Children Now Insider: Building a Healthy Brain

Critical elements to early development

By Stacy Lee
Managing Director, Early Childhood

August 30, 2019

Children Now® Insider: Stories, News, And Insights On Children’s Advocacy

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Research has shown that early experiences have a huge and lasting impact on babies’ brains. There are many important ingredients to nurturing healthy brain development, but the research is clear about one thing in particular: the presence of a caring adult in a young child’s life is the key. That’s why we’re raising awareness, through the Talk the Tot campaign, about the importance of supporting babies, toddlers, and their families so they have the time and resources they need to create this important bond.

Creating and sustaining a strong bond between babies and their primary caregivers is crucial to healthy brain development. Responsive caregiving1, or serve and return, is a term used to describe the back-and-forth brain building interactions babies have with parents, caregivers and other adults in their lives. The adults in a young child’s life can foster these connections by engaging with them during everyday tasks like bath time: talking with the baby about what is going on while you wash them, making eye contact, observing colors, smells, textures, water temperature and seeing how they respond is one simple way to nurture their development during a sometimes mundane daily activity. A game of peek-a-boo exercises a child’s memory – who is hiding behind those hands? – and helps them practice self-control as they wait for their grandfather to reveal his face. These simple interactions establish critical connections in a baby’s young brain and fuel brain development. These connections will serve as the foundation for important emotional and cognitive skills babies will need later in life, including the development of executive function, self-regulation, and resilience.

Executive Function & Self-Regulation
Executive function and self-regulation are a series of processes within the brain that help us plan, be attentive, retain information and manage multiple tasks at once. The Center on the Developing Child likens2 these processes to a control tower at a busy airport, guiding multiple planes through landing and take-off protocol, as well as directing on-the-ground support crews, all simultaneously (and successfully). Babies’ brains learn to do the same thing: manage and prioritize multiple sources of information, while processing (and ignoring) the distractions in the world around them. These skills are crucial to academic achievement, positive health outcomes, civic engagement and even economic success.

Resilience, or the ability to overcome serious hardship, is shaped by the positive and negative experiences a person faces throughout the course of one’s life. The most common factor among resilient children is being in a stable and committed relationship with a parent, caregiver or other adult. These relationships provide the personalized responsiveness and protection that can shelter children from developmental disruption during times of adversity.

While these concepts make sense, life can get in the way. Ensuring that all parents and caregivers know where to go to ask for help and have access to critical supports related to safe housing and neighborhoods, healthy food, affordable quality child care, and programs that nurture healthy child development is key. Raising a child is hard work, and everyone has a role to play – from the people in our communities to the legislators establishing public policies with young children and families in mind.

  1. The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, one of our nation’s leading research institutions on the topic, has elevated awareness about the importance of responsive caregiving