Growing Healthy Canadians:
A Framework for Positive Child Development
Transition 1

A Healthy Start

An infant who makes a healthy start is ...

Physically healthy

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.

Adequate Nutrition

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 brain development.

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 [Sidebar]

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 Start!

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: