North American Ed - Brain development

1. Early brain development

The formation and growth of the human brain are undoubtedly two of the most remarkable feats of human construction… Knowledge of brain development is critical to understanding child development” (Nelson, 2011, p. 45).

In recent years, the explosion of new science about early human brain development has changed the way we think and has increased our understanding of how important everyday experiences are for nurturing brains. Much of this is due to new information about the interplay between genes and experience and the sensitive, reactive nature of the brain.

Much of what parents naturally do when they interact with babies is highly supportive of healthy brain development.

Watch the video below that has three scenes of baby-parent interaction. Notice how each parent responds to and engages his/her baby.

VIEW Baby-parent interactions (2:53)
Available on DVD

What were some examples in the clips of parents following their baby’s lead?

How did parents show they were noticing their baby’s subtle social signals?

How would you describe the emotional tone of these scenes?

The human brain is a complex three-pound organ at the centre of human behaviour and development. Our brains orchestrate our physical, social, emotional, linguistic and cognitive development. Our personalities, emotions, language, attention, memory and thinking are all based in the brain. Our brains govern how we learn, interpret incoming information, and behave. The workings of our immune and hormonal systems influence our behaviour and our physical and emotional health. In short, our brains make us who we are.

Consider… Jillian (ten months) is at a neighbourhood playground with her grandmother. She is asleep in her stroller when they arrive, so her grandmother sits on a bench under the shade of a large tree. Jillian wakes up and starts to cry. Her grandmother quickly leans over the stroller and strokes Jillian’s head, saying, “Good morning Jillian. I hope you had a good rest.” As Jillian looks into her grandmother’s eyes, her cries subside…  Read more 

How do you think this kind of spontaneous everyday experience is influencing Jillian’s developing brain?

Can you think about how these kinds of experiences help set the foundation for what is to follow in Jillian’s life?

We now know that the human brain is highly responsive, particularly early in life. Our earliest experiences in infancy and childhood influence our brain development and reach long into adulthood and senescence. At the same time, our brains remain open to environmental influence as long as we are alive.

How the brain develops can be compared to how a tree grows and develops as it responds to its surrounding environment. Just as a tree responds to the sunlight, water and earth, so do our brains respond to the physical and social environments around us. Consider the following:

brain growth by weight.

In the next video, Dr. Stuart Shanker, distinguished research professor emeritus at York University, points out the nature of our brains today is rooted in our evolutionary past. About five million years ago our hominid ancestors descended from the trees, began to walk upright and the brains of the early human species grew larger and larger. In order to accommodate walking upright and larger brains – and still allow women to be able to give birth – human babies are born prematurely. In fact, at full term, human babies are born with a brain that is one quarter the size of an adult brain, but it grows dramatically in the early years.

VIEW Shanker - evolution (2:59)
Available on DVD

In the next clip, Shanker explains the vital role of caregivers in supporting early brain development.

VIEW Shanker - caregivers (2:11)
Available on DVD

Shanker stresses that humans are the most adaptable species and that this is driven by the fact that when we are born, our brains are essentially immature. How the brain develops has a great deal to do with how caregivers interact with the child. In the next video, Anne Rundle, a child development curriculum developer and consultant, explains how traditional Indigenous practices during the prenatal period and after birth support early brain development.

VIEW Rundle - Indigenous child rearing practices (1:32)
Available on DVD

Think about the variety of caregiving practices around the world. How might caregiver responses make a difference in shaping a child’s way of seeing the world?

How do you think the parents’ sensitivity in the videoclips earlier on this page support their baby’s brain development?

What if the adults around the child are stressed for some reason? Could that make a difference?

Adults who have some understanding of brain development can make a big difference in children’s growth, learning and development. Dr. Fiona Stanley, distinguished professorial fellow in the School of Paediatrics and Child Health at the University of Western Australia, explains how our new understanding of early brain development helps us see how the everyday nurturing of babies and small children, and the loving interactions that make up the moments of childhood, work together to benefit children and societies. Dr. Jean Clinton, clinical professor of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neuroscience at McMaster University, adds to this idea by explaining that loving interactions actually “build” the babies’ brains.

VIEW Stanley - nurturing (3:24)
Available on DVD
VIEW Clinton – love builds brains (2:54)
Available on DVD

Why does Fiona Stanley think it is important for those working with young children and their families to know about early brain development?

To what extent do you think people who work with young children are aware of this information? What about families themselves? Do you have any ideas on how to spread this understanding?

Do you think Jean Clinton’s message that “love builds brains” could help parents and caregivers better understand how to respond to babies?

Early brain and biological development is a large and complex area of research. In the following presentation are some key ideas, which you will learn more about in this module.

The following summary, from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, reviews brain and early child development.

These reports from the Center on the Developing Child discuss the need to focus on all domains of development. Have you seen early years programs that focus too much on cognitive-language abilities and not enough on social and emotional development? What could be used to promote a more balanced approach that considers all areas of development?

Think about your own social situation and relationships with adult caregivers growing up. How you think they have influenced your own development?

The following reading is from the Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development. In it, the late Dr. Fraser Mustard of the Founder’s Network explains key concepts involved in early human development, such as environmental effects on the architecture and function of the brain, epigenetic processes in animals and humans, and potential early interventions to support healthy development.