Lighting up Young Brains
by Claire Paye, MAHM
According to Professor Torsten Baldeweg, Professor of Neuroscience and Child Health, from University College London’s Institute of Child health, the early years ‘are absolutely critical’. The report in which he is quoted, ‘Lighting up Young Brains’ also identifies 130,000 children a year who are ‘falling behind’, particularly in speech and language.
No one seems to be making the connection between the fact that mothers are expected to work rather than spend time with their children and that these 130,000 children most likely are not the children of stay at home parents, but of working parents, for the statistical reason that most parents now work.
The report suggests that, as toddlers are already having to spend so much time in formal childcare settings, these settings need to be better at helping their brains develop. The report does not identify the fact that if children were able to spend more time one on one with their mother or father at home, and if their parents were given help to recognise the value of all the things which most parents do instinctively – teaching counting, talking and listening, singing together and so on – this would be just as valid a solution as putting professional teachers into childcare settings.
The salient conclusion of this report, for me, is the importance of parents interacting with their children. Being at home but on social media is not good parenting and will not give children the time together that they need to thrive. But there are many studies indicating that children who are cared for responsively and consistently by their mother (there aren’t enough fathers who are the primary carers to include in these studies). For example, ‘maternal support in early childhood predicts larger hippocampal volumes at school age’, Luby et al 2013. The hippocampus is a brain region key to memory and stress modulation.
A paper from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development by Professor Jay Belsky in March 2009 found that the more time children spent in centre based care from 3-54 months of age, the more cognitively and linguistically advanced they were AND the more they manifested aggressive and disobedient behaviour. These effects were less pronounced in home-based care settings. And, in fact, many of these early linguistic benefits even out as the children grow older, whereas the emotional disturbance remains. In other words, by about age 7, the academic advantage of formal childcare settings had dissipated, but the negative effects in terms of aggression and disobedience, continued. So, care outside the home does seem to be the issue.
A further study ( The Enduring Predictive Significance of Early Maternal Sensitivity: Social and Academic Competence Through Age 32 Years, by Lee Raby et al ) has found that sensitive caregiving in the first three years of life predicts an individual’s social competence and academic achievement, not only during childhood and adolescence, but into adulthood. The study used information from 243 individuals who were born into poverty, came from a range of racial/ethnic backgrounds, and had been followed from birth to age 32.
Individuals who experienced more sensitive caregiving early in life consistently functioned better socially and academically during the first three decades of life, the study found.
But perhaps I could leave the final word to the ‘Lighting up Young Brains’ report: ‘Critically, the evidence also shows that growing up with an insecure relationship can affect a child’s later physical and mental health, behaviour and education (APPG 2015). Recent research suggests that this happens because a child’s relationship with parents or carers plays a role in regulating their stress hormones. Children who have more secure relationships have more controlled stress hormone reactions. Children who have less secure relationships have higher stress hormone levels. This creates elevated hormone levels that can potentially alter the development of brain circuits in ways that make children less capable of coping with stress as they grow up (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child 2008). ‘
‘Parents and carers have the biggest influence on their child’s early learning: A strong relationship with a parent or carer gives a young child the confidence to explore the world, while everyday activities like talking and sharing books help stimulate young children’s language skills right from birth.’
So, it’s the relationships that count. A secure relationship with one or both of a child’s parents will make all the difference to their future well being. That’s something even a qualified Early Years Professional practitioner can’t achieve.