10 things you should know about your baby's development
Neural pathways, synapses, brain plasticity... The neuroscience of baby brain development has been the subject of media coverage, debate and a certain amount of hype in recent years. But what does it mean to parents? John Hoffman worked with Stuart Shanker, co-author of Early Years Study 2* and York University professor of psychology and philosophy, to dig out the research that can help parents understand their vital role in supporting early brain development.
1. Nurture influences nature
We’ve heard about the nature versus nurture debate. What determines how a child turns out — the genes she was born with or the influence of her family, school and community? Savvy people (and sensible parents) have been saying that both nature and nurture are important.
Now studies from the new field of epigenetics show that environment and experience, including nurturing early in life, can actually influence the way genes work. This is true of animals as well as humans. Mother rats lick their pups repeatedly in the first few hours of life. When rat pups are deprived of that, their brains develop higher levels of a hormone called cortisol, which has a negative effect on the way some of their genes work. As a result, they develop lower intelligence and are less able to cope with stress as adults.
Here’s a striking human example. Genetic research has shown that if people have a short version of one particular gene and they are raised in adverse circumstances, they are predisposed to suffer from depression. But an ongoing study that’s following a large group of New Zealanders has found that if children with the short version of this gene get normal good parenting and nurturing, the gene doesn’t get turned on, so to speak. They don’t develop depression.
Your child was born with a genetic blueprint, which provides a basis for everything from hair colour to the tendency to develop certain abilities or health problems. But this combination of genes does not fully determine your child’s life path. Genes need “instructions.” Genetics might create a potential for a child to be six-foot-four. But poor nutrition can inhibit his growth so that he never reaches that potential. The same applies to a child’s ability to count or relate to other people.
You can’t change your child’s genetic blueprint, but the care and interaction you provide can influence how it plays out. Read on to find out how.