First 5 things to know about early brain development

by | Aug 13, 2023

brain development

The critical role access to affordable, quality child care plays in parents’ ability to work and communities to flourish has been at the forefront of the public conversation in Nebraska and the nation recently. While we need to pay attention to the immediate urgency of the child care crisis, policymakers also should remember that young children’s earliest experiences affect their developmental outcomes and in turn, the long-term vitality of our state.

A strong start in life that includes responsive adult relationships and positive experiences during children’s earliest years builds the brain architecture all children need to grow and acquire skills across their lifetime. Social and education policies often focus on the school years, but the prenatal-to-age-3 period is a unique window of opportunity when the growing brain is most flexible and sensitive to early learning experiences. Building strong brain architecture early ensures children  start school prepared to learn and embrace a successful future.

Interactions build brain architecture
Consistently warm, supportive, language-rich interactions with babies builds connections, or synapses, between the billions of brain cells they’re born with. During the first three years, synapses are firing at the astonishing rate of one million new connections per second. Over time, ineffective or weak synapses fade away through “pruning,” and those that are used most frequently become the neural network that supports all learning.

While we retain the ability to build synaptic pathways throughout our life, the brain’s plasticity, or capacity to change, decreases as we get older. It’s easier and more effective to influence a child’s developing brain in the earliest years than “rewire” parts of it later when it’s more difficult and will be less strong and efficient, even with specialized or remedial education.

Close relationships play a critical role 
Parents play a critical role in shaping their child’s brain development by helping create habits of learning, behavior and reasoning. The benefits of early positive experiences are evident in the way young children acquire language, form healthy attachments and engage with the world around them. When children lack positive early learning opportunities, the brain will wire itself to form other kinds of neural “habits” that are unlikely to contribute to lifelong success.

Serve-and-return builds brain circuitry
One specific type of interaction between babies and parents or caregivers significantly influences neurological development. When babies communicate through babbling or gestures, and adults respond with sounds, words, facial expressions and touch, they are engaging in simple serve-and-return interactions that spark synaptic connections in children’s brains. Caregivers who repeatedly interact in positive serve-and-return exchanges with young children help build a strong neural framework for future cognitive, emotional and social development. Watch a short video on serve-and-return interactions

Executive function skills yield lifelong benefits
Children who can regulate their emotions and behavior, follow directions, take turns and stay focused are on their way to developing executive function skills they need to manage themselves successfully in the world as students and later as adults.

Setting the foundation for achieving these skills begins in children’s early years with supportive, encouraging interactions with parents, caregivers and other important adults in their lives. If children don’t receive what they need from their relationships with adults, development of executive function can be impaired or delayed.

Toxic stress impacts development and health
Learning to deal with stress is part of healthy development. When we feel threatened, it’s natural to produce stress hormones and experience an elevated heart rate and blood pressure. When children encounter periods of everyday stress, like feeling overwhelmed in a new situation, for example, and are comforted and encouraged by adults, they learn to deal with stress and return to normal levels. This helps them develop a healthy stress-response system.

But when children lack loving, dependable relationships with adults, their early development and well-being can be seriously compromised. Severe, unrelenting stress, prolonged neglect, physical or mental abuse, poverty, homelessness, parental mental illness or a host of other stressors can disrupt healthy development resulting in delays and even health problems later in life.






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