Early Child Development from the scientific point of view (PART II)
As mentioned in Part I, our brain develops from bottom up and involves the ongoing interplay between genetic and environmental inputs. The “serve and return” interaction between the caregivers and their children has been supported by scientific research for brain-building. In Part II, the roles of child-related professionals are summarized as below:
- to support caregivers to develop a positive and nurturing relationship with their children early in life, to provide language-rich daily interactions and developmentally-appropriate play;
- to support children and their families showing signs of “toxic stress” to minimize lifelong negative impact on children’s brain development.
What can be done to support early brain development?
- Healthy maternal and foetal nutrition
A child’s brain development is sensitive to nutritional input from conception to about two years of age12, 13, 14. It is therefore crucial for potential mothers and young children to maintain a healthy and balanced diet. Promoting healthy eating habits beginning from preconception helps to meet the health needs of the mother and foetus during pregnancy and her young child to grow and thrive. Infections and toxic substances like cigarettes, alcohol and drugs can damage the wiring and connection of brain cells15 and lead to long-term impairment on brain and cognitive functions. These substances should be avoided.
- Positive and caring relationship
Healthy early brain development builds on secure attachment. A stable and responsive relationship is crucial in providing a protective and nurturing environment for developing the child’s learning and adaptive abilities. Professionals working with caregivers and the families are encouraged to work on the caregiver-child interaction instead of mere information-seeking from the carer. Neuroscience has already shown us that moment-to-moment caregiver-child interactions can affect the architecture and the process of the developing brain. Professionals are encouraged to work on building caregivers’ sensitivity and responsiveness towards their children, i.e. to be aware of the infants or children’s signals and respond promptly and appropriately. Suggestions on helping caregivers to develop responsive child care for building secure attachment can be found in this link to our parenting leaflet.
- A language-rich environment
Research finding has shown that the number of words a child understands in the first two years of life is related to later verbal intelligence16. Caregivers can help develop their child’s language by engaging the baby in conversation like cooing, soothing and responding to the baby, singing, talking to the baby and describing the things they can see around them, etc. In this way, caregivers are already building a language-rich environment in daily activities for the child to develop his capabilities needed for his future. In stimulating language and social communication development, parent’s interactive and lively involvement in daily activities like conversation, reading and story-telling with the child is far better than relying on DVD, computer programmes or other screen devices17.
- Letting children play
Young children need play to learn, explore the world, build up various skills, and enjoy themselves in the process. Play can facilitate the development of physical, motor coordination, social-emotional, cognitive and language skills16. It also helps a child to learn to pay attention, understand and follow rules, take turn, collaborate with others, face and accept failure.
Child-related professionals can support caregivers to give children free and uninterrupted blocks of time to play in a safe environment. Play activities should be developmentally appropriate and fit children’s interests. Caregivers may provide various materials for children to play with. They should follow children’s lead and let them decide how they want to proceed in play. This not only helps building caregiver-child relationship but also supports the development of creativity. Caregivers are to be reminded that play should not be used as training means to boost up the development of cognitive functions in children.
- Minimizing exposure to toxic stress
Prolonged activation of the stress response system is damaging to the developing brain and has lifelong impact. We should minimize the chance of the child being exposed to extremely stressful conditions mentioned before. Professionals working with families should be aware of possible signs which may develop into “toxic stress” in the families and identify these children early. Apart from providing appropriate psychosocial supports to the parents themselves, professionals should also provide parenting support to help building responsive care or to provide high quality educare for the children directly. Programmes with supportive evidence can be found in the website of The Centre on the Developing Child, Harvard University(Refer to the box heading “Early Head Start University Partnership Grants: Buffering Children from Toxic Stress” in the webpage).