Entries in brain development (2)


All You Need is Love

When a baby is born, it has more brain cells than at any other time in its life (200 billion). Throughout  the first years of life more and more connections are formed as the baby's brain becomes 'wired'.  90% of this wiring takes place in the first five years. It is these connections that are the basis of both cognitive and emotional development. 

The brain cells become connected through the experiences the baby has and since a baby cannot provide its own experience because it is totally helpless, that experience is provided by others. Positive contacts between carers and baby release chemicals that help them bond and soothes the child if distressed. If however the child's experience is of being denied physical and emotional closeness, being ignored, shouted at or criticised, the child experiences stress, which if prolonged can lead to permanent changes in the brain.

This information is particularly important when it comes to making a decision about child care for the under fives - and especially for the under threes. At a recent conference a speaker spoke about the increasing tendency for babies to be in nurseries for a whole day, many of which are open from 6.00am to 7.00pm. If I imagine what this is like for the babies, I am reminded of an experience I had with a friend of mine Fred, who at nearly 90 was unable to look after himself. It was decided that he should go into residential care and I viewed a number of facililties in our local area. I chose the best of those on offer and he moved in. He was so  miserable there, that after a month he moved back home and we made another (one to one) arrangement.

When I visited him in the residential home, I was struck by the similarity in set-up with day nurseries. He was alone in his room most of the day. (I know babies are not alone in rooms but if they spend most of their day lying in a cot, it's just a matter of scale.) His carers were usually unskilled and too busy to give him individual attention. The job was low paid and often a first stop on the way to a better career, so turnover was high. Similarly day nurseries are usually staffed by young girls with a minimum of training, pay is low and turnover high. Some carers may have natural nurturing instincts -if they have been well nurtured themselves but they have to spread it between several babies. If a baby becomes bonded with a carer -which is surely the best option, they may be separated as the baby grows older and is cared for in another part of the nursery or the carer leaves. Another separation and sense of abandonment!

Fred spoke up, we listened and he went back to his home. Are we really listening to our babies when they cry when being left in the morning? when in our stomachs we know they may stop crying but are not really happy? When they are clingy and quiet when picked up. This is not an argument for a child to be with its mother all day everyday, but we know what babies need and it should inform all decisions that are made about child care. Child minder or day nursery? sharing child care with other family members? How to choose the right nursery? when should I go back to work? for how long?

Small children need warm close and responsive nurturing from all adults with whom they spend any amount of time. Good carers interact with a baby not just because he is crying or grizzling but because the carer, cares. So there is only one question when it comes to chosing child care. Do they care about the child or just care for him?


Frank Field and Childhood Poverty

I went to school with holes in my shoes. When it rained the water squished up between my toes. As a teenager I once went out on a bitterly cold winter's evening in a cotton jacket because the only warm coat I had was my school gaberdine - and I'd rather die of cold than of shame! We only heated one room in the house (with a coal fire) and in the winter there were ice crystals on the inside of the bedroom window. We didn't have an indoor lavatory or bathroom and took a weekly bath in a tin bath, which we kept on a nail in the back yard. I see now that we were poor but we didn't think of ourselves as poor, we thought of ourselves as 'working class'. We were in fact what is now referred to as respectable working class but by all modern measures of poverty we were very poor. We are not poor today; my sister is a university lecturer, my brother runs a small business and I am a psychologist.

How did we get from there to here? Free orange juice, cod liver oil, immunizations, school milk, school dinners, the 11plus, free tuition and a maintenance grant at an elite university all helped, but by far the most important reason was family. They couldn't give us a lot of things but they gave us a lot of time. They talked to us, played with us, gave us strong clear values and supported us at every stage of our education. Stability and security also played a large part. In my whole childhood I never knew a single person who came from a broken family. My parents bickered a lot but it never once crossed my mind that they would separate or divorce. When I set out for school in the morning my head was clear of any family worries and I was able to concentrate on my lessons.

I am reminded of this because of a new report by Frank Field on social exclusion and childhood poverty. He emphasizes what psychologists have known for years that a child’s future path is already determined at five. This is not a matter of material deprivation but of intellectual and emotional deprivation. For a baby’s brain to develop fully, it needs constant positive stimulation and the window of opportunity for such brain development is limited. It's not just that at five some children know more but that they have also acquired ways of learning and exploring. Children with little early years stimulation, not only know less but they also have a passive less responsive attitude to learning new things.

Very few people today are as materially deprived as many were in the 50s. The answer is not throw more money at the problem because it’s not material poverty that causes the problem but poverty of experience and aspiration. If a child’s brain is open and receptive there is hope even if he has a hole in his shoes.