There are two very important early childhood windows that parents should be aware of from the moment a child is born: the 0-6 month window and the 0-6 year window (sometimes referred to as Birth to 5). The two windows set the stage for how a child problem solves, handles emotional hurdles and learns for the rest of his life.
Birth to 6 months: The Attachment Window
Birth to 6 months is when babies need lots of soothing, feeding and communication. Children whose needs are met are more assured they are in a safe place for learning and flourishing. Caregivers who give prompt attention to babies and respond gently are literally building a child’s brain and teaching positive mindset.
Children who are left in a car seat or playard for long periods of time without contact are more likely to feel fearful, experience frustration, and give up trying to have their needs met. They may stop making neural connections that grow with love and encouragement, and are more likely to continue a negative mindset into adulthood.
“Secure attachment in childhood by the primary caregiver is very important. Without that attachment, neurons don’t fire; and without neurons firing, a child cannot learn,” says Mary Moser Cooper, a care coordinator with the Fred Finch Wrap-Around Program. Cooper is a former board chair of the Southern California chapter of the Infant Development Association and a respected authority on early childhood. Ninety percent of a child’s brain develops by age 5, at a rate more rapid than any other time in life (outside the womb). The more secure a child feels during this time, the faster his brain will develop.
Primary caregiver mental health is also critical in the first six months. Moms who experience post-partum depression (PPD) or caregivers who experience isolation or feel overwhelmed should make self-care a priority, as PPD can affect attachment. Moms need to learn the secondary symptoms of PPD, which may have nothing to do with sadness.
Birth to 6 years: The Learning Window
While children are making millions of neural connections daily, parents can help train their brains for critical thinking and problem solving that are used through adulthood. Parents have a tendency to help toddlers too quickly. There is a delicate balance between meeting a baby’s needs for secure attachment and easing a toddler into independence.
Here are easy ways parents can build skills while making children feel supported:
- Engage in imaginary play. Simple tea parties and super hero play teach empathy and turn taking, and encourage children to explore imaginary worlds.
- Read. Reading to children is a great way to build neural pathways. Reading increases an understanding of timelines, builds imagination and increases letter sense so children can begin to read for themselves.
- Play ball. Visual systems develop better with simple ball play. The more a child interacts with three-dimensional objects, the more he develops spatial concepts, which are important for navigating the environment and learning math skills.
- Encourage choice. Giving a child choices not only encourages independence, it also supports communication. Consider putting desired items out of reach so a child must ask for help. If a baby grunts or makes a “bah” sound, don’t just hand him a bottle. Ask, “Do you want something? Oh, is it this plate? Is it this cup?” This encourages the child to expand his vocabulary and respond, rather than bark an order. Asking, “Do you want crackers or grapes?” helps a child begin to determine his own needs while keeping choices limited to what is readily available.
- Support problem solving. Help children problem solve—do not do it for them. Ask questions that encourage solutions, such as, “You have a lot of dirt on your shoes. How will you get them clean?” After he provides a solution, help him begin the task—and maybe even fail. Small failures allow kids to try again without large blows to self-esteem. Encourage pride in accomplished tasks to help children feel successful and happy.
Need help connecting with your child? Contact First 5, an agency devoted to promoting healthy childhood practices from birth through age 5. First 5 provides parent training, screenings, care coordination, and behavioral and developmental services for children throughout San Diego County. Learn more at www.first5sandiego.org.
A Warning about Screen Time
Occupational Therapist, Andrew Gilbert, stresses that screen time can negatively impact the ability to process visually and interact with the environment. “Paper is better than screens,” he says. “When you look at a letter or picture on a page, the image is a constant visual object. On a screen, it’s a moving image. A child’s eyes develop better with less screen time.” To learn more, read “How Digital Devices Affect Eyes: What you need to know about Computer Vision Syndrome” at www.SanDiegoFamily.com/resources/family-health-and-home/2011.
Screen time takes away important outdoor motor learning that increases oxygen to the body, natural absorption of Vitamin D and appreciation of the environment. Outdoor learning also helps brains develop more quickly and helps improve memorization and balance. Screens lessen social imaginary play and enable children to avoid learning how to problem solve boredom—a critical skill for school. In addition, sedentary young children with increased BMI are at risk for illness and weight issues later in life.
If parents sense a child’s needs is greater than what is addressed in this article, contact a pediatrician or California Early Start. A child’s pediatrician should always be aware of any social-emotional or developmental delays, so the doctor can help rule out medical issues and suggest resources. California Early Start sets up thorough assessments for delays and directs parents to more resources as needed. For more information, visit the San Diego Regional Center website at www.sdrc.org and enter Early Start in the search bar.
When parents spend time loving and playing with their children in the first six years, kids are better prepared to be successful students and secure adults. For more resources, visit your pediatrician, www.zerotothree.org and www.first5sandiego.org.
Emily Dolton is a SNRFSD Resource Parent and mom of two, one with 22q 11.2 Deletion Syndrome