Babies are charming, adorable and often clumsy when first exploring their world. Behind every coo and babble, there is also some serious brain development happening. To help shape that development, psychologists say caregivers play an important role.
“We are understanding more and more about the impacts of neurodevelopment in those crucial first three years,” says Annie George-Puskar, an educational psychologist who specializes in early childhood intervention at the Fordham University Graduate School of Education. “The brain develops at a faster rate than any other time in our lives.”
George-Puskar notes that by age three, a child’s brain develops to about 80 percent of an adult size brain and by age five, their brain is 90 percent to almost fully grown.
“It’s just this very malleable time when the brain is developing,” says George-Puskar. “We know early intervention can really improve outcomes for children and their families.”
Routine and Habits
Many parents may feel overwhelmed about what strategies they should implement during the first three years, or the “first 1,000 days.” George-Puskar, who is a mother of two young children herself, says the key is to not stress about it.
“Don’t think that because today, or this week, or even this whole month, seemed really rough or didn’t go the way you wanted it to, [that it’s] going to define your child’s entire future from here on out,” she says. Instead, it’s more about creating good habits you can stick to the majority of the time while not beating yourself up for the inevitable challenges in life that sometimes blow us off course.
Psychologists commonly recommend implementing routines for your family. Set a consistent bedtime, serve meals around the same time each day and have a particular order of activities to do before bed. For example, parents can set times for baths and stories before bed, suggests George-Puskar.
Karen Aronian, an expert in early education, agrees that this kind of structure can go a long way. “Establish a daily schedule and endeavor to check off each of the to-dos throughout the day and do the best you can every week,” she says.
This may require some troubleshooting if you are unable to make your goals, Aronian notes. However, once a workable plan is in place, things should start moving along more smoothly.
“Once your schedule is underway, you will find that you follow the plan without much thought and that you and the baby anticipate and look forward to the daily activities and enrichment,” says Aronian.
Storytelling and Playtime
Reading is another activity that George-Puskar recommends. “Even just 10 minutes a day will establish a good connection between parents and their babies and young children,” she says. “It’s providing them with a really good foundation for development and skills, both academically and socially later on.”
If reading to a three-month-old feels silly, keep in mind that language forms well before a child utters their first word, according to the National Center on Early Childhood Development, Teaching and Learning.
Aronian highlights that talk and narration are key for development as well. “Narrate the world for your infant and as they grow to build language, literacy and communication, and provide children a head start in school,” Aronian says.
Or while making dinner, put the baby in the highchair and narrate everything you’re doing, George-Puskar suggests. She also emphasizes the importance of games. “Play doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive,” says George-Puskar. For example, while folding laundry, demonstrate how to find matching socks or play a game of peek-a-boo.
Y. Mimi Ryans, a child therapist, says providing a loving caring environment is another important boost for children in the first three years and beyond. The basics can go a long way for their future.
“The best way for parents to think about things is to just provide the basic care of their child,” she says. “Comfort when they are crying, food when they are hungry and lots of love and hugs in between.”