Jun 19, 2014

What’s so important about the early years?

Steven H. Chapman, M.D.Our guest author this week is Steven H. Chapman, M.D., Assistant Professor of Pediatrics in General Academic Pediatrics at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College; Director of the Boyle Community Pediatrics Program; and Associate Director of Child Health at the Center for Primary Care and Population Health at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center. Dr. Chapman is a passionate advocate for children.

The earliest years of life are a critical period for development. Eighty-percent of the brain is developed by age three, and ninety-percent by age five. One million brain connections are formed every second. This early development becomes a foundation for all future learning, behavior and health. Simple connections and skills are formed first, followed by more complex connections and skills. The stronger the connections, the stronger the foundation for ongoing development.

A child’s early experiences are like a house — if you build a house on a shaky foundation and if you continue to build on top of it, it’s more likely to collapse. Our children need to have a solid start during these first years.

While genes serve as a blueprint for brain development, the strength of the connections comes from positive interactions with adults, the child’s environment, and nutrition. “Serve and return” interactions—in which the baby offers a sound, gesture or cry and the adult responds with eye contact, sounds, or nurturing physical touch—reinforces the baby’s brain connections by repeatedly stimulating them. Activities like reading, singing, talking and playing with babies are essential to strong brain development—as are a safe and stable environment and a healthy diet.

Depriving our youngest children of the quality early experiences they need is the same as sending them to a race with no training. Our children will run faster and farther in life if we prepare them early.

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