 46th days of pregnancy gave birth to
infants with deformed arms, or no arms, Women who took the drug between
the 40th and 46th days of pregnancy gave birth to infants with deformed
legs or no legs. Women who took the drug after the 50th day of pregnancy
gave birth to babies with no birth defects or problems.
are the broad windows of opportunity for certain types of learning. Sensitive
periods represent a less precise and often longer period of time when
skills, such as acquiring a second language, are influenced. But, if the
opportunity for learning does not arise, these potential new skills are
not lost forever. Individuals learn new languages at many different times
in their lives.
The skills acquired
during sensitive periods are those that some people are better at than
others. They include the social, emotional and mental characteristics
that make us interesting people. Individuals who work with children need
to be aware of the sensitive period concept so that they can provide learning
opportunities that benefit children in many ways. The early brain research
highlights birth through age 3 as a sensitive period for development and
learning in all areas.
The nurture of early
Infants and toddlers learn
about themselves and their world during interactions with others. Brain connections
that lead to later success grow out of nurturant, supportive and predictable care.
This type of caregiving fosters child curiosity, creativity and self-confidence.
Young children need safety, love, conversation and a stimulating environment to
develop and keep important synapses in the brain.
Caring for infants and toddlers is mostly about building relationships and
making the most of everyday routines and experiences. The Creative Curriculum
for Infants and Toddlers (Dombro, Colker and Dodge, 1997) says that during
the first 3 years of life, infants and toddlers look to caregivers for answers
to these questions:
- Do people respond to
- Can I depend on other
people when I need them?
- Am I important to others?
- Am I competent?
- How should I behave?
- Do people enjoy being
- What should I be afraid
- Is it safe for me to
show how I feel?
- What things interest
Learning with all
During the first 3 years of
life, children experience the world in a more complete way than children of any
other age. The brain takes in the external world through its system of sight,
hearing, smell, touch and taste. This means that infant social, emotional, cognitive,
physical and language development are stimulated during multisensory experiences.
Infants and toddlers need the opportunity to participate in a world filled with
stimulating sights, sounds and people.
Create a multi-sensory
- Experiment with different
smells in the classroom. Try scents like peppermint and cinnamon to keep children
alert and lavender to calm them down.
- Remember that lighting
affect alertness and responsiveness. Bright lights keep infants and toddlers
alert; soft lights help infants and toddlers to calm down.
- Expose infants and toddlers
to colors that stimulate the brain. Use colors like pale yellow, beige, and
off-white to create a calm learning environment; use bright colors such as
red, orange, and yellow to encourage creativity and excitement.
- Use quiet and soft music
to calm infants and toddlers and rhythmic music to get them excited about
- Create a texture book
or board that includes swatches of different fabrics for infants and toddlers
- Describe the foods and
drinks that you serve infants and toddlers and use words that are associated
with flavor and texture ("oranges are sweet and juicy;" "lemon yogurt is a
little sour and creamy").
Thinking and feeling
Before children are able to
talk, emotional expressions are the language of relationships. Research shows
that infants' positive and negative emotions, and caregivers' sensitive responsiveness
to them, can help early brain development. For example, shared positive emotion
between a caregiver and an infant, such as laughter and smiling, engages brain
activity in good ways and promotes feelings of security. Also, when interactions
are accompanied by lots of emotion, they are more readily remembered and recalled.
Early brain development:
when things go wrong
Early development does not
always proceed in a way that encourages child curiosity, creativity and self-confidence.
For some children, early experiences are neither supportive nor predictable. The
synapses that develop in the brain are created in response to chronic stress,
or other types of abuse and neglect. And, when children are vulnerable to these
risks, problematic early experiences can lead to poor outcomes.
For example, some children
are born with the tendency to be irritable, impulsive and insensitive to emotions
in others. When these child characteristics combine with adult caregiving that
is withdrawn and neglectful, children's brains can wire in ways that may result
in unsympathetic child behavior. When these child characteristics combine with
adult caregiving that is angry and abusive, children's brains can wire in ways
that result in violent and overly aggressive child behavior. If the home environment
teaches children to expect danger instead of security, then poor outcomes may
In these cases, how do
nature and nurture contribute to early brain development? Research tells us
that early exposure to violence and other forms of unpredictable stress can
cause the brain to operate on a fast track. Such overactivity of the connections
between axons and dendrites, combined with child vulnerability, can increase
the risk of later problems with self-control. Some adults who are violent and
overly aggressive experienced erratic and unresponsive care early in life.
Adult depression can also
interfere with infant brain activity. When caregivers suffer from untreated
depression, they may fail to respond sensitively to infant cries or smiles.
Adult emotional unavailability is linked with poor infant emotional expression.
Infants with depressed caregivers do not receive the type of cognitive and emotional
stimulation that encourages positive early brain development.
Programs that work
When children have less-than-optimal
experiences early in life, there is hope for the future. Understanding how brain
development is affected by negative experiences gives us the opportunity to intervene
and to prevent future difficulties. And, because we know about healthy early brain
development and the experiences that infants and toddlers need, programs have
been designed to help children develop the necessary skills that they may not
have developed earlier.
In Missouri, the Parents as Teachers (PAT) program provides information about
child development to parents whose children are between birth and age 5. The
information is delivered by well-prepared parent educators during home visits
and parenting classes, and through referrals to other agencies. An evaluation
of the program showed that PAT children scored higher on measures of intellectual
and language ability than children whose parents did not participate in PAT.
PAT is available to all families in Missouri and is a good example of how caregiver
education about child development can help children throughout their lives.
Advocating for children
Early brain development research
reinforces an important message about children: From birth on, children are
ready and eager to learn and grow. Taking advantage of this situation means
that all caregivers need to understand the importance of the early years and to
recognize appropriate methods for stimulating children's learning and growth.
Providing educational opportunities to parents, grandparents, child care providers
and other caregivers is a step in the right direction to guarantee productive
early years. Sharing this message with policy makers is another strategy for ensuring
that infants, toddlers, and young children and their caregivers receive the necessary
education and support.
Early brain development
and child care providers
Here are some tips for how
to effectively establish relationships with infants and toddlers and to promote
early brain development:
- Learn to read the physical
and emotional cues of the infants and toddlers in your care. Recognize the
individuality of each child and sensitively respond to these differences.
- Assign a primary caregiver
to each infant and toddler in your program to work with the child and his/her
- Observe and record the
infant and toddler behaviors that are indicative of early brain development.
Share these observations with other caregivers who play an important role
in the children's lives.
- Accept infants' and toddlers'
strong emotions as signs of their desire to communicate with you and the world.
Respond quickly and appropriately to these communications; give meaning to
these emotional communications.
- Find a balance between
being overinvolved and being underinvolved; recognize the child's current
developmental status and create opportunities for each child to reach beyond
Early brain development
research reinforces the importance of caregiver sensitivity and responsiveness
to infant behaviors and needs. What do insensitive and unresponsive caregiver-infant
interactions look like? What do sensitive and responsive caregiver-infant
interactions look like?
Below are some real-life examples of caregivers interacting with their
4-month-old babies. Although these are only brief examples of caregiver-infant
interactions, consider what is happening to the baby's development if
most interactions are like these ones. As you read each example, put yourself
in the baby's position and "See the world through the eyes of the child."
- How sensitive is
the caregiver to the baby's needs and abilities?
- How responsive
is the caregiver to the baby's behaviors and communications?
- How does the caregiver
stimulate the baby's senses?
4-month-old baby is on the living room floor; caregiver is cleaning around
Caregiver goes to
baby and tells baby that she has to lay on her tummy, saying, "It will
probably make you scream for awhile." Caregiver explains she has to put
laundry in. As caregiver turns baby over, baby is quiet and caregiver
says, "Maybe you won't cry, huh? Maybe you'll figure this out." Caregiver
leaves room, with baby on the floor. In front of baby are four toys: a
rattle, a bath bubble, a stuffed elephant and a top. Baby grunts occasionally
and holds her head high off the blanket and watches the toys. Baby looks
at the toys intently, grunts and moves her legs around. Baby continues
to look at the toys and move her legs, appearing to want the toys, but
unable to reach them. For the next 4 minutes, baby grunts, moves her arms
and legs, lifts her head up and down, sucks her hand and finally begins
to loudly fuss. Caregiver is out of the room. When caregiver returns,
she says, "You haven't figured out how to do it yet, huh?" as she picks
up baby and holds her in her lap.
In this example,
the caregiver is generally out of touch with the baby. The caregiver's
words are mostly discouraging; the caregiver leaves the baby with the
toys out of the baby's reach; the caregiver does not recognize the baby's
frustration or try to help the baby calm herself down; and, the caregiver
does little that stimulates the baby's five senses. Imagine daily life
for this baby if most of her interactions are like this one. How are her
senses being stimulated? What connections are being wired in her brain?
Caregiver is moving between kitchen and living room; 4-month-old baby is
on a blanket on the living room floor.
to the living room from the kitchen and playfully says, "Hey little boy,
whatcha doin?" as she gently tickles baby's tummy. Caregiver then shakes
a colorful rattle near baby's face and baby looks at and reaches for the
rattle. Caregiver stands the rattle on baby's tummy and releases it. Baby
is not holding the rattle and suddenly it falls forward and hits baby
in the face. Baby begins to cry loudly. Caregiver softly says, "Oh, oh"
as she lifts baby and holds him close to her. Caregiver comforts baby
and says, "That scared you," as she gently rocks back and forth and bounces
baby in her arms.
In this example,
the caregiver enthusiastically greets the baby after she returns to the
room; the caregiver stimulates the baby's senses with her tickling and
toy rattle; and, she encourages the baby's physical development when she
leaves the rattle for the baby to hold. When the rattle falls and hits
the baby, the caregiver sensitively responds, gives meaning to the baby's
cries and shares physical affection in an effort to soothe the baby. Consider
how these experiences help an infant develop trust in the world.
A. 1993. Origins of attachment: Maternal interactive behavior across the
first year. Child Development, 64, 605-621.
For more information
World Wide Web sites of
This web site is part of a national campaign to educate the public on the importance
of the early years as they relate to early brain development. Information for
parents is provided along with information on stages of development.
This web sites covers multiple topics on child development, including brain
development. The brain development section has articles from experts in the
child development field.
This web site provides brain development information for parents and caregivers
who are caring for infants and toddlers. Besides having publications, it has
links to other related organizations.
This comprehensive web site is for parents and professionals concerned with
the healthy growth of infants and toddlers. It has an endless number of articles
References and resources
Caldwell, Bettye. May, 1998.
"Early experiences shape social development." Child Care Information Exchange:
Dombro, Amy Laura, Laura
J. Colker and Diane Trister Dodge. 1997. The Creative Curriculum for Infants
and Toddlers. Washington, DC: Teaching Strategies, Inc.
Gilkerson, Linda. May,
1998. "Brain care: Supporting healthy emotional development." Child Care
Information Exchange: 66-68.
Healthy Child Care America.
January, 1999. Early brain development and child care. American Academy of Pediatrics.
Healy, Jane M. 1994. Your
child's growing mind: A practical guide to brain development and learning from
birth to adolescence. New York: Doubleday.
Isabella, Russell A. 1993.
"Origins of attachment: Maternal interactive behavior across the first year."
Child Development, 64: 605-621.
Karr-Morse, Robin, and
Meredith S. Wiley. 1997. Ghosts from the nursery: Tracing the roots of violence.
New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.
Kotulak, Ronald. 1997.
Inside the brain: Revolutionary discoveries of how the mind works. Kansas
City, Mo.: Andrews McMeel Publishing
Lally, J. Ronald. May,
1998. "Brain Research, Infant Learning, and Child Care Curriculum." Child
Care Information Exchange: 46-48.
Rogers, Adam, Pat Wingert,
and Thomas Hayden. May 3, 1999. "Why the Young Kill." Newsweek: 32-35.
O'Donnell, Nina Sazer.
March, 1999. "Using early childhood brain development research." Child Care
Information Exchange: 58-62.
Schiller, Pam. May, 1998.
"The thinking brain." Child Care Information Exchange: 49-52.
Shore, Rima. 1997. Rethinking
the brain: New insights into early development. New York: Families and Work
University of Pittsburgh,
Office of Child Development. Spring, 1998. "Brain development: The role experience
plays in shaping the lives of children." Children, Youth, and Family Background,
Report #12. Pittsburgh: University Center for Social and Urban Research.
Weikert, Phyllis S. May,
1998. "Facing the challenge of motor development." Child Care Information
Willis, Clarissa. May,
1998. "Language development: A key to lifelong learning." Child Care Information
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