The importance of early childhood stimulation

Author: Elsa Egea
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A stimulated baby will be an alert child, a happy youth and an adult with a zest for living and participating in society. Koichiro Matsuura, Director-General of UNESCO until 2005, asserts that "improving [children's] well-being at the earliest age must be an integral and systematic component of education and poverty reduction policies". It is essential to support the first phase of learning, which begins with parents and family members.

Singing to a child while looking into his eyes, massaging him, teaching him to walk or to sit, to paint or draw are some of the techniques used to stimulate children's positive physical and psychological growth. This process is not a form of therapy or formal education, but rather a group of techniques and activities which seek to maximally develop babies' physical, social and emotional capacities.

According to the United Nations agency in defense of children's rights (UNICEF), the first seven years of life, and the first three in particular, are critical for forming the foundations of future health, growth and development. During this period, children learn more quickly than at any other time.

In this sense, parents and caretakers play a very important role. They should help children learn, offering them new and interesting inputs to help stimulate the senses. But above all, they should show them affection. Anna Bielsa, child and youth psychiatrist and psychologist and President of the Catalan Society for Child and Youth Psychiatry affirms: "a child's maturation process passes through several stages in terms of language, motor skills, etc., but without contact or affection, the child will isolate himself". To use a metaphor, we could say that the affection needed in early childhood is like the cement used to support and build a house. Newborns and young children will learn more quickly if they receive care, love and affection. And, of course, mental stimulation and encouragement, nutritional food and good health care.

Experts assure us that while a child may be born healthy, he may be affected by a series of circumstances such as poverty, delayed education or limited access to culture. A mother's lack of knowledge in caring for her child may provoke illness and malnutrition and, as such, cause her child to experience development delays. Another consequence of parents' lack of attention may be the increased probability of intellectual deficiencies, which in the long-term will negatively effect youth development and, consequently, the future of the communities.

The tools a child uses to learn and discover the world around him are the five senses-sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch-which is why a baby's interaction with the people around him is so important, since the more he relates, the faster he will learn. Newborns should be stimulated through affection. Holding, rocking and talking to a baby stimulates his growth and forms the basis for emotional development. It is of the utmost importance for the baby to feel safe. He needs to be close to this mother and to be suckled when he asks for it. Crying is a baby's way for asking for attention, so when caregivers respond quickly, whether this be taking the child into arms or talking to him, this will serve to reassure and relax him. According to UNICEF, direct contact with the mother's skin and suckling in the first hour after birth helps newborns achieve better growth and development and to bond with the mother.

To ensure proper development, it is necessary for children to interact with others, to feel loved from birth and to play with family members. This helps the child to feel secure and in the future this will influence school performance and even a greater capacity for facing life's difficulties.

The neuronal development process

How and why does the brain form? There are three influential factors: inherited genetic code, the education we receive and the development of neuronal connections.

Neurology specialist Dr. Manuel Kovacs graphically explains why it is so important to stimulate the brain and to establish the greatest number of neuronal connections. According to Dr. Kovacs, not stimulating a child's brain is akin to trusting fate that a seed to fall in the ideal place to take root. To the contrary, if we stimulate the brain, we are laying the ideal foundation for this seed to take root; it is as if we were to establish an ecological crop, with the right nutrients and sunlight for the seed to sprout.

It has been biologically demonstrated that a child is born with a series of circuits in the brain (neuronal connections) which he will lose if not used. But the child also has the capacity to create other circuits which are not pre-established and which he will need; that is, he will manage to connect two separate neurons thanks to a stimulus.

Using these circuits is what keeps us alive. And here, age is transcendental because the ability to create circuits or neuronal connections is not something which we conserve over the course of a lifetime, but rather the opposite. According to Matthias Sachse, a doctor specialized in public health, "nearly 90% of neuronal connections are formed in early childhood". When a child is born, or even when he is in his mother's womb, the connection possibilities are practically unlimited; from the moment of birth, however, the countdown begins until the child is 7 or 8 years old. After this age, the opportunity to build new circuits is practically nil. Spanish neurologist Manuel Kovacs makes a clear analogy: [a child] builds capital until 7 years of age and then lives off the interest", he affirms.

The aim of stimulation is not an artificial development; that is, it does not aim to force the brain, but rather the opposite. It is important to know what is in the interest of the child according to his age and to constantly provide him with the utility for building cerebral circuits.

Investing in early stimulation provides numerous benefits

There are many studies which show that investing in the brain's early development, as well as in a child's good nutrition and health, will have a long-term economic benefit which can be quantified. According to the Organization of American States (OAS), it has been shown that children who have participated in well-designed early stimulations programs perform better in school, are more socially and emotionally competent and have a much higher verbal and intellectual development than other children. As such, all this contributes to the development of more active and alert society members who have the capacity for economic and social success. It is an investment in the country's future.

But this benefit is not only tangible in the long term; investing with health and nutrition programs for young children increase their chances of survival. Moreover, with regards to their education, these programs prepare children for school, improving their performance and reducing the number of children who must repeat course.

For these reasons, the World Bank has decided to invest in and finance various early stimulation projects in countries like Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia, among others. The reason is clear: investing in babies' stimulation can help break the cycle of poverty. Financing early stimulation projects in impoverished countries is an effective and economic cooperation for development mechanism, since the cost of investment is practically nil. It is not necessary to pay a salary, since this is done by parents; all they require is a basic training or to be made aware and apply this technique. Nor is it necessary to provide specific or costly material, since many stimulation materials can be homemade or made reusable.

UNESCO has also announced its policy to support all initiatives which refer to early childhood care and education. Likewise, and as we indicated above, an investment in early stimulation ensures quantifiable short and long-term benefits not only for the child, but also for his country. However, the real value of early stimulation-the ability to form adults with the capacities and opportunities for developing a full life-is priceless and immeasurable.

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