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Infants & Toddlers (0-3 years)

The critical first three years

The first eight years of life are a unique stage in the human lifecycle, the period in which children first acquire and then hone early skills and competencies that will shape who they become as individuals. Within the eight-year span, the first three years—the time of infancy and toddlerhood—are especially critical to children's lifelong trajectories. During this time, children lay the neural foundations that will support development of cognition and character as they grow toward school age, adolescence and adulthood. The stronger that foundation, the more likely children are to lead healthy, productive and successful lives.

Brain development and children's earliest experiences

Throughout the first three years of life, the human brain develops new synaptic connections at an astonishing pace, creating a highly flexible neural architecture that is keenly sensitive to the interactions and environments a child experiences on a daily basis. For good or ill, these early experiences are physically "written" into that neural architecture and shape the emergence of key, interdependent functions such as language, logic, memory and behavioral control. Stimulating and emotionally supportive early experiences help create efficient and resilient neural connections in the brain, enabling children to develop the increasingly complex traits of cognition and character they will need for lifelong success. 

Why quality early experiences matter

Formation of strong neural architecture requires more than simply ensuring that children's most basic needs are met. High-quality, age-appropriate interactions with caregivers and stimulating environments are essential to robust synaptic connections and healthy brain function. When these qualities are absent from children's earliest experiences, it can physically inhibit the growth of neural circuitry supporting learning, memory and a wide range cognitive and behavioral skills. Developmentally inadequate or even harmful early experiences are linked to risk factors such as family instability, maternal depression, low-quality child care settings, poor nutrition, limited opportunities for language growth and high levels of unrelieved ("toxic") stress. These factors not only contribute to developmental problems early in life, but are also linked to chronic physical, mental and behavioral health conditions well into adulthood.

Learn More

Experiences Build Brain Architecture (Video) - Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University

Inbrief: The Science of Early Childhood Development (PDF) - Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University

The Lifelong Effects of Early Childhood Adversity and Toxic Stress (Webpage) - American Academy of Pediatrics

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