Early childhood is a period of rapid growth that is strongly influenced by the environment in which the child lives. The first eight years, according to the World Health Organization, will affect a child’s health, education and economic participation for the rest of her life. WHO notes that obesity, criminal behavior, literacy problems and mental health issues can all be traced back to the early environment.
The brain is exceedingly sensitive to its environment, especially regarding nutrition, and must have adequate protein, fats and carbohydrates to develop properly. Poor nutrition can have lifelong effects, according to the Urban Child Institute. Inadequate iron and iodine, for example, can impair a child’s ability to think and move. DHA, an essential fatty acid, is necessary for the brain to produce synapses -- the connections from one brain cell to another. Other nutrients, such as choline, folic acid and zinc, are also critical for proper brain function. Children also need other nutrients, such as calcium for bone development. Teen girls are susceptible to iron-deficiency anemia, and both girls and boys need iron to build muscle, according to the Bright Futures guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The human brain needs stimulation to develop properly. Babies in orphanages can actually die from inadequate stimulation or develop mental illness, according to an April 2010 article in the Huffington Post by Maia Szalavitz, co-author of “Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential -- and Endangered.” Szalavitz writes that each month a baby spends in an orphanage decreases her IQ and increases the risk of behavioral and psychological problems. Such children are also more susceptible to disease because their immune systems are also affected. Children who grow up in families where parental neglect is extreme may suffer similar problems, according to Szalavitz.
Children have specific developmental windows for functions such as learning to see or to develop language skills. In an article in the November/December 2010 issue of Exchange magazine, “Early Brain Development Research Review and Update,” the author notes that by the age of four months, infants are beginning to develop the neurological “wiring” to prepare them to interact with the adults in their environment. They will learn many skills from their interactions with their parents and caregivers. Language is especially dependent on caregiver interaction, as it is a reciprocal process. When the parent ignores the child or misses her cues, the baby’s development can be affected.
Activity and Exercise
Whether it is the infant waving a block, the toddler learning to run or the teenager in soccer practice, activity is vitally important for physical development and to prevent obesity. Children who are physically active in early childhood are more likely to remain active as they grow older, according to SPARK, a public health organization of the San Diego State University Research Foundation. Children who spend a great deal of time using or viewing technology such as visual media are less likely to be active and may be at increased risk of obesity. Schools that focus on learning to the exclusion of physical activity and play can have negative effects on developing muscles, bones and joints, according to SPARK.