Early Brain Development and Health
The amount and quality of care, stimulation and interaction they receive in their early years makes all the difference. These relationships begin at home, with parents and family, but also include child care providers, teachers and other members of the community. From birth, young children serve up invitations to engage with their parents and other adult caregivers. Babies do it by cooing and smiling and crying.
The critical first three years
Toddlers communicate their needs and interests more directly. Children who experience more positive interactions in their early years go on to be healthier and more successful in school and in life.
Unfortunately, the opposite is true as well. The skills needed to be a good reader, like language and vocabulary, start developing from birth. All Rights Reserved. In the first three years of life, we start learning to use these core capabilities in basic ways—like focusing attention, responding to limit-setting, and following simple rules.
Between ages 3 and 5, we make huge gains in using these skills as we practice them more and more, learn to adjust flexibly to different rules for different contexts, and resist impulsive behaviors.
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By later childhood and adolescence, with the right experiences and support, our brains are ready to build the skills required for more complex situations—resisting peer pressure, setting long-term goals and plans, and dealing productively with setbacks. As adults, we continue to use these skills in managing our households, meeting deadlines at work, and strategically planning for the future. Even after our mids, adults can still learn new skills and strengthen others, but it requires far greater effort if the foundation is weak. Included below are examples of ways to apply the strengthen core life skills design principle to policy :.
And, here are examples of opportunities to apply this principle to practice :. Reducing the pile-up of potential sources of stress will protect children directly i.
Excessive activation of stress response systems affects the brain and other organ systems in many ways. When we feel threatened, our body prepares us to respond by increasing our heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones, such as cortisol. When stress response systems are activated within an environment of supportive relationships, these physiological effects are moderated and brought back down to baseline.
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However, if the stress response is extreme and long-lasting— and supportive relationships are unavailable— it can overload multiple biological systems. Constant stress depletes precious energy the brain needs for healthy development in childhood and adulthood. Frequently experiencing circumstances that seem beyond our control can also lead to a low sense of self-efficacy the belief that we can improve our own lives , which is needed to engage in planned, goal-oriented behaviors.
Chronic activation of stress response systems in early childhood, especially without the ongoing presence of a responsive adult, can lead to toxic stress, which disrupts the healthy development of brain architecture.
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Experiencing toxic stress during these early years can affect learning, behavior, and health throughout the lifespan. Constant stress also depletes precious energy the brain needs for healthy development in childhood and adulthood to deal with consequential decisions—of which there are many for parents dealing with economic instability or other problems. In addition, people who have experienced serious early adversity are more likely to perceive and focus attention on potential threats throughout life.
A multi-generational approach to reducing external sources of stress on families has double benefits: It means that adults will be better able to provide responsive relationships and stable environments for children, and it allows children to develop healthy stress response systems and sturdy brain architecture, to focus better on learning, and to receive a lifetime of benefits from these early building blocks of resilience. Listed below are examples of opportunities to apply the reduce sources of stress design principle to policy :.
Finally, here are examples of ways to apply this principle to practice :.
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These three principles do not operate in isolation. In fact, they are highly interconnected and reinforce each other in multiple ways. First, progress on any of the three makes progress on the others more likely. For example, reducing sources of stress makes it easier to access and use executive function and self-regulation skills; it also frees up time and energy to participate in responsive interactions.
Likewise, helping parents and caregivers improve executive functioning supports their ability to engage in serve-and-return interactions with the children in their care and to create a more stable and predictable caregiving environment. For example, when an adult caregiver creates a well-regulated environment, children are likely to experience less stress, which supports their healthy development; their improved behavior in turn reduces stress for caregivers, providing a greater opportunity for the adults to continue to build their own self-regulation and executive function skills.
Using these design principles to promote positive change on all three dimensions is our best chance to help adults provide safe and responsive caregiving, and to help children get and stay on track for healthy development. Unfortunately, the converse is also true: significant challenges in any one of these areas can lead to problems in the others.
Policymakers, system leaders, and practitioners can apply these three design principles in several ways. Below are three suggestions. Childhood vaccines, such as the measles vaccine, can protect children from dangerous complications like swelling of the brain. CDC is committed to supporting early brain health through evidence-based programs and partnerships within communities.
Below are just a few examples of CDC programs that support early brain health:.
What to expect in your child's first three years
Child Development. Section Navigation. Minus Related Pages. The importance of early childhood experiences for brain development Children are born ready to learn, and have many skills to learn over many years. External Healthy brain growth in infancy continues to depend on the right care and nutrition. Learn more about the recommended care: Before pregnancy During pregnancy Around birth During infancy During early childhood What does CDC do to support early brain health?