Early Childhood Brain Development – What’s The Science, Dude?

Radha was a software engineer and a perfectionist. She was highly proficient in her work and was appreciated by everyone with her problem solving skills and her dedication. She was very particular about any project she undertook. She would research the project in length and then after analyzing it, would give the appropriate solutions. She was working from home since the last 4 months as it was mutually decided by the couple that she was not going to take stress. She was 6 months pregnant and was taking good care of her physical as well as mental health. She planned to get back to work after 3 months of pregnancy and she goes to the doctor to find out how she should manage the child after delivery and get to work without having any negative effects on the child. She was confused as schooling starts after 3 years and wanted to know how she can nurture her child’s early days. This is a very common dilemma of majority of the working woman. The early childhood years are a period of rapid change in the brain. During early and middle childhood, the brain forms and refines a complex network of connections in the brain through synaptogenesis, pruning, and myelination.

A child’s brain undergoes an amazing period of development from birth to three years-producing more than a million neural connections each second.

There has been an explosion of research over the past decade that shows how important the first few years of a child’s life are in terms of brain development.

A newborn at birth has most of the brain cells that we will have for our entire life, but relatively little of the connections, the circuits among the different cells. What happens very, very rapidly is that the brain is building connections, it’s building synapses(connections). A baby forms 700 new neural connections per second in the first years of life. This process of building the architecture of the brain is dramatically influence by life experiences. It is not genetically hardwired. Literally our environment shapes the architecture of our brain in the first year of life. This we term as neuroplasticity.

The process of forming connections is biologically driven, but experiences also promote synapse formation. The brain produces many more synapses than it will ultimately use. Researchers describe this process as synaptic overproduction. This rapid synapse formation continues throughout early childhood. The process of myelination (covering of nerve fibres with myelin sheath so can process impulses faster) also continues during early childhood and is the major cause of the increase in a child’s brain size. In the first four years of life, the brain increases to 80% of its adult weight of 2.6 – 3.3 pounds (1200-1500 grams).

Pruning (eliminating unused nerve fibres) is a key process that shapes the brains of young children. Synaptic overproduction causes synapses to develop extremely rapidly. The pruning process refines these connections based on experience. Connections used regularly become stronger and more complex. Connections not used are considered non-essential, and the brain eventually prunes them away to increase efficiency.

As an example, an infant’s brain has connections that allow her to hear sounds from all languages in the world. During the early years, the brain strengthens connections for sounds in the languages she hears regularly. Over time, the brain eliminates the connections for other sounds. This is why most adults have trouble distinguishing sounds that are not in our language. An infant’s brain is dependent on responsiveness from adults. So all those adorable things that babies do right from the beginning — coos, gurgles, sounds and smiles — how an adult responds to those coos and gurgles help shape the brain circuitry. The first sound that a n newborn hears is the mothers voice which is the only familiar voice it hears on birth. This is the probable reason in adulthood when we hear our mothers voice it has a calming effect because of the strong connection.


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