London: Early stimulation helps give a boost to the brains of babies, according to a new study which contradicts the belief that children’s development is determined by their genes and could not be influenced.
Researchers from Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Norway used advanced electroencephalogram (EEG) technology for many years to study the brain activity of hundreds of babies. The results show that the neurons in the brains of young children quickly increase in both number and specialisation as the baby learns new skills and becomes more mobile.
Neurons in very young children form up to a thousand new connections per second. The research also shows that the development of our brain, sensory perception and motor skills happen in sync and that even the smallest babies must be challenged and stimulated at their level from birth onward.
Babies need to engage their entire body and senses by exploring their world and different materials, both indoors and out and in all types of weather. The researchers emphasise that the experiences must be self-produced; it is not enough for children merely to be carried or pushed in a stroller.
“Many people believe that children up to three years old only need cuddles and nappy changes, but studies show that rats raised in cages have less dendritic branching in the brain than rats raised in an environment with climbing and
hiding places and tunnels,” said Audrey van der Meer, professor at NTNU.
“Research also shows that children born into cultures where early stimulation is considered important, develop earlier than Western children do,” said van der Meer. She said that the brains of young children are very malleable and can therefore adapt to what is happening around them.
If the new synapses that are formed in the brain are not being used, they disappear as the child grows up and the brain loses some of its plasticity. Van der Meer mentions the fact that Chinese babies hear a difference between the R and L sounds when they are four months old, but not when they get older.
Since Chinese children do not need to distinguish between these sounds to learn their mother tongue, the brain synapses that carry this knowledge disappear when they are not used. Babies actually manage to distinguish between the sounds of any language in the world when they are four months old, but by the time they are eight months old they have lost this ability, according to van der Meer.
Since a lot is happening in the brain during the first years of life, van der Meer says that it is easier to promote learning and prevent problems when children are very young. Researchers also noted that it is not always advisable to speed up the development of children with special needs who initially struggle with their motor skills.