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Brain development

It had been a bad day at work. A young mother returned home exasperated and upset. Sitting in her living room, she began to sob, while her two-year-old daughter looked on with obvious concern. The little girl began stroking her mother's hair. "It's OK," the child cooed soothingly to her surprised parent, echoing the way her mom had so often consoled her.

To her mother's amazement, the young child was expressing empathy. She was doing what she could to relieve her mother's pain.

Such behaviour in young children is not new, but our understanding of it is. Recent research has revealed that babies know far more than we ever thought they did, and they are forming enduring behavioural responses to what is going on around them. A child's explosive developmental growth from birth to age three is unlike any other period of life. The brain is taking shape at a warp speed. Within hours of birth, infants can begin mimicking facial expressions and can soon recognize the faces and voices of their parents.

A baby's brain cells - numbering about 100 billion at birth, mostly unconnected - get 'turned on' in response to interactions with the environment. Existing connections get strengthened, and new connections are formed. A child's experiences determine the quality and rate at which its brain cells develop and establish fundamental patterns of behaviour and emotion. This has profound implications for determining what kind of person the child will become. As infants play with their parents and manipulate objects, they learn that they can affect the world around them. An infant deprived of such interactions may grow into a helpless, passive child with limited curiosity.

What has more impact on a child: nature or nurture? This age-old debate is now obsolete, say scientists. Both genes and environment have the potential to be a source for growth and dysfunction. Think of nature and nurture in a delicate dance. While genes dictate the basic sequence of development, the quality of that development is shaped by environmental factors.

The way a child interacts with a parent or caregiver literally changes a baby's mind. Every touch, movement and emotion is translated into electrical and chemical activity that modifies the way a child's brain is wired. Cuddling with and reading to a child are as important to her brain development as eating good food, listening to stimulating sounds and seeing the world around her.

Short circuits

The downside of all this is that when a young child is deprived of positive stimulation during this developmental prime time, the brain short-circuits, in effect. If a child lacks nurturing care or suffers from malnutrition, stress, trauma, abuse or neglect, the growing brain is the first casualty. Fewer synapses fire, and the rest of the brain shuts down. At these young ages, a shutdown stalls the motor of development.

The brain is an adaptable organ, of course, and stimulation at every age will help. But focusing on building a strong foundation will yield far more lasting results than later catch-up efforts.

The message from the neurons is clear: Early intervention - the earlier, the better - has a great impact on a child's life, and on society. Early childhood programmes, even as simple as encouraging parents to talk and read to their children, can make the difference between a child who grows up to be healthy and confident and one who is withdrawn and fearful.

The youngest children do not need expensive toys for healthy development. They need something far more basic: love, nurturance and a safe and healthy environment. This imprint on a child's brain of the loving touch of a caregiver can last a lifetime.

A lifetime of benefits

Copyright Marilyn Nolt/USAAn eight-month-old boy stands tentatively in his crib, knees wobbling, his expression uncertain as he peers out into the empty room. As the child's anxiety rises, he makes several high-pitched yelps, which succeed in bringing his father to his bedside. The child's face suddenly breaks into a smile of recognition, and his father responds with a playful hug and a kiss.

Seemingly simple exchanges such as this between father and son will resonate in every aspect of the child's life. In the early childhood years, the experiences and interactions with parents, family members and other adults influence the way a child's brain develops. Recent scientific discoveries confirm that the supportive, reassuring touches and movements between a caregiver and a child can have as much impact as good health and clean water. How the brain develops during this period sets the stage for later success in primary school, adolescence and adulthood. Of course, it is never too late to improve children's health and development. But, as is more often the case, when children don't get the right start, they may never catch up or reach their full potential.

Around the world, parents and communities have created innovative ways of helping their children grow and develop. Successful care for children needs to be multidimensional, simultaneously fostering children's good health and nutrition and their cognitive, social and emotional abilities. In Sri Lanka, health care workers come to Priyanthi's village to administer childhood vaccines, perform medical check-ups and promote health education in the community. Pre-schools focus on stimulation, play, numeracy and literacy preparation among the youngest children. Taken together, these efforts have helped young children like Madushika and her two-year-old brother Madusha thrive and shine. Early childhood care in its most elemental form has made a profound difference in the lives of Priyanthi's children and her community.

Early childhood care is also a force for positive social change. In a crèche in South Africa, the seeds of racial healing are being sown in an area where apartheid had previously fostered hatred. In a poor neighbourhood in Johannesburg, tucked in the corner of a park once labelled 'For whites only', the Impilo Project is providing comprehensive care for young children of all races. The programme helps parents find jobs and promotes safety for women and children in the surrounding communities. By fostering problem-solving over conflict and acceptance over intolerance, children in South Africa are acquiring the tools necessary to lead their families and their newly democratic nation towards peace.

Early childhood care has a ripple effect throughout societies. Promoting children's survival also requires advocating for the rights of women, whose physical and emotional condition influences their pregnancies and their babies' development. Poor prenatal care and malnutrition in mothers have been linked to low birthweight, hearing problems, learning difficulties, spina bifida and brain damage in children. Infants born to underweight mothers are more likely to develop conditions later as adults, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity. The 1990 World Summit for Children recognized the importance of maternal health to children when it called for cutting maternal deaths in half by the year 2000.

We are still far from that urgent goal. A woman in the developing world is 40 times more likely than a woman living in the industrialized world to die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth. A study in Bangladesh showed that when a woman dies in childbirth, her surviving baby is 3 to 10 times more likely to die within two years than a child who is living with both parents. Shoring up care for mothers would protect children. Recognizing this, UNICEF and its many partners promote safe motherhood initiatives throughout the world.

Less than a kilometre from Priyanthi's home lives a family not regularly involved in early childhood care programmes. The father, 33-year-old Wimalarathne, is clearly concerned about his two-year-old daughter's development. He beckons to his wife, Kusumawathi, 30, to get their daughter's growth chart, which shows the child's weight and height dropping from average readings at birth to below average as a toddler. The small girl with the piercing dark eyes barely utters a word. Wimalarathne said that the doctor is at a loss about her slow growth and has recommended that the family become involved with the home-visiting programme.

Two families in the same village, in similar circumstances, yet the children are so different. These families in Sri Lanka, like millions throughout the world, are poor. Most are subsistence farmers and casual labourers who work in nearby factories or on tea plantations. Although 99 per cent of the children are immunized, almost 40 per cent are malnourished. Some families have access to and benefit from early childhood care programmes. Many more do not.


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