The first thousand days of a baby's life are likely to determine the rest of her life -- whether she grows up to be healthy or not, both physically and emotionally. Early childhood education begins early, even before birth. That's what the latest scientific studies of brain development tell us. The brain develops at an incredible speed -- 700 new neural connections are formed every minute in the time between birth and six months. A toddler's brain is far more active than an adult's brain.
That's both good news and bad news. The good news is that we can make a difference in how we raise young children and that difference lasts a lifetime. The bad news is that if babies are abused or neglected in those first thousand days, the brain can never completely compensate for early deprivation. In fact, even genes may be affected.
In our daily lives, we tend to separate intellectual and emotional growth. Two different things, right?
Both vocabulary and emotional intelligence are part of brain development, which occurs at a surprisingly early stage. What do we mean by emotional intelligence? Self control, empathy, hopefulness and even resiliency. It is precisely these emotions that drive learning for a lifetime, an expert explained at a gathering of early childhood educators.
We know the horror stories of child abuse, the physical harm inflicted on infants. Less well-known are the stories of emotional neglect, where parents do not communicate with or play with their babies. The prescription for healthy development is simple and easy to learn. Most babies know how to win us over. We cannot help but smile at them and watch them smile back. But some mothers are either too depressed or harassed or simply don't know how to respond to a baby.
Communication between an adult and a baby is critical. Does mom or dad talk to their baby, do they coo and smile, and do they know how to get down on the floor and play? Babies are smart. They can tell the difference between a responsive face and a blank face, wiped clean of emotion. Their feelings of security or fear develop way before they can use words. The number of words a child has when she enters kindergarten varies greatly, depending on early stimulation.
The good news is that early intervention works. Good prenatal care for every pregnant woman, home visits for every newborn, quality childcare and ongoing education for all families in those first thousand days can break the cycle of poverty and enable every child to live a life filled with promise.
Follow Madeleine M. Kunin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MadeleineKunin