Babies Brains Develop Sooner Than Parents Assume | Happy Faces Preschool

Parent are their children’s first and most important teachers. And they have a crucial job: Recent advances in developmental science make clear that the first five years of life are critically important to children’s future learning and success.

We now know that human brains aren’t born – they’re built from the ground up, through the combined influences of children’s genes and early experiences. During the first 1,000 days of a child’s life, over 700 neural connections are formed every second, literally shaping the architecture of a young child’s brain. Those rapidly growing connections are largely driven by a child’s interactions with parents and other caretakers in the very first months of life. And new research shows that children are affected by early experiences at much younger ages than previously understood.

But do parents know just how significant they are? Last month, Zero to Three, a nonprofit advocacy organization, and the Bezos Family Foundation, released the results of a survey with a nationally representative sample of 2,200 parents on that very question. The study – “Tuning In: Parents of Young Children Speak Up About What They Think, Know, and Need” – found that across all socioeconomic and racial/ethnic groups, parents are deeply committed to parenting well. Yet many don’t fully recognize how influential they are on their child’s development.

In what the report calls the “missing first year,” large percentages of parents underestimate – by months or even years – how early their children are aware of and impacted by interactions with adult caretakers and what’s going on around them, both positive and negative. Key facts of early development and parents’ mistaken beliefs found in the survey include the following:

The quality of care has a long-term impact on a child’s development starting at birth. But 50 percent of parents believe that the quality of care matters beginning at 6 months of age, and 27 percent don’t believe it’s really important until age 2.
Reading aloud to a child builds future language skills starting at 6 months. But 45 percent of parents think that reading aloud to children doesn’t have an impact until they are at least 2.
Talking to a child supports growing language skills starting at birth. But 63 percent of parents believe talking to children doesn’t matter until 3 months or older, and 34 percent don’t think it matters until children are at least a year old.
Infants can experience feelings like fear and sadness starting at age 3 to 5 months. But 49 percent of parents think children have those feelings starting at age one, and 23 percent think not until age two.
Children are affected by parents’ moods and can sense if they’re angry or sad starting at around 3 months of age. But 63 percent of parents believe children aren’t affected until 6 months of age, and 47 percent believe not until they’re a year old. Over a quarter (28 percent) thought children weren’t really affected until age two.
Children are affected by shouting in the home, even when they’re asleep, starting at 6 months of age. But 47 percent of parents believe they aren’t affected until age one, and 28 percent believe not until age two.

Children’s brain development is significantly affected by witnessing repeated violence beginning at 6 months of age. But 47 percent of parents believe children aren’t affected until age one, and 27

percent believe not until age two. And 15 percent think children aren’t affected by witnessing violence until they’re at least 3 years old.

While parents may misunderstand how important they are, it’s not because they don’t care. In fact, 91percent of the parents surveyed said that parenting is their greatest joy, including 91 percent of low-income parents (household income under $35,000) and 92 percent of parents with a high school degree or less. Almost 9 out of 10 said that they work hard to be more effective, including 88 percent of low-income parents and 87 percent of less-educated parents. Eight out of 10 agree that “good parenting can be learned” and over half said they want to learn more about the science of children’s emotional and brain development. (You can see videos of parent responses in pre-survey discussion groups here.)

This presents a valuable, cost-effective opportunity to make a big difference in young children’s lives by providing better information to parents about their impact and supporting them in fulfilling their crucial role. And a project launched in 2014 called Vroom (also funded by the Bezos Family Foundation) is a great model of that approach. With the motto “every parent has what it takes to be a brain builder,” Vroom is working in partnership with communities, national organizations like Child Care Aware, Nurse-Family Partnership and Save the Children and other systems – including early childhood programs, social services, grassroots organizations, clinics, the faith community, businesses and others – to provide low-income families with tips and tools that make use of everyday activities to promote their children’s brain development.

The project offers a library of over 1,000 downloadable “Tip Cards” in both English and Spanish that aim to inspire interactions between parents and children, giving parents activities for engaging with their children along with an explanation of how the interaction supports brain development; a Vroom App that provides daily “brain building” tips to parents and other caregivers; and videos and other digital materials. Vroom has also established collaborations with Amazon, Goya, and Johnson & Johnson to include Vroom tips on packaging and special inserts for products used at specific daily moments like meals and bath time, and has a range of partnerships in the works with other brands, media companies and retailers. (Their “holy grail” partnership is getting diapers with Vroom tips printed on them to capture the brain-building opportunity of the roughly 8,000 diaper changes that occur in a child’s first three years of life.)

Vroom’s long-term goal is to catalyze a cultural shift where every parent sees themselves as a brain builder, “helping children not just survive but thrive,” as Jackie Bezos explains. Indeed, as early childhood programs proliferate across the country, Vroom reminds us that the most important education a child receives doesn’t start at age four in a pre-K classroom – it starts on the very first day of life at home. Parents are a child’s greatest asset. Our top early childhood priority must be supporting and empowering them, in both policy and practice.

 

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