Education

Building better brains for babies

Anya Watson, 20 months, enjoys working with her babysitter Catherine Mortis at the WSRE Imagination Station in Pensacola, Fl., Wednesday, February 11, 2015. Credit: Michael Spooneybarger.

When people talk about the early educational experiences of young children kindergarten readiness is the buzzword.

Unfortunately, high quality preschool can be expensive and inaccessible to those who need it most, and this means that too many children miss the valuable opportunity to get a jumpstart on school and in life.

But parents who want their children to have a strong start in life don’t have to wait for them to start school.

The most important growth and development that physically forms the brain starts well before a child ever picks up a pencil, reads a book or goes to school.

Part of that development is related to brain development. The relationships with the important people in a baby’s life can literally shape and form the intricate structure of an infant’s brain.

“No one knows precisely how much positive feedback the brain needs, but I can tell you for certain that a very small amount of it, even if only for a few hours a day, is critically important,” says Gavin Rumbaugh, an associate professor in the department of neuroscience at the Scripps Research Institute in Jupiter. “The brain is incredibly resilient, and any positive experience that child has will stay with that child.”

Courtney Miller works at Jupiter’s Scripps Research Institute with Rumbaugh. Married with a baby, they also work together on research into memory and how the brain develops and ages.

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Courtney Miller and Gavin Rumbaugh

The two researchers shared their findings in a panel discussion with the Children’s Services Council of Palm Beach County and Scripps Institute as part of the First 1000 Days Florida Summit in West Palm Beach.

In recent years attention has increasingly focused on the most critical period of a child’s life — the first 1,000 days from pregnancy to the third birthday. It is considered a critical window of life that sets in motion a person’s intellectual development and lifelong health.

Among the goals of the Studer Community Institute is to improve the community’s quality of life, and providing quality education is an integral part of it.

Kindergarten readiness is among 16 key metrics in the Institute’s Pensacola Metro Dashboard. It is also an essential key to preparing children for school and helping them continue toward high school graduation and beyond.

Reams of research point out that when the brain’s structure has a strong foundation in the early years, infants and toddlers are more likely to be robust learners throughout their lives.

Children who feel comfortable, safe and engaged have better outcomes in the long run.

Rumbaugh and Miller said they do everything they can to foster the healthy development of their child.

To be sure, learning how to cope with adversity and stress is an important part of healthy development.

While normal life stressors are not dangerous, and can even be healthy for a developing brain, toxic stress occurs when the body’s response system to stress is activated much of the time.

While a small amount of stress in the body can promote growth, toxic stress can having damaging effects on a child’s learning, behavior and health.

When infants and toddlers are regularly ignored, frequently experience violence, or spend much of their time in highly stressful environments, they are considered to be exposed to toxic stress.

Without caring adults to buffer them, the stress caused by extreme poverty, neglect, abuse or severe maternal depression can weaken the structure of the developing brain, with long-term consequences for learning, behavior and both physical and mental health, Miller says.

The loving, nurturing relationship that parents, family members, and teachers provide can act as a buffer to the effects of toxic stress. Consistent adult support can help a young child come through such difficulties with a brain that is still fully able to learn.

“We try to create an environment for him where he is as comfortable and as happy as possible,” Rumbaugh said.

Miller added: “Yes, that’s true. Stress is not good for the baby brain. It’s not good for any of our brains, but definitely not when you’re a baby.”

Skills and risks that develop during the critical period of the first 1,000 days add up and lay the solid foundation for a child’s future.

For newborns and young infants, most of their emotional experiences take place in the moments of interaction with their parents and caregivers, said Alain Glen, a supervisor for Nurse-Family Partnership Alliance in Miami-Dade and a summit panelist on engaging families.

Newborn and caregiver interactions usually occur around simple but important activities such as comforting, feeding and holding.

“It’s deceptively simple, but the interactions with responsive caregivers build the brain, creating or strengthening it one connection at a time,” he said. “By the time children are 2 years old, the structure of their brain that will influence later learning are mostly formed.”

Building Readiness Among Infants Now, dubbed the BRAIN Program, is an initiative to help parents help their children.  It is a universal home-visiting program offered to families of all newborns in Martin and Lucie counties.

The program offers newborn home visits from a hospital nurse, a two-month home visit from a network of helpers who provide information, gifts and monitoring in partnership with area hospitals.

Included in the program for parents is a BRAIN bag, a canvas bag printed with logos of fund providers from each county, and filled with topic-related materials and developmental gifts for the baby.

All parents want their children to have a strong start in life, but some don’t have the knowledge or skills to provide a solid foundation for a successful future in school.

The Zero to Three National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families offers some helpful tips for parents and caregivers to consider:

— Establish routines with your baby or child

— Allow for and make plenty of time for play

— Help your child learn to become a problem-solver

— Give your child responsibilities

— Celebrate your child’s successes

— Encourage your child to try to master the tasks he or she is struggling with

— Provide language for your child’s experience

— Be a role model yourself

The First 1000 Days Florida Summit is a step in the right direction to engage families and involve communities in child development.

Miller stressed that when it comes to the brain’s development, nothing is permanent and positive change can redirect a child’s brain patterns and life.

“While we are born with the same number of neurons, it can be changed,” Miller said. “While babies can be changed by early life stress, they also can be changed through efforts later on in life.”

People who have the knowledge and skills to provide responsive interactions can help to shape the physical structure of a child’s brain so that he or she will be fully able to learn now, in school and in the years to come.

Ideally, parents, families, teachers, home visitors, policy makers, and anyone who works with or for infants and toddlers and have a solid understanding of how young brains develop and grow can make informed choices in their work for infants and toddlers.

“We know and understand a lot more now, so how do we generate this into political will and galvanize policy response at a state level and national level?” said Tanya Palmer, chief program officer for the Children’s Services Council of Palm Beach. “It’s going to take all of us speaking with one voice making it relevant to the decisions that we need to make as a country if we really want to change the structure of our children.”