Everyone’s health matters, but the health of children – my children, your children – is important to everyone.
Most children are born healthy and stay healthy, but some children develop problems, either before or after birth, that can affect their health, behavior, or ability to learn. Although some children experience physical illness or impairment, other problems involve brain development.
Like constructing a house, brains are built upon a strong foundation. This starts before birth, and is very important during the first three years of life. Much like lumber is a raw material in building a house, a child’s experiences, positive or negative, influence brain development.
Loving interactions with caring adults strongly stimulate a child’s brain, causing connections to grow and get stronger. Although every child experiences some kinds of stress, when caring adults are present to support the child through these experiences, the child will be able to cope and thrive.
What role do parents play in brain development and emotional health? Parents are one of the most important parts of the brain developmental equation. The kinds of attention we naturally give our children – touching, holding, comforting, rocking, singing, and talking to them—provide the best kind of stimulation for our children’s growing brains and their emotional security.
Ensure health, safety, and good nutrition: Provide wholesome foods, routine health care, and safe places for children to play. Develop a warm, caring relationship with children: Infants cannot be ‘spoiled’. Responding quickly to their cries and needs helps to develop a strong attachment between parent and child and make them feel more secure.
Talk, read, and sing to children: Surround them with language. Play music, tell stories, and read books. Take advantage of libraries and play groups. Ask toddlers and preschoolers to guess what will come next in a story. These are key pre-reading experiences. Encourage safe exploration and play: Give children opportunities to safely move around and explore. Arrange for your child to spend time with other children and help them solve the conflicts that inevitably arise.
Use discipline to teach: Talk to children about how they are feeling and teach them words to describe those feelings. Make it clear that while you might not like the way they are behaving, you love them. Establish routines: Create routines and rituals for special times during the day like mealtime, naptime, and bedtime. Try to be predictable so your children know they can count on you.
Become involved in childcare and preschool: The relationships that your children form outside your home are also important to their emotional growth and ability to learn. Limit television: Limit the time children spend watching TV shows, videos, or playing computer games. For the very young, there is no research evidence that screen time helps children learn.
Take care of yourself: Learn to cope with your stressors so that you can help your child learn too. Your child’s well being depends on your health and well being.
How can parents ensure their children will get what they need? Early intervention – identifying problems early in the life of the child – is key. Talk to your child’s health provider about developmental milestones and share any concerns or questions. Participate in family support programs like Maine Families, other home visiting opportunities, and community health fairs like the one held recently at Island Family Medicine. Learn about the resources your community can offer you and your family.
Your Health Matters is a monthly health column by Healthy Peninsula and the Blue Hill Memorial Hospital. Sandra Phoenix is a family nurse practitioner and a member of the HP Advisory Board.