A baby’s brain develops dramatically from conception to toddler. During these years the brain is impressionable to many influences, both good and bad. Neuroscientists refer to the remarkable “plasticity” of the baby’s brain as it takes in information and learns new skills. A growing body of research suggests that the information circuits for language development and other skills can be altered (strengthened or weakened) depending upon the quality of interaction between the child and the parents and caregivers.
The process of brain development starts before birth. Good prenatal care is essential. Mothers who have had good prenatal care know the basic checklist: take folic acid, which is found in many grain-based foods but may need to be supplemented with vitamins; avoid alcohol and smoking; and stay away from toxic substances like pesticides. For more see this information from the National Institute of Health (NIH). Each pregnant woman has a unique medical history so there is no substitute for regular visits to the family doctor.
After birth the baby’s brain continues to develop and a nurturing home of caring parents is essential. The baby needs to be fed and nurtured. They want to make eye contact and have their parents talk to them. They love being read to, or having a parent tell them a bedtime story. Later, they will want to play games such as putting triangles in the triangle hole and circles in the hole for circles.
All of this activity stimulates early learning. Language development is especially critical in the early years. (See these PBS tips.) The Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University uses the term “serve and return” when discussing the importance of interaction between the child and parents:
Serve and return interactions shape brain architecture. When an infant or young child babbles, gestures, or cries, and an adult responds appropriately with eye contact, words, or a hug, neural connections are built and strengthened in the child’s brain that support the development of communication and social skills. Much like a lively game of tennis, volleyball, or Ping-Pong, this back and forth is both fun and capacity-building.
The Alberta Family Wellness Initiative, in cooperation with the Government of Alberta, has produced an excellent video – How Brains Are Built – that offers a brief and stimulating introduction to this topic.