During the first 1,000 days of life, it is estimated that more than a million new neural connections are formed in a child’s brain – every second. Our interactions with our children during these formative years of what Dr. Maria Montessori calls the “absorbent mind”, have a lifelong impact on them. Over 90% of the brain is developed by the age of 5!
Neural pathways are formed as infants absorb information from their environment through the senses.
Prior to birth, one-fourth of the neurons are formed. The remaining three-fourths of the neurons will remain unfinished until the brain starts to receive information from the senses. Infants absorb information from their environment via the senses and can have up to twice the amount of neural pathways than adults.
Neural pathways are strengthened by repeated use.
Neural pathways that are strengthened by repeated use will become better connected and strengthened. Have you observed a child making the same movement over and over? Perhaps repeating a sound, or a word, incessantly? Completing the same task again, and again? Reading books or watching movies on repeat? That natural inclination towards repetition is wired for the building of neural connections. Neural pathways that are not used often enough, or not at all, are eliminated. This is the normal process of brain development (they really don’t need all those neural pathways) but is also one of the reasons we emphasize diverse, hands-on learning experiences for young children.
Different types of neural connections affect one another.
It is also important to understand that our brains are highly integrative, and that different types of neural connections affect one another. A child’s cognitive, physical, emotional and social development are all linked together.
The development of brain architecture provides the foundation for all future learning, behavior and health.
Harvard University says that the development of brain architecture during these early years provides the “foundation for all future learning, behavior, and health. Just as a weak foundation compromises the quality and strength of a house, adverse experiences early in life can impair brain architecture, with negative effects lasting into adulthood.” (Developing Child, Harvard)
How can this knowledge result in smarter parenting?
- We can provide a loving and safe environment for our children
The greatest gift we can give our child is a loving connection with ourselves. We can provide them with the care, attention, and love they need to thrive. These loving interactions stimulate the brain, and positively impact their social, emotional and cognitive development!
Knowing this, we may be concerned if we are going through major life changes (loss of a loved one, moving, job changes, relational changes, changes to physical health), that it will negatively impact our children. The great news is that, while stressors can negatively impact a child, a healthy and loving bond with parents can negate this impact.
- We can ensure our own wellbeing (physical health & mental health)
To provide our children with a loving and safe environment, we first need to ensure our own wellbeing, which includes physical and mental health. While some aspects of parenting may seem intuitive, most are not. As the saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Reaching out to physicians and other health practitioners for our own mental and physical health and reaching out to community organizations for meeting other tangible, physical needs, is the best thing we can do for ourselves and for our children.
Having a community of trusted friends is also a great support for parents, who are often on-duty 24/7. Schedule your days so that you can get sufficient sleep (okay, not always possible with an infant – but what are steps you can take to improve on how much sleep you’re getting?) Carve out time for activities and hobbies that help you relax. A little physical activity, even just a walk, can give you a mental “recharge”. Enlist the help of your spouse and other trusted friends and family members when you need a break. If you find yourself worn out and stressed, consider what non-essential activities can be eliminated from your schedule. Set boundaries when it comes to saying “yes” in both your professional and personal life.
- We can lovingly and consistently communicate with and respond to our babies
Responding to our babies requires that we first learn to read our babies cues. It then results with us responding to our babies’ cues. Communication is also key: while changing diapers and feeding our children, we converse with them, look them in the eye. It need not happen only during times where we give our children exclusive attention. While washing the dishes and our baby is sitting in a bouncer, we can explain to them what we are doing, sing a song, play snatches of “Peek-a-boo” with them.
We can provide nurturing, positive SENSORY experiences for our babies.
Touch: Hold your baby often. Play games that involve physical contact, like “Pat-a-cake”. Many babies enjoy a soothing lotion or oil massage after bath time. Hold hands, snuggle, tickle, hugs. As they grow older, some playful and gentle wrestling. Use bottle feeding time as an opportunity for contact and snuggles, even after they can hold their own bottle!
Taste: Introduce your child to a variety of foods: varying flavors and textures. If they don’t like it, put it in rotation for another time. Experts say it may take at least twelve times of being exposed to a food before they like it!
Smell: Point out smells in your environment. When you cut open an orange, explain what you smell and bring it close to their nose. When you open the jar of vanilla, when you walk by a flower in bloom, when you turn up fresh soil in the garden. (Try to avoid heavily scented air fresheners, detergents and perfumes, as babies can be sensitive to these!)
Hear: Talk to your child! Read to them. Use a variety of intonation, pitch, and repeated words or phrases. Listen to a variety of music: children’s nursery songs, your favorite album, classical music. Introduce your child to noise-making instruments like rhythm sticks, bells, triangles, xylophones, maracas. Point out sounds in your environment: dogs barking, birds tweeting, car horns, sirens, water splashing, raindrops pelting.
Sight: A baby’s sight develops slowly over 6-8 months. Their early vision is developed to see objects that are close up (as in 8-12” away!) and they can detect light, shapes and movement beyond that. Get on their level and make a variety of facial expressions (babies prefer human faces to all other patterns and images, say scientists!) From birth, introduce a variety of high-contrast décor and books (especially black and white for the first three months). Read stories and show them pictures of family members.
We can provide nurturing, positive, REPETITIVE experiences for our babies.
Singing the same songs over and over, reading books on repeat, and even bedtime and other daily routines can be monotonous for adults, but remember, you’re building those neural pathways! Children thrive on routines!
We can limit passive experiences for our babies
When we talk about passive experiences, we are talking about our child sitting back, observing, watching and being entertained.
Of course, many of us automatically think of screen time as a passive experience, and rightfully so. Experts recommend no screens for a child’s first 2 years of life, and from 3-5, recommend only 1 hour per day. Excessive and regular screen use can result in sleep problems, behavioral problems, delays in language and social skills, attention problems and more.
But, children can also have passive experiences with toys: for example, watching a toy go around and around. Toys that chant the ABCs and numbers can also be mainly passive. This is why, in a Montessori classroom, you will not see typical battery-operated early childhood toys with flashing lights, music and other functions. Instead, we opt for items which are “open-ended” – require the use of active participation: imagination, interaction, experimentation and more.
We can ensure our babies receive regular well-checks with their physician
Physical health affects cognitive health and vice versa. Ensure your child is healthy by receiving regular well-checks and talking to your child’s physician about any concerns you might have.
Want more? Check out these brief videos!
How to Boost Your Baby’s Brain from a Harvard Professor, UNICEF
How Brains are Built: The Core Story of Brain Development, AFWI