Babies Exposed to Stimulation Get a Brain Boost

By Audrey van der Meer,

Professor of Developmental Neuroscience at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU).

Prof. Audrey van der Meer holding a baby wearing an EEG net as used in the study. Photo taken by Lena Knutli.

 

Contrary to popular belief, providing young children with early stimulation can help to boost their development.

Many new parents still think that babies should develop at their own pace, and that they shouldn’t be challenged to do things that they’re not yet ready for. Infants should learn to roll around under their own power, without any “helpful” nudges, and they shouldn’t support their weight before they can stand or walk on their own.

This mindset can be traced back to the early 1900s, when professionals were convinced that our genes determine who we are, and that child development occurred independently of the stimulation that a baby is exposed to. They believed it was harmful to hasten development, because development would and should happen naturally.

Early stimulation in the form of baby gym activities, baby massage, and early potty training play a central role in Asia and Africa. The old developmental theory also contrasts with modern brain research that shows that early stimulation contributes to brain development gains especially in the wee ones among us.

Using the body and senses

Our research using advanced EEG technology shows that the neurons in the brains of young children quickly increase in both number and specialization as the baby learns new skills and becomes more mobile. Neurons in very young children form up to a thousand new connections per second.

Our results also show that the development of our brain, sensory perception, and motor skills happen in sync. For the first few months after birth, babies are only capable of lying flat on their backs staring up at the ceiling. They are unable to locomote on their own— and so it is not important for infants to be able to perceive precisely the direction and speed of self-motion, nor whether objects are approaching on a collision course or not. But after only a few weeks’ crawling experience, we see that babies process this kind of information much faster and are able to distinguish between many forms of visual motion. Thus, changes in locomotion abilities trigger brain and perceptual development in young babies.

As a result, even the smallest babies must be challenged and stimulated at their level from birth onward. They need to engage their entire body and senses by exploring their world and different materials, both indoors and outdoors and in all types of weather. It should be emphasized that the experiences must be self-produced; it is not enough for children merely to be carried or pushed in a stroller.

Unused brain synapses disappear

Many people believe that children up to three years old only need cuddles and nappy changes, but studies show that rats raised in normal cages have less dendritic branching in the brain than rats raised in a gym-like environment with climbing and hiding places and tunnels. Research also shows that children born into cultures where early stimulation is considered important, develop earlier than Western children do.

The brains of young children are very malleable, and can therefore adapt to what is happening around them. If the new synapses that are formed in the brain are not being used, they disappear as the child grows up and the brain loses some of its plasticity.

This can be clearly seen in language development. Babies around the world manage to distinguish between the sounds of any language in the world when they are four months old, but by the time they are eight months old they have lost this ability. Chinese babies, for example, hear the difference between the R and L sounds when they are four months old, but not when they get older. Since Chinese children do not need to distinguish between these sounds to learn their mother tongue, the brain synapses that carry this information disappear when they are not used.

Early stimulation with the very young

Since a lot is happening in the brain during the first years of life, it is easier to promote learning and prevent problems when children are very young. The term “early stimulation” keeps popping up in discussions of kindergartens and schools, teaching and learning. Early stimulation is about helping children as early as possible to ensure that as many children as possible succeed in their education and on into adulthood – precisely because the brain has the greatest ability to change under the influence of the changing conditions early in life.

A two-year-old can easily learn to read or swim, as long as the child has access to letters or water. Kindergarten should therefore be more than just a holding place – it should be a learning arena, stimulating each individual child at its own level. However, kindergarten should not be a preschool, but rather a place where children can have varied experiences through play. And by that I mean that playing is not the opposite of learning, but that playing is learning.

This applies to both healthy children and those with different challenges. When it comes to children with motor challenges or children with impaired vision and hearing, we have to really work to bring the world to them.

One-year-olds can’t be responsible for their own learning, so it’s up to the adults to see to it. Today untrained temporary staff tend to be assigned to the infant and toddler rooms, because it’s ‘less dangerous’ with the youngest ones since they only need cuddles and nappy changes. I believe that all children deserve qualified professionals who understand how the brains of young children work.

Link to Open Access article: http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00100/full

Audrey van der Meer, PhD, MSc
Professor of Developmental Neuropsychology
Department of Psychology
Norwegian University of Science and Technology
7491 Trondheim, Norway
http://www.svt.ntnu.no/psy/nulab/home.html

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