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What’s the Difference Between These Two Brains?

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This article on parenting styles and child care is written by Brittany Hambleton, co-founder of The Taste Archives

When you look at the picture of these two brains, what do you notice?  The immense size difference is probably the first thing that comes to mind.  You may also notice that the brain on the right has more dark patches and fuzzy spots than the one on the left.  

So what’s wrong with the brain on the right? Is it the brain of a trauma victim, or perhaps someone with a developmental disability?

You may be shocked to find out that both of these brains – the one on the right and the left – are from two seemingly regular three-year-old children. What’s even more surprising is that the brain of the child on the right is not small because of a traumatic accident, mental illness or genetic disorder, but due to something that is much more within our control.  The child on the right is a victim of neglect (1).

Brain Development and the Psychological Effects of Childhood Abuse

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A growing body of research on developmental psychology, infant psychiatry, and developmental neuroscience have found that early conditions and parenting styles can determine whether or not a child’s brain will develop optimally (2).

Professor Allan Schore of UCLA explains that infants who are neglected during their first two years of life experience impairments of the right brain’s stress coping systems and overall poor infant mental health (2).

Some studies suggest that neglectful child care, and the resulting emotional trauma, causes great stress to the child’s brain, and this stress is what leads to poor brain growth and underdevelopment of key areas of the brain responsible for intelligence (3). These children are more likely to fail in school, become addicted to drugs, fail to hold down a job and engage in violent behavior (1).

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Basically, scientists have found that the development of synaptic pathways in the brain operates on a “use it or lose it” basis. When children lack stable emotional and physical contact from a primary caregiver, as well as more spontaneous interactions with peers, brain development in the areas of caring, capacity and cognitive function will be impaired (4). These effects are lasting and will follow the child into adolescence and adulthood.

Who is at risk?

Any child without a caregiver who can provide them with constant positive emotional and physical contact is at risk of having an underdeveloped brain. Infants living in orphanages or in the foster care system are at increased risk, since their caregivers may be unable to provide them the connections he or she needs.(4)

However, it is not just children without mothers or caregivers who are at risk. Other studies have proven that children whose mothers were living with an extremely low income, who had low education, depression, the presence of other young children in the home, or who were separated from their own mothers by the age of 14 were at a significantly greater risk for neglectful child care (5). These children, having been neglected by their own mothers or caregivers, may, in turn, neglect their own children in the same way, and thus start a vicious cycle of poor parenting styles.

Correct Parenting Styles Can Break the Cycle

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There is one solution that, when implemented properly, can greatly improve the lives of neglected children everywhere and improve the quality of early childhood development. Namely, any mother at risk of providing neglectful child care can be taught, early on in her newborn baby’s life, how to take care of her baby so that the baby undergoes proper brain development (6).

In this type of intervention, mothers who are deemed to be “at risk” are visited by a nurse who instructs them on correct parenting styles.(4)  Studies have shown that children who were involved in early intervention programs were less likely to resort to delinquency (arrests, criminal convictions, and drug abuse) and more likely to complete school.(7)

What is already being done?

Early intervention programs, which focus primarily on mothers with newborn babies right up to 3 or 4 years old, have been put in place in the United States and in the U.K. – and have proven to be quite successful. However, these programs are all extremely small, and many children are falling through the cracks. Advocates for the early intervention are pushing for these programs to be put in place, but without the support of the central government, little can be done to ensure their success.(4)  

The main reason for lack of government support is that the benefits of early intervention can’t be seen for another 15 years when the children involved reach their teenage years. In today’s political climate, a solution that does not provide immediate positive feedback is not very attractive to politicians, many of whom are replaced every 4 or 5 years, depending on the country.(4)

Other Factors that Affect Early Childhood Development

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While constant love and care of a primary caregiver is essential to the proper development of a child’s brain, there are other factors that also contribute to healthy brain growth in infants:

Infant nutritional status. Proper nutrition in the early years of a child’s life, especially of iron and magnesium, can have a profound impact on whether or not a child’s brain develops at a healthy rate.(8)  Consumption of essential fatty acids also plays an important role in brain development.(9)  

Gaining the right amount of weight. In his book, “Brain Rules for Baby,” John Medina stresses the importance of weight gain in pregnant mothers.  The reason for this is that a newborn’s brain volume is related to his or her birth weight. When the mother gains the right amount of weight during pregnancy, so will her baby (10).

Play. Allowing a child to play has shown to be immensely beneficial in proper brain development, as it contributes to the cognitive, social, physical and emotional well-being of the child (11).  Free play can also lower stress in children. On the other hand, stress can retard the growth and development of an infant’s brain, so allowing for playtime will lead to better brain development in more ways than one.

The proper development of a child’s brain should not be taken lightly, as brain development during the first two years of a child’s life can have a significant impact on his or her adult life. We should do all we can to make sure that mothers at risk of providing neglectful child care receive early intervention programs for correct parenting styles.

Brittany Hambleton

Brittany Hambleton

Co-Founder The Taste Archives at The Taste Archives
Brittany Hambleton earned her B.Sc. in Foods & Nutrition. She enjoyed a stint as a professional personal trainer and is currently an avid runner. She created The Taste Archives with her twin sister, Julie.

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