Growing Healthy Canadians:
A Framework for Positive Child Development
A Healthy Start
An infant who makes a healthy start is ...
Healthy mothers who receive support and good prenatal care
generally have healthy babies. Newborns who weigh more than 2,500 grams have fewer health
problems than babies who weigh less. By age one, infants who are well nourished and
protected from harm can crawl or take a few steps, manipulate small objects and see as
well as a teenager.
Securely attached to adult caregivers
Infants become securely attached to a parent or reliable
caregiver that responds to their need for comfort, stimulation and love. Babies who make a
secure attachment are more likely to develop trust and self-esteem and to have positive
relationships with others later in life.
Developing feelings and emotional control
Security, comfort and routines are the first building blocks
for establishing emotional control. Soothing infants strengthens the neural circuits in
their brains which help them calm down.
Getting ready for language and learning
Babies may not say much in the first year, but they listen a
lot! By the age of one, infants have made an important start to developing basic language
skills. Stimulation and early experiences sculpt the neural pathways in their brains that
lead to new knowledge and an understanding of what is right and wrong.
Shaping Young Minds
Did you know that cuddling babies
helps wire their brains?
Most parents want to cuddle and nurture
their babies. But now neuroscience has confirmed what we have always felt to be true.
Cuddling and stimulating infants does more than make them smile. It actually helps to
"wire" their brains by connecting neurons into circuits that control a child's
physical, emotional and intellectual development for years to come. Neglecting or abusing
a child in the first year of life has the opposite effect. Children who receive little
care or nurturing in the early years may have brains that are wired for anxiety and
fear--the seeds of aggression and a lack of emotional control in later life. This profound
discovery has major implications for parents and policy makers. Helping babies make a
healthy start in life is everyone's business!
What Influences a Healthy Start?
Five key factors or influences determine whether or not an infant will make a healthy start in life:
A Healthy Pregnancy
Expectant mothers need a healthy diet, adequate rest, freedom
from abuse and excessive stress, and emotional support from others. Smoking, drinking
alcohol or taking drugs during pregnancy are a threat to the health of the baby. Prenatal
care is also important: weight gain and overall health during pregnancy should be
monitored and any complications need to be addressed early.
In the first year of life, well-nourished babies will more
than double their birth weights. Although formulas provide the nutrients babies need,
breast feeding is still the best option. Breast milk provides protection against a number
of childhood illnesses and has a nutritional balance that is particularly suited to rapid
Positive Parenting and Caregiving Styles
Parents who are available and actively involved become in
tune with their baby's signals: they know how to provide comfort, security and
stimulation. This leads to a secure attachment between parent and child. A secure
attachment provides the basis for a child's capacity to develop trust, self-esteem,
self-regulation, self-soothing and relationships with others. It influences language and
cognitive development and gives infants the confidence they need to explore the world.
Secure attachment also has been shown to establish wiring patterns in the brain which can
reduce anxiety and allow the brain to take in new stimuli.
At birth, a child's brain has the basic wiring in place to make the heart beat and the lungs breathe, to register stimuli in their environment, and to respond to touch and other stimuli in a way that will invite other responses from their caregivers. After birth, stimulation from caregivers helps the brain develop synapses that lead to the development of motor and language skills. Loving caregivers who hold babies, sing to them, play with them, talk to them and read to them provide the stimulation that babies need to thrive. Studies have shown, for example, that the size of toddlers' vocabularies are highly related with how much they were spoken to as infants and preschoolers.
Parents who are depressed or have other emotional or family problems are less able to become sensitively attuned and attached to their babies. It is easier to parent a happy, relaxed baby than one that is anxious, irritable or colicky. But the more difficult the inherited temperament, the more crucial it is for parents and caregivers to respond with warmth and sensitivity. This kind of caregiving can help a difficult baby become a well-adapted child.
A Safe Environment
Babies need a healthy, safe environment. Because their organs
are still developing, infants are highly susceptible to environmental contaminants. To
prevent injuries, babies need to be supervised at all times. Caregivers need to ensure
that toys and objects within their reach are safe and appropriate.
Early Detection and Treatment of Developmental Problems
New babies need a series of regular health checkups. Some
conditions, such as binocular vision problems, can only be corrected if detected early.
Nature and Nurture Work Together
Modern science has helped to cool the age-old debate of
nature versus nurture. We now know that nature and nurture work together in brain
development. In the womb, nature is the primary mover, although nurture (for example,
maternal nutrition) plays an important supportive role. After birth there is an explosion
of neural activity. This process is largely driven by nurture--the flood of sights,
sounds, smells, tastes and touches that an infant experiences in the outside world. We now
know that stimulation in the early years has an impressive and long lasting effect on a
child's intelligence, emotional adjustment and coping skills. Failure to provide the
conditions a child needs to make a healthy start in life will directly affect brain
development with lifelong consequences.
Helping Children Get A Healthy
Everyone has a stake in ensuring that babies get the love and stimulation they need to develop into productive, involved citizens. When governments, businesses, communities and families work together, babies have the best chance of making a healthy start.
What Can Families Do?
What Can Communities Do?
What Can Workplaces Do?
What Can Governments Do?
This fact sheet was developed by the Promotion and Prevention Task Force of the Sparrow Lake Alliance and the Strategic Funding Task Group of the Funders Alliance for Children, Youth and Families as part of their work on a Framework for Positive Child Development. It was written and produced by The Alder Group Inc. For more information, please see the web site for this project: http://childdev.web.net