Infants

A newborn's brain contains about 100 billion nerve cells, or neurons, and throughout the first year of life, trillions more connections, or synapses, between these nerve cells are produced - far more than baby's brain could ever use. During this wild proliferation, neurons send out long fibers, called axons, to carry electrical messages to other receptor neurons. As soon as axons make their connections, nerves begin to fire off messages: The brain is learning to communicate with itself!

The Sound of Your Voice

The brain of a four-month-old responds to every sound produced in all the languages of the world. But by the time babies are 10 months old, their brains have become so sophisticated that they can now distinguish the sounds of their own language and no longer pay attention to the sounds of languages that are foreign. What wires a baby's brain best are the clear visual, verbal, and auditory signals loving caregivers provide.

The high-pitched, rhythmic, singsong crooning style of speech known as parentheses is used by parents and other caregivers all over the world. While listening to these long, drawn-out vowels and slow high-pitched talk, baby's heart rate increases. At the same time as this process is delighting infants, it speeds up their brain's ability to recognize connections between words and objects. Babies who are spoken to this way: "Loookeeee at the doggieeee," will, by 12 months, go to the appropriate picture of a dog in a picture book more often than those babies who are talked to in normal, more monotone voices.

The sensory input you provide stimulates the growth of neuronal connections. Babies who are touched infrequently have brains that are 20 to 30 percent smaller than normal for their age. So remember, your caresses enrich brain connections in the children you care for!

You Can Help

Provide experiences that "wire in" brain connections. Lift a baby so she can turn a light switch on or off, let her push a handle to open a cabinet, and show her how to turn on a faucet to let the cool water flow out. Such experiences help baby's brain make connections between cause and effect. Keep in mind that by eight or nine months of age, the part of the brain - the hippocampus - that indexes and files memories becomes fully operative, so babies can now form explicit memories from their experiences, such as how to push a ball to make it roll.

Toddlers

A two-year-old's brain contains twice as many synapses and uses up twice as much energy as a normal adult brain. But by the time a child is 10, nature has pruned away the excess. The more you talk with toddlers, croon to and sing with them, read picture books together, and point out and name objects, the more firmly these synaptic connections are reinforced and the less likely they are to disappear. Make sure you provide a rich array of objects toddlers can handle and manipulate in different ways to produce interesting effects.

Mental Health and the Brain

Young ones are exquisitely sensitive to neglect, abuse, traumatic episodes, and maternal depression. By 36 months, toddlers whose mothers are severely depressed display abnormally low activity in the left frontal lobe, which is the brain's center for joyous emotions. Thus, a provider caring for infants and toddlers of depressed parents has a special obligation to engage in accepting, loving, and playful activities and intimate, interactive games in order to give the little one experiences that will stimulate this important joy center.

Research also tells us that trauma distorts the brain. There are sensitive periods in development not only for early language but also for secure or insecure attachments and the regulation of anxiety and behavioral impulsivity. When caregivers modulate stress so that babies are not overstimulated or frightened, and when they create predictable, safe environments, the central nervous system can establish an appropriate biochemical environment so that levels of stress chemicals remain normal.

On the other hand, children who have already learned to face the world expecting chaos, unpredictability, violence, and frightening experiences act in a persistent state of alarm. They are quick to be startled, aroused, angry, defiant, and fearful or withdrawn, and the chemical activity in their brains is abnormal. Areas of the brain are also severely affected by mistreatment; babies and young children form the long-lasting response of "freeze, flight, or fight" when they have experienced (or are experiencing) actions that are threatening and hurtful.

You Are So Important

The brain develops and organizes in response to patterns and intensity of sensory and perceptual experiences. So we need to be especially alert to youngsters who appear finely attuned to possible risks or threats. Traumatized children have racing heart rates as their brains anxiously track cues that might signal potential harm. Some whirl with fighting postures and act as if they are in danger of being attacked even if it's only another toddler in the room brushing by. Changing the neurophysiology of stress response in children requires warm, patient, loving kindness and calm, consistent care. Building intimate, warm, trusting relationships is the best way to teach a child's brain that it need not send the body messages to pour high levels of stress chemicals into her system.

All of this research reinforces what we, as good early childhood educators know: Caring adults are the first line of defense in protecting young children against stress and trauma. Nurturing providers can and must offer each little one interpretable, orderly, soothing, and loving experiences daily to support optimal brain development. Li