Early Years: Five Things Every Parent Needs to Know
Most parents have probably heard or read about how important the first five years of a child’s life are to their future physical, cognitive, emotional and social development. Years of neurological and psychological research has shown that babies begin to learn about the world around them from a very early age – including during the prenatal, perinatal (immediately before and after birth) and postnatal period.
According to information gathered by the World Health Organisation, children’s early environment and experiences lay the foundation for their physical and mental health, affecting everything from longevity to the lifelong capacity to learn, from the ability to adapt to change to the capacity for resilience against adverse circumstances.
That is why both families and schools need to work together to provide the best possible care and nurturing for early learners. But with reams of (often conflicting) information available, it can be difficult to determine what to focus your attention on while parenting. Add to that the routine challenges of parenting a young child and anybody can get overwhelmed and stressed out. That’s why we’ve put together a list of five of the most important and interesting factors to keep in mind as you make the most of your child’s precious early years:
The Brain is Your Baby’s Fastest Growing Organ
Did you know that three-month old babies can distinguish between cats and dogs, something that is extremely difficult to program into a computer? This is significant because it points to the incredible power and nuance of the human brain right from a young age.
In order to stand upright, human pelvis are small, which means human babies are born earlier than they would be otherwise. Accordingly, some paediatricians label a baby’s first 3 months of life as the “fourth trimester” of pregnancy. Just before and after birth, as many as 40,000 new synapses (connections between brain cells) are added every second to a baby’s brain. By age 2, they have more than 100 trillion synapses, the most they’ll ever have in their life.
Researchers have used the analogy of a lantern and a flashlight to distinguish between infant and adult brains. That is, an infant brain, like a lantern is vaguely aware of everything around, while the adult brain, like a flashlight, focusses on specific things while ignoring background. This is why it is exceedingly important to surround your young child with positive stimulation of varied kinds.
Holding and stroking an infant helps release hormones that are important for its growth. Additionally, talking to children, providing them with interesting age-appropriate toys and being mindful of the auditory and visual stimulation they are exposed to can go a long way to boost development in the healthiest way possible.
Baby talk has more benefits than you think
The slow, animated tones we instinctually use when interacting with babies is known as ‘Parentese’ or baby talk. Researchers have found that is critical to the development of an infant. Its exaggerated musicality and slow, animated structure emphasises the parts of language, which helps a baby develop word recognition at an earlier age. Babies who hear a lot of baby talk from mom, dad and other caregivers are more likely to pick up language sooner than babies who do not. One study revealed that babies whose parents talk to them frequently know 300 more words by age 2 than babies whose parents rarely speak to them.
At about 18 months, a toddler’s spoken vocabulary explodes, adding new words at about one every two waking hours. By age 6, it understands about 13,000 words (compared to an adult’s 60,000), even though it usually doesn’t speak that many.
When babies imitate the facial expressions of their caregivers, it triggers the emotion in them as well, which helps infants build on their basic innate understanding of emotional communication. This may also explain why parents typically exaggerate their facial expressions directed at their babies.
Preschoolers Develop A Sense Of Self
Pre-school children begin to develop a sense of self, or the ability to recognise that they are separate from their peers and even you. Your child may grab their toy and shout ‘Mine!’. This is just their way of asserting what their little minds have just realised – that they are their own individuals and that really is their toy. Such instances are ideal opportunity to agree and validate your child’s statement while at the same time explaining the importance and values of sharing their belongings with others. It is also a good idea to allow your child to express their self-hood in other ways such as allowing them to pick what they would like to wear or to eat. This helps them build confidence in their own abilities.
Music Is Good For The Mind, Body And Soul
Along with talking, music is especially beneficial to early childhood development. Music naturally makes people happy but it also helps to fuel healthy learning. Singing along, playing an instrument or just listening to different kinds of music can help boost spatial orientation as well as mathematical thinking.
Music that contains simple vocabulary – nursery rhymes, jingles, and children’s songs – is also conducive to learning sounds and picking up the meaning of words. It also strengthens memory and retention. At the same time, moving to music helps develop gross and fine motor skills
Knowing all this, it is a good idea to incorporate music in your daily routine. Some ways in which you could do this include:
- Have a set time everyday for singing to or with your child. For instance, when driving around, put on your child(ren)’s favourite songs and sing along with them in the car.
- Include musical instruments in your home or have music playing in the background when possible.
- Start the morning with a specific piece of music
- Try out musical books
- Use calm soothing music during sleep time
Stable, caring, interactive relationships with adults are an important factor in the healthy brain development of young children. Conversely, adverse early experiences such as unstable caregiving, deprivation of love or nutrition, and stresses associated with neglect and maltreatment, greatly increase the likelihood of poor health and development throughout life.
That is why high quality early childhood care and education programs are worth investing in to substantially improve children’s chances for success in later life. The right kind of early education takes advantage of crucial phases of brain development and empowers students for the rest of their lives
Studies have show that early childhood education is one of the best investments we can make, giving better returns than even investments in the financial market. One study in the USA indicated that the estimated return on investment for high quality early childhood education is ten percent while the average return on investment in the stock market is 7.2 percent.
This substantial benefit is attributed to the fact that children who receive a quality early education need fewer assistive services and public benefits over the course of their lifetime. For instance, even in grade school, there is a reduced need for grade retention or special education. Over time, this proves beneficial for the economy.
There is no doubt that the early years are a deeply special and significant time for both children and their parents. While it is natural to want to do everything you can to make the most of it, remember that while all children grow and develop in similar patterns, each child develops at his or her own pace. The most important thing is to focus on spending quality time with your child and really responding to their unique needs and sensitivities. This will be the best way to help your children grow into self-sufficient and confident individuals who can regulate their own emotions and thoughts to achieve success in whatever they set out to do.