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As a mother feeds her child, she gazes lovingly into his eyes. A father talks gently to his newborn daughter as he changes her diaper. A caregiver sings a child to sleep.

These everyday moments, these simple, loving encounters, provide essential nourishment. Just as their bodies need food to grow, science now tells us that the positive emotional, physical, and intellectual experiences that a baby has in the earliest years are equally necessary for the growth of a healthy brain.

At birth, the infant's brain has 100 billion nerve cells, or neurons. These neurons will grow and connect with other neurons in systems that control various functions like seeing, hearing, moving, and expressing emotion. These systems, activated by repeated experiences, provide the foundation for the brain's organization and functioning throughout life. The absence of appropriate activation results in the lack of development or the disappearance of these connections.

Why should parents and caregivers know about brain development

The brain is the part of the body that allows us to feel joy or despair, to respond to others in a loving or angry way, to use reason or simply to react. These capacities don't just magically appear-they result from the interplay between a child's heredity and the experiences he or she has during childhood.

At birth, the brain is remarkably unfinished. The parts of the brain that handle thinking and remembering, as well as emotion and social behavior, are very underdeveloped. The fact that the brain matures in the world, rather than in the womb, means that young children are deeply affected by their early experiences. Their relationships with parents and other important caregivers, the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings they experience, the challenges they meet-these don't just influence their moods. These experiences actually affect the way children's brains become "wired."

In other words, early experiences help to determine brain structure, thus shaping the way people learn, think, and behave for the rest of their lives.

Principles of Brain Development

  • The outside world shapes the brains wiring
  • The outside world is experienced through the senses-seeing hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting-enabling the brain to create or modify connections
  • The brain operates on a "use it or lose it" principle
  • Relationships with other people early in life are the major source of development of the emotional and social parts of the brain.
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    How can parents and caregivers make a difference?

    Families and caregivers have always known that they are important. The new research on brain development helps to explain why. It shows that children's early attachments have a vital influence on their brain development, and that everyone who cares for young children-parents, family, friends, teachers, child care providers-can make a difference.

    Essential to all these efforts, of course, is a child's basic health and safety. Children need to be well-nourished (with breast milk at first, if possible), and have regular check-ups and timely immunizations. A doctor or nurse should be consulted when children are ill, and the places where they spend time need to be safe and "child-proofed." And when young children ride in cars, they should always be in the back seat and strapped securely into a car seat.

    Research in brain development and school readiness suggests the following ten guidelines that can help parents and other caregivers raise healthy, happy children and confident, competent learners:

    Promoting Young Children's Healthy
    Development and School Readiness:
    Ten Guidelines

  • Be warm, loving, and responsive
  • Respond to the child's cues and clues
  • Talk, read, and sing to your child
  • Establish routines and rituals
  • Encourage safe exploration and play
  • Make TV watching selective
  • Use discipline as an opportunity to teach
  • Recognize that each child is unique
  • Choose quality child care and stay involved
  • Take care of yourself
  • For more information about the Early Childhood Awareness Campaign, contact 216-736-2087

    For more parenting tips, see the next page or contact the Family Help Line at 216-229-8800


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