How children grow and develop in their early years is a powerful determinant of health. More and more evidence is being found showing that prenatal and early childhood experiences have a more powerful and long-lasting effect than researchers had previously understood on health, well-being, and competence.
Evidence also shows that these three factors are strongly linked with adults ability to cope with problems and stress, and their sense of identity.
Birth to age 5: a crucial time for our developing brain
Optimum early childhood development also has a biological component, specifically when it comes to how the brain matures. Various studies show that the period between from the child is conceived until age five is a sensitive time that is critical to how their brain develops.
During this time children develop the ability to:
communicate using language
cope with stress
have healthy relationships with others
feel a sense of self
If children do not have the very best conditions for development during this time, their developing brain will be physically different from that of children who have had these conditions.
Moreover, the infant brain contains many more neurons at birth than the mature brain. Then during infancy and early childhood a very rapid process of pruning occurs. The brain is wired (or not) based on the kinds of stimulation it is or is not exposed to. Some periods during certain phases of development are especially sensitive. If these sensitive periods pass without the right kinds of stimulation, the full potential is lost.
What do babies need to develop along a healthy pathway?
Infants and young children need affectionate touching and an environment rich in stimulating experiences. These conditions will help them to grow brains that have lots of neural connections (the connections between brain cells).
Conversely, children who are exposed to insecure, violent or chaotic environments can end up with an adult brain that secretes excessive stress hormones when faced with stress. This hinders that adults ability to cope well with difficult situations, and also makes it harder for their body to physically fight disease.
Added October 30th, 2002.