"The Importance of Very Early Childhood Development" by Allen Weiss, MD, MBA, President & CEO

The Importance of Very Early Childhood Development

March 1, 2012 - Our future depends on our next generation, and our next generation is most influenced by their very early childhood development.  

Many experts in the science of early childhood development think the single greatest factor for a successful, sustainable, prosperous society is how we care for and nurture our newborns and infants.  

Compared to any other influence, the influences of parents and other caregivers (grandparents, friends, teachers, nursery and daycare workers) with the very young have the most profound long-term effect on the child’s brain development.

Brains do develop quickly over the first few years of life as the genetic endowment from the baby’s parents is influenced, grown, nurtured, supported and challenged by the environment.  These profound outside influences literally shape the architecture of the developing brain from the “bottom up.”  At first, simple circuits direct baseline physiological survival skills such as sucking and wanting to be held.  That is followed by eating, sleeping, and eliminating, which occupy the majority of a baby’s brain capabilities.  Very quickly, when appropriately stimulated, a baby becomes much more competent, complex and appropriate at responding.

Consider a grandmother who has been caring for a few-month-old while the parents are working during weekdays.  The baby looks forward to the grandmother’s approach and manner.  Conversely, the baby’s tiny mouth and lips turn downward when the grandmother appears to be leaving.  Although this obvious change in the baby’s attitude and demeanor is adorable, the deeper meaning and greater importance is that very early on, before most adults even realize how “tuned in” an infant is to his/her environment and caregivers, the brain is developing complex emotions which will last a lifetime.

Unfortunately, stress in early childhood can prove “toxic,” associated with persistent negative effects on the nervous system, caused by the chronic release of stress hormones.  Learning and behavioral problems are the consequence.  In turn, they cause further physical and mental problems.

Children learn how to learn as infants and toddlers.  And the broad aspects of adult behavior are learned as children.  Work force skills, lawful behavior, social interaction in society are all reflections of learned early behavior—built on the influence of parents and significant others on newborns, infants and toddlers.   

The following six basic principles are “take home” points for childhood development:

#1 Brains are built over time.  

In the first few years of life, 700 new connections are formed each second.  With time, these connections are trimmed and become functional.  Mental ability is developed in a variety of learning situations and basic abilities can be improved by early stimulation.   

For any society to thrive, an expectant mother must have good nutrition and avoid noxious chemicals such as alcohol and tobacco.  The fact that fetal exposure to alcohol is the leading preventable cause of mental retardation in the United States is still not understood by many of child-bearing ages.

#2 Genes and early experiences together shape the architecture of a developing brain.

That architecture, in turn, shapes the rest of the child’s life and contributions to society.  A tuned-in mother or caregiver can tell by the baby’s cry how serious the problem is.  Is the baby just exercising her lungs?  Is she hungry?  Or is she in real pain?  

In stable multigenerational families, stimulating behaviors are taught from generation to generation—counting toes, playing pretend patty-cake or singing the same alphabet song.  Inexperienced parents without generational support can be overwhelmed by the new responsibilities of having a newborn.  Anything we in society can do to help in this vulnerable time pays enormous benefits for the baby, parent, community and our nation.  For instance, “How To Be a Parent” classes taught by successful and charismatic peers can help tremendously.

#3 Successful development is an incremental and interdependent process with many steps and milestones.  

The process starts at birth with swaddling, hugging, talking to the baby and giving as much positive feedback as possible.  For instance, in order to speak well, a child needs to listen well.  In order to listen well, a child needs to have been talked to for many hours (even though a parent or caregiver may wrongly think they are wasting their time talking to a baby).  

Successful parents and caregivers soon realize that when they stop talking to a “connected” infant, the baby will start to babble back, then stop to listen when the mom replies.  Even “baby talk” is the beginning of the communication journey.

#4 Cognitive, emotional, and social skills are inextricably intertwined.  

Well-nurtured newborns develop the other skills needed to function well in society.  The abilities to concentrate, pay attention, and engage with others are all part of emotional intelligence which is as important for success as intellectual intelligence.  This emotional health—along with social skills and cognitive-linguistic capabilities—are essential early functions for a successful life and contribution to society.

#5 Creating the fertile ground for early childhood development is most critical early in life.  

“Birth is easier than resurrection,” is a catchphrase to explain that correct brain imprinting is usually sooner than later.  With time, everyone’s brain becomes less malleable.  Learning a new language is so much easier the younger we are.  The window of opportunity is almost always earlier, not later.  Early intervention for the most vulnerable will have the greatest payback. 

This is the principle behind Florida’s pre-kindergarten program.  Children prepared for school continue in the virtuous cycle of productivity for the rest of their school careers and in life.  

#6 Avoid “toxic stress” for newborns, infants and children at all cost.

Placing young children in stressful situations can prove “toxic.” The persistent negative effect on the nervous system impairs all of the other five positives.  

Excessive stimulation of the “fight or flight reaction” results in stressed-out children who can be seriously damaged.  Some stress, of course, is unavoidable.  But constant stress is harmful physiologically for the developing brain.  New neural pathways are impeded, socialization stunted, and generally all the positives that have been obtained can be lost.      

One needn’t be a physician to understand these rules.  Most of this is common sense.  In less stressful times, with strong social support from multigenerational families, we wouldn’t even be considering such issues.  But in today’s society, with its daily stresses from every direction, the importance of nurturing the next generation for everyone’s well being cannot be overstated.

Nurturing—helping the next generation—has been a characteristic of humans since the birth of time.  As we all contribute and help the newest members of our society and community, we will all enjoy better lives.


Past Health Advice Articles

Dr. Allen Weiss is CEO & President of the NCH Healthcare System. He is board certified in Internal Medicine, Rheumatology and Geriatrics, and was in private practice in Naples, Florida from 1977 - 2000. Dr. Weiss is active in a variety of professional organizations and boards, and has been published in numerous medical journals, including the American Journal of Medicine and the Journal of Clinical Investigation.