There is nothing better than seeing your little one achieve a new, big first. From their first steps to their first words to their first friend – the list could go on and on. But, we can often get caught up in the excitement (and rightfully so) that we forget about all the small cognitive, social and physical developments going on behind these big milestones.
The most important thing to remember when it comes to milestones is that children develop at their own pace and within a range of what is normal. And further to that, the endpoint of a child’s development is also variable – whether it’s running, walking, swimming, singing or painting, as humans we are all so different.
We chatted to paediatrician Dr Deb Levy about the developments behind the milestones and how this affects our little ones.
Why is there variation in development?
When looking at milestones and development, we often wonder whether it comes down to nature and a baby’s genetics? Or, is it nurture – the environment in which a baby is raised?
It’s both, according to Dr Deb. A baby is born with a certain genetic blueprint but then needs the right experiences and environment to optimally develop.
When a baby is born their brain is around a quarter of the size of an adult brain (most mothers who give birth vaginally will be grateful to hear this) and it has around 250 billion brain cells. As the cells start to form connections to communicate with each other, the brain goes through a growth spurt and these connections, or synapses, are the foundations of brain development.
Throughout childhood and as their brain grows, trillions of these connections form. The brain doubles in the first few months and will reach 80% of adult size by the time the child is three.
How do we shape these connections?
This is where neuroplasticity comes into play – and what we referred to previously as nurture. Because growing and forming the connections or synapses in the brain isn’t enough, the brain needs to be used and shaped in order to become strengthened.
So how do we strengthen these connections and turn them into the growth and development we see on the outside?
5 tips for nurturing cognitive, social and physical development in your little ones…
1. A wholesome diet
Specific nutrients include iron, iodine, choline and healthy fats such as omega 3 fatty acids found in fish oils (docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)), which help ensure your little one is getting what they need to thrive. This is not always easy with toddlers or fussy eaters and a good quality supplement like a high DHA Omega-3 Fish Oil can be a good way to make sure they are getting enough healthy fats in their diet.
2. Plenty of time for play
Children need time for exploration and learning through play, observation and hands-on experiences. Giving your child time for age-appropriate play, games and activities will help strengthen both their physical and cognitive development.
When they are doing tummy time as babies, it’s never too early to start to place a small toy just out of their reach. You’ll be amazed at how they will start by looking at it and, over time, as you move it further and further away, they will start to reach for it and eventually crawl towards it.
3. Time for rest
Sleep is an essential component of brain development and actually thought to be when new skills and memories are ‘cemented’ into the brain. Making sure children get enough sleep as part of their daily routine is key to not only brain development but also to their overall health and wellbeing.
A loving and nurturing relationship with a primary caregiver is possibly the most important predictor of brain development and is known to promote learning and even IQ.
A loving relationship in which your child feels safe and seen and where they can engage in interactions, or ‘serve and return’, will help to build the foundation for further learning.
Caring for your little one’s brain goes beyond the obvious wearing a helmet when riding their bike – although that is, of course, important too. But it also means limiting nasties in their diet, reducing exposure to harmful chemicals and toxins, limiting screen time, caring for the gut microbiome, as well as getting outdoors in nature when possible.
Knowing that there is so much more at play than simply the genes inherited at birth, but rather it’s a complex network of genetics, nutrition, relationships and environmental factors.
It’s so easy for us as parents to get caught up in the milestones and the age our child walks, talks or rides a bike. This is important, however, I believe that we also need to look at the meaning behind the milestones and consider the dynamic processes that are taking place right from the moment a baby is conceived. These insights will help us to best support our children by harnessing this unique window of growth and development in their first years of life.