Starting Smart: Helping Parents Support Healthy Brain Development (page 2)
It is now clear that what a child experiences in the first years of life profoundly influences how his brain will develop and how he will interact with the world throughout his life. Parents play the most important role in providing the nurturing and stimulation that children require, but they need information and support to develop good parenting skills. In the past, extended family
members were often close by, offering good advice and acting as role models for inexperienced parents. Young families today often live far away from grandparents and other family and rely more on community resources for information and support in parenting. There is much that communities can do to help families promote their children’s healthy brain development.
Educate parents about the importance of early experiences for their children’s development
Often parents don’t know about the many little things they can do to foster their children’s healthy cognitive and emotional development, like talking to the children beginning in infancy, reading to them from a very early age, and helping them play simple games. Parents, especially new or young parents, may also need help learning to recognize their children’s cues that they are hungry for stimulation or have had enough.
In some cases written materials or a few sessions of parenting education classes may be all that a parent needs to learn how to provide his or her child with appropriate stimulation. However, parenting styles and beliefs that have evolved over generations—such as rarely talking to babies—can be difficult for parents to change. Many parents benefit from community-based programs in which a parent group leader or a home visitor acts as a role model and coach, supporting parents in their relationships with their children. Programs that work with parents over several years can be very successful in helping them become effective "first teachers" of their children (Olds et al, 1993).
Prevent abuse and neglect
Children who are abused or severely neglected are at extremely high risk of developing emotional, behavioral, social, and intellectual disabilities. By the time a child is identified as having been neglected or abused, these problems have already begun to develop. Greater attention must be given to preventing maltreatment before it starts. High-quality home visiting programs that start working with families as soon as the child is born have proven to be effective in preventing abuse and neglect (MacMillan et al., 1994). The key to these programs’ success is that they help parents manage the stresses of raising children before unhealthy patterns develop and things get out of control.
Provide accessible, quality mental health services for parents
Research has shown that parents suffering from untreated depression often fail to respond sensitively to their children’s cries and bids for attention, and that they are unlikely to provide the child with the kind of cognitive stimulation that promotes healthy brain development (Field, 1995). Other mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, can also dramatically affect a parent’s
ability to interact appropriately with his or her child. Proper mental health treatment for these parents can make a real difference in their ability to raise a competent, well-adjusted child.
Ensure adequate nutrition prenatally and in the first years after birth
Numerous studies have shown the devastating effects on intelligence and brain development of a lack of basic nutrients in the prenatal period, in infancy and in early childhood. Programs such as the Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) can be effective in ensuring that babies receive the kinds of foods they need to thrive (Yip et al., 1987). Educational and outreach campaigns to alert women to the importance of nutrition in the first trimester of pregnancy would also be helpful in preventing problems that can arise in this critical period when brain cells begin to form.
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