Children’s first worlds are created by the people who take care of their needs – who feed, bathe, talk, sing and play with them. In the first year of life, secure, loving and stimulating relationships between babies and their parents and caregivers lay the foundation for their future development.

Research on brain development in the early months and years of life has begun to explain many of the things parents have always observed – children’s early experiences of being cuddled, talked to, played with and protected are the keys to healthy growth and development. Using new technologies, researchers have been able to:

  • monitor physical changes in the child’s rapidly developing brain structure
  • see how these changes coincide with physical, behavioural and emotional changes in the infant over time
  • relate the changes to infant’s experiences. (126,11)

Critical stages have been identified when the brain is particularly responsive to certain kinds of experience. For example, the critical period for the development of binocular vision (the ability of both eyes to work together at the same time) is well defined. For infants who have one eye that is unable to focus and coordinate with the other, this defect must be corrected before age one or there will always be a weakness. If the problem is not corrected in the first five years, binocular vision will never develop. (53)

In other areas of development such as language, there are sensitive periods, rather than critical ones. Once the sensitive period has passed, the brain is still able to develop language skills, but it becomes more difficult. (87)

Although babies are born with their own unique genetic heritage and personality, their experiences shape and nurture their potential. Each sensory experience triggers a specific neural response. During periods when the brain is sensitive to specific kinds of stimulation, their experiences have a great effect on their development. During the first year of life there are critical or sensitive periods related to:

  • binocular vision
  • emotional control
  • emotional regulation
  • attachment
  • habitual ways of responding
  • language. (53)

The hard wiring process (maturation and connection of individual nerve cells) is highly dependent on the child's experience of the environment. Optimal development requires enough of the "right" kinds of stimuli and protection from too much of the "wrong" kind of stimuli (e.g., exposure to frequent conflict or violence). Ninety percent of the connections between nerve cells are made within the first two weeks of life. Those that are used regularly survive; the rest are pruned away. Generally, it is the parents' abilities to regulate the child's environment, ensuring the right kind of stimulation, that ensures optimal development.

Neural connections that are used repeatedly get stronger over time and eventually form the circuitry or "wiring" of the brain. (126) There is an enormous burst of neural activity during the first year of life. Experiences triggering this activity are laying down the basic "wiring" on which a child’s future physical, intellectual, social and emotional health are built.

Physically healthy

Securely attached to parents and caregivers

Developing feelings and emotional control

Getting ready for language and learning

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