The first 3 years of life are a period of remarkable transformation in a child’s development. During this time, babies change from being dependent newborns to toddlers capable of exploring their surroundings on their own and express with words their wants and needs. And all of this is fostered through sensitive caregiving.
It is during these early years that the foundation of a child’s brain architecture is established. Early experiences, especially the relationship between a child and a parent, impact the development of the brain architecture, providing the basis for all future learning, behavior, and health.
As explained by Harvard University’s Center of the Developing Child, “Babies naturally reach out for interaction through babbling, facial expressions, and gestures; and adults respond with the same kind of vocalizing and gesturing back at them. This back-and-forth process is fundamental to the wiring of the brain, especially in the earliest years”.
This means that brain architecture depends on the baby’s relationship with caring adults. If the adult’s responses are inappropriate or unreliable for the baby, the development of brain architecture can be disrupted.
But to what extent could your interactions affect your baby’s development?
Researchers from the University of Minnesota, University of Delaware, and the University of Illinois had that same question and decided to collaborate in a study to see if sensitive caregiving (more specifically, maternal sensitivity) during the first three years of life could affect people as adults.
The researchers followed 243 participants from the time they were born until they were 32 years old, keeping track of their education, jobs, marriage, and other indicators of success. In this longitudinal study, they found that there was one big factor in the participants’ early life that could have a long-lasting impact.
The results showed that the major influencer in attaining academic achievements and social competence, even after thirty years, was sensitive caregiving. The children who received attentive, sensitive caregiving also got higher test scores throughout their teenage years and, as adults, achieved higher levels of education. They had greater success rates with intimate relationships (more committed, loyal, and intimate relationships) in comparison to the group who didn’t get the same attention in early life. So researchers concluded that early relationship experiences with primary caregivers leave people a mark on social and academic adaptation in adulthood.
But what exactly does sensitive caregiving entail?
According to the researchers, sensitive caregiving is “the extent to which a parent responds to a child’s signals appropriately and promptly, is positively involved during interactions with the child, and provides a secure base for the child’s exploration of the environment”. In other words, it’s a parent’s ability to read their baby’s cues and respond accordingly. It’s the capacity to distinguish if a baby is hungry, sick, or needs a diaper change, and attend to their needs appropriately and in a loving way.
As we can see from the study, early sensitive caregiving may result in long-term returns that add up across a child’s life. In these interactions, both the parent and the child are active partners in the “serve and return” exchange.
Remember to continue nurturing your little one and be conscientious of their needs, over time. The positive interactions you have with your child will provide a safe, comforting, and predictable environment, forming the foundation of a nurturing and reciprocal relationship!