Helping build positive early child experiences in the face of stress

The first few years of life are a very critical time to invest in a child’s brain development.  During this time, the foundation of brain development occurs as millions of neurons are created every minute. Babies and toddlers have a flexible neurological system primed for quick learning.  The experiences of babies and toddlers shape their brain development and prepare them to become successful students, employees, and leaders.  

Having diverse sensory experiences within positive relationships creates the healthiest brains and produces children who can participate appropriately throughout life. Providing these varied experiences has become a growing challenge in our modern world due to the increasing use of technology and sedentary lifestyles within families.  Emerging research indicates that the COVID-19 pandemic elevated this challenge to more of an emergency.  

Caregivers need to prioritize their own mental health

Parents and caregivers may be facing their own mental health or financial challenges, which makes it even harder to support healthy brain development in kids or to notice when a child’s development is falling behind. The mental health of the primary caregiver is a key indicator for the development of the child. As caregivers, be sure you are taking care of your own mental health through positive relationships and self-care. Prioritize your needs and make sure they are met while keeping or creating strong and supportive relationships with others.  

Here are a few proactive measures you can take to help manage stress for you and your family:

  • Creating routines is a key way to minimize stress for yourself and your child

Minimizing stress is essential to countering the negative impacts of modern life on childrens’ brain development. Babies and toddlers will regulate their emotions to yours, so keeping yourself engaged and calm is critical. 

  • Have consistent meal times. Having predictable daily routines will minimize stress for everyone. Try to have meals at roughly the same time each day and be sure to sit at the table for conversation and interaction. 
  • Create consistent wind-down time. It’s also helpful to have a consistent night time wind down routine for yourself and your child. A routine that is predictable and relaxing can be very beneficial. You may want to add bath time or story time to your nightly routine, to signal to your child that it is time to go to bed.
  • Find time for joy – consistently. Each day needs to have joyful moments. Try to build time into each day to do things you and your child enjoy.  The website has a treasure trove of resources to support parents and their children, including what a child should be doing at certain ages.  
  • Create Positive Experiences

Parents can also work to create many positive experiences for babies and toddlers.  Here are 5 key methods:

  • Create sensory experiences by going outdoors and getting dirty and messy. Create experiences for your child involving multiple senses such as touch, sound and visual stimulation. 
  • Create opportunities for your child to be social by helping them build additional relationships and giving them time to experience unmasked communication with as many people as you safely can. Babies and toddlers will be able to learn verbal skills, social cues and non-verbal communication better without masks. 

What else can I do?

  •  Provide a language-rich environment through singing and games.  Songs with a predictable sequence such as “Itsy Bitsy Spider” can all boost cognition.  Mixing up the predictability of a song or game and waiting for the child to notice a change helps to build these critical skills.  
  • Try simple role-playing and imaginative play to boost brain development, such as feeding a baby, pretending to drive a car or other activities a child is interested in.  
  • Create time to read to your child. Reading to your children builds attention, language and self control.  Try reading a book and pointing out pictures while sitting face to face. This position allows the child to see all your verbal cues and expressions while supporting language development.  

When in doubt – ask for help

Talk to an occupational therapist about any child development, behavioral and mental health concerns you may have. Addressing problems while your child is young is key. This website is a great resource for developmental information and activity ideas: Center on the Developing Child by Havard University

If you are worried about developmental delays or communication issues, be sure to inform your child’s doctor and contact a community early intervention program. If you live in Michigan and are looking for advice or assistance, call 1-800-Early-On. 


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