I keep seeing this fact: By the age three 85% of brain development has already happened. Unlike any other organ in the body, the brain is underdeveloped at birth, and the development of your child’s brain is almost completely dependent on one thing: Y.O.U. And not only that, if those parts of the brain, known as the prefrontal cortex, aren’t nourished in the first three years of life, then those parts of the brain simply may never develop. An underdeveloped brain is totally preventable, yet almost entirely untreatable after the age of three.
That’s a lot to handle, huh? First you have to grow this baby in your body for 9+ months, and now you have the responsibility of growing its brain for the first three years of its life?! Luckily for us, two women have done a ton of research on how to develop your child’s brain to its fullest capacity, and guess what: it’s FREE, accessible, available to all mommies and daddies, and, in fact, you don’t even have to leave the house in the hot mess state that you inevitably are as a new mom to get it. The only two things your child needs for their little brains to grow are love and language, and, momma, you got that.
Laura Peterson, the founder of Hands to Hearts International, a non-profit organization that empowers women and caregivers with the knowledge and skills to nurture children in the most challenged regions of the world, traveled to India where she did just that. She trained caregivers to nourish the orphans through simple acts of love, like calling them by their names, making eye-contact, holding and massaging them, playing with them and singing lullabies to them. The results were outstanding; the babies were calmer, happier, and most, importantly they stopped… dying. As opposed to before, not a single baby died in the orphanages where these women were trained to show the most simple acts of love.
Dana Suskind, the author of Thirty Million Words, would one-up Peterson, if you will, by saying that, yes, love is hugely important in the development of the brain, but it is the language spoken to the child by caregivers, or language environment, that is responsible for developing a child’s brain to its fullest potential. The two go hand-in-hand; the “quantity of words is important, but only as an adjunct to the loving, nurturing relationship that is determined by a baby’s caregiver. There may be many words, but their positive effect on the brain is dependent on the responsiveness and warmth” (Suskind, p. 55). Therefore, a child who simply hears words without the warmth of a nurturing parent will not have the same results as a child who is spoken to by a warm and nurturing caregiver. It’s not enough to just sit Johnny in front of the television or radio in hopes he consumes a couple thousand words that day. And, for a child that only hears negative or volatile parent talk the results “adversely affects the development of the prefrontal cortex, eventually compromising the ability of the child to deal with the stresses of life (Suskind, p. 112)
A world-famous study by researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley (1995) found that some children heard thirty million fewer words by their 4th birthdays than others. The children who heard more words were better prepared when they entered school, and the children that started out ahead stayed ahead, and those who were behind stayed there, a disparity known as the achievement gap. Like Peterson, Suskind founded a non-profit organization, Thirty Million Words (fitting), with the initiative to “develop and disseminate evidence-based programs that encourage parents to harness the power of their words to build their children’s brains and shape their future.” They hope to close the achievement gap by educating parents to "talk with your baby, talk nicely with your baby, and elicit from your baby (Suskind, p. 232).
Peterson was completely incredulous that her organization gave a four day training, and babies stopped dying. If that were the case why isn’t someone, why isn’t everyone, doing something about this? I find myself asking the same question about Suskind’s research findings. If every parent has the resources to provide their child with what it needs for his or her brain to reach its greatest developmental potential, then why didn’t our pediatrician share this with me right along with breastfeeding and vaccination information? More importantly, if we can empower parents of low socioeconomic households to provide rich language environments so that when their child enters kindergarten they are as developmentally ready to learn as their higher SES peers, and ultimately, narrow the achievement gap, then why isn’t everyone telling everyone about this research?
Well, because it is just beginning to materialize. Suskind's book was just published last year, and publications from her studies are forthcoming. The science is clear that language, and parent talk, are essential nutrition for the growing brain, but developing successful, effective programs takes time and costs money. I can’t wait to see Peterson and Suskind’s research come to fruition, hopefully affecting public and educational policy, and narrowing the achievement gap.
Until then I will tell every caregiver I know of their ability to provide their child the best start they can to life. But, for now I will put down my “flash cards for 4 month olds”, turn off the Baby Einstein, strap my baby to me, and take a walk. And during that walk I’ll talk to her about everything we see. Sure people may look at me like I’m crazy when I’m asking my three month old how many ducks she sees in the San Antonio River, or if she hears the birds chirping in the trees, but they’ll sure be impressed in three years.