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As parents, we’re bombarded by all the things we should be doing to help our children grow and develop physically. There’s tummy time, sleep time, and limiting screen time so they go outside and play. There’s yoga for tots and kindergym, and organic wholefoods at every meal (does dirt from the garden count as organic? Asking for a friend). That’s just the first few years.
But, while these things are important for holistic growth, there’s a specific area of children’s development that’s equally important but less widely understood: brain development. The most significant brain development of our children’s lives happen in the first few years, beginning even before they’re born. A combination of genes and environment shape the brain’s development, and stress can inhibit it. But, the information about how all this occurs isn’t as accessible for everyday parents, unless you have a crack team of experts who can simplify it and express it in short, digestible videos…
The whole topic of brain development from a scientific perspective can seem pretty intimidating, unless you’re a neuroscientist yourself (in which case, you can skip this article and go complete a Rubik’s cube behind your back while the rest of us finish!) But, there are some pretty basic things that all parents can learn about the blossoming brains of our children that will help you (a) nurture their development and (b) be responsive to their limitations.
A gentleman by the name of Piaget was one of the first to suggest that children’s brains were not merely smaller versions of adult brains, but that their cognitive capacities and intelligence developed in stages. This is now widely accepted, and you can read more about it here. Furthermore, we now know that brain development occurs in a hierarchy, from the bottom up, with higher level circuits built on lower level circuits, all of which stabilise over time. It seems kind of like Minecraft, but then again, everything seems like Minecraft when your children don’t talk about anything else…
Here’s where it all kicks off:
Brain Development Period: Antenatal
Did you know your baby actually has all five senses functioning before they’re born? These sensory experiences in the womb are some of the earliest factors that shape their brains. At just two weeks gestation, your baby’s prenatal brain development has begun, with the formation of the neural plate. The cerebral cortex, the part that controls voluntary actions, matures before birth but is not fully developed for several years.
What Parents Can Do to Aid Brain Development at This Age
It might be easier said than done, but trying to avoid stress when you’re pregnant is ideal for protecting your baby’s brain development. The dietary precautions that pregnant women are instructed to take are also vital, like avoiding deli meats and raw eggs to prevent listeriosis or salmonella. Diseases such as the Zika virus and exposure to certain chemical materials can also be hazardous to your baby, so stay clear of things like paints and heavy-duty cleaning supplies. When your living companions complain that you’re not pulling your weight, just tell them you’re protecting your unborn child’s brain.
Brain Development Period: Birth to 5 Years
This is a hugely important period for brain development. The brain is rapidly developing, but it’s also really vulnerable to stressors. At three years of age, your child’s brain has about 1000 trillion brain synapses, or connections, which will later be culled to about 500 trillion in adolescence.
What Parents Can Do To Aid Brain Development At This Age
It’s important that parents provide a safe, nurturing environment and facilitate positive, repeated experiences with the people in this environment. This helps build the critical foundation of the brain, which, as we mentioned earlier, further neural circuits can then be built on. If this foundation isn’t strong, it can be harder for your child to go on and develop higher order skills and their ability to learn and thrive is affected. Normal levels of environmental stress are important in promoting resilience, but excessive amounts of stress in your child’s life can severely impact their brain development. This is referred to as toxic stress.
The normal amounts of stress that all children experience can be managed with the assistance of consistent, responsive and loving relationships with caregivers. When you respond to your baby’s cues, you are literally helping to build their brain. Playing, singing, and reading to kids at this age gives them an optimal platform from which to learn about their world and build brain connections.
It’s also important to seek help if you believe you child may have hearing loss, as this period is when the brain is primed for language development. If your child can’t hear enough and doesn’t receive help in time, the language parts of the brain may begin to close up. When you speak to your child of this age, it’s fine to use baby talk, but complete sentences are best to help them grasp language formats.
Some great foods for children’s brains are lentils, leafy greens (for vitamins), eggs (for protein), and fish (for Omega-3 fatty acids).
Brain Development Period: 5 to 11 Years
Your five-year-old prep or preschool kid has developed 90% of their brain. At around six years of age, a child’s empathy ramps up, they can begin to understand sequences of events, and they can get a handle on more specific concepts.The frontal lobes, the brain’s emotion and judgement centres, begin to develop and your child can start to see how people might feel differently to them. Reason and logic start to develop in the brain at this age, as information is travelling more efficiently through the nervous system. This allows different parts of the brain to work together and operate in new combinations. Kids of this age tend to see things as black and white, right or wrong, good or bad.
What Parents Can Do To Aid Brain Development At This Age
Don’t overestimate the emotional development of your child at this age. Even though you’ve seen them grow in leaps and bounds, they may still be very affected by things like the emotional state of others around them, family discord and arguments with friends. Give them one-on-one time with you to let their worries surface.
Children at around eight years of age have started to prune out some of the lesser-used brain connections, and this means they’re becoming more self-aware. With this awareness comes an understanding of what they’re good at or not so good at, relative to their peers. It’s important that kids at this age don’t make definitive judgements about these things, though. Explaining the concept of a growth mindset and neuroplasticity encourages them to value learning for the sake of learning, and helps them understand that their amazing brains can keep rewiring.
Exercise increases the flow of blood to your child’s brain, delivering oxygen and glucose to help the brain perform better. Regular, moderate intensity exercise can increase the size of the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in learning and memory. Exercise also helps to release chemicals in the brain called growth factors, which affect the growth and survival of new brain cells and blood vessels.
Article by Parent TV.