A child’s brain experiences a period of extraordinary development from birth to three years which produces more than one million nerve connections every second.
There has been an explosion of research over the past decade that shows how important the first few years of a child’s life are in brain development.
Newborns at birth have most of the brain cells we will have throughout our lives, but relatively few connections, circuits between different cells. What happens very, very quickly is the brain builds connections, builds synapses (connections). A baby forms 700 new nerve connections per second in the first years of life. The process of building brain architecture is dramatically influenced by life experiences. This is not innate genetics. Literally our environment shapes our brain architecture in the first year of life. We term this as neuroplasticity.
The process of establishing connections is biologically driven, but experience also promotes synapse formation. The brain produces more synapses than it will eventually use. The researchers describe this process as an excess of synaptic production. This rapid synaptic formation continues throughout childhood. The process of myelination (covering nerve fibers with myelin sheath so that it can process impulses faster) also continues during childhood and is a major cause of increasing the size of a child’s brain. In the first four years of life, the brain increases to 80% of its adult weight of 2.6 – 3.3 pounds (1200-1500 grams).
Pruning (removing nerve fibers that are not used) is a key process that forms the brain of a young child. Synaptic overproduction causes synapses to develop very quickly. The pruning process improves this connection based on experience. Connections that are used regularly become stronger and more complex. Unused connections are considered insignificant, and the brain finally cuts them to increase efficiency.
For example, a baby brain has a connection that allows it to hear sounds from all languages in the world. During the early years, the brain strengthened the connection to sound in the language it heard regularly. Over time, the brain removes connections for other sounds. This is why most adults have difficulty distinguishing sounds that are not in our language. The baby’s brain depends on responsiveness from adults. So all the adorable things babies do from the start – coo, gurgle, sound, and smile – how adults respond to coo and gurgle helps to form brain circuits. The first sound that is heard by a newborn baby is the voice of the mother who is the only voice she knows at birth. This is a possible reason in adulthood when we hear our mother’s voice having a calming effect due to strong connections.
The baby does something, the adults respond. And vice versa. And it’s back and forth, responsive, which forms brain circuits. We begin to see differences in the size of children’s vocabulary as early as 18-24 months. “These differences are not inherently genetic. They are based on differences in the type of language environment and the interactions in which children grow.
Some core principles that form the basis of developing the brain are;
- Human development is formed by the dynamic and sustained interaction between structural changes and experience.
- Culture influences every aspect of human development and is reflected in childcare beliefs and practices designed to promote healthy adaptation.
- The growth of self-regulation is the cornerstone of early childhood development that crosses all domains of behavior.
- Children are active participants in their own development, reflecting intrinsic human drive to explore and master one’s environment.
- Human relations, and the effects of relationships on relationships, are the building blocks of healthy development.
- Individual differences between young people often make it difficult to distinguish normal variations and delay in maturation from transient disorders and persistent disorders.
- Child development stretches along individual paths whose trajectory is characterized by continuity and discontinuity, and by a series of significant transitions.
- Human development is shaped by ongoing interactions between sources of vulnerability and sources of resilience.
- Time of initial experience can be important, but, more often than not, developing children remain vulnerable to risk and open to protective effects throughout the early years of life and to adulthood.
- The road to development can be changed in early childhood with effective interventions that change the balance between risk and protection, thereby shifting opportunities that support more adaptive outcomes.
Early intervention is the most promising strategy to build a nation and form a loving and peaceful society and is a current need.