When you imagine a very young child, you might imagine a child that manifests the cliché of the terrible two’s (and three’s). My middle child did things that my oldest son never did (e.g., throwing temper tantrums, refusing to sit while eating, standing up in the cart at any given store and screaming at the top of his lungs). I remember vividly the time I was 8 months pregnant pushing him in the cart at a store. He refused to stay buckled and SCREAMED at me while I was trying to pick up a few items from the store. One woman looked at me and rolled her eyes while another woman asked me if I could “Get him under control!” Aggravated, defeated and very pregnant, I rolled my eyes and walked out of the store, leaving the cart on some random aisle (I’m sure that I am not alone). My oldest son is sweet, mild mannered and easygoing; my second child proved to be the cliché we all know so well. My second child has proven to be head strong- he has a charismatic and magnetic personality that so many people are drawn to. They both love every second of life, but the second will suck every last drop out of life. At his 2-year-old check up, pushing everything I know as a professional aside and feeling somewhat defeated by this little charmer, I remember saying to the doctor, “I don’t know what to do with him. The other one never did this. Please help me. I can’t take him anywhere without a fight and I feel defeated!” He laughed with me and reassured me that everything was very normal and reminded me of what I knew about brain development in the first three years of life.
Humor me: if you will, imagine for a second a horse and carriage. Not the lavish kind from fairy tales but one that might help to tend a field. It isn’t slow, but it isn’t very quick either. Nevertheless, it gets the job done because it has been trained to do the job. Now imagine a shiny red Corvette. This baby is as fast as lightning and sometimes might prove to be a little erratic because it’s fast. Now imagine the adult brain and the 2-year-old brain. Imagine the adult brain as the horse and carriage and the 2-year-old brain as the Corvette. Sure it seems silly, but read on! The first three years of life prove to be a period of incredible growth. When babies are born, their brains are ready to learn. They are born with all of the brain cells they will have in their lifetime. As we age, we lose brain cells. Brain cells are only good if they are being put to use and are connected to one another. After birth, these brain cells begin making connections with one another, and we call these connections synapses. These connections are made when a child has experiences that make him think. When a child thinks, he uses brain cells, which allows for the connections (or synapses) to get stronger. A 2-year-old’s brain contains twice as many synapses and consumes twice as much energy as an adult brain. Dr. Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, says, “A baby forms 700 new neural connections per second in the first years of life. This process of building the architecture of the brain is dramatically influence by life experiences. It is not genetically hardwired. Literally our environment shapes the architecture of our brain in the first year of life.” So maybe the cliché should be less about being a “terrible two” and more about their brain working “faster than you, two”.
So what does this mean for the parent staying at home with or living with this amazing little mass of brain cells? There are several things you can do to nurture healthy brain development. First, provide a consistent, loving, safe and caring environment along with balanced and nutritional feeding. A healthy attachment to a caregiver is both necessary and beneficial in order to accomplish these next suggestions. Next, listen and talk to your child about the world around him/her. This is key to supporting language and communication development. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, there are several ways you can support this development in young children.
For birth to age 2:
- Encourage your baby to make vowel-like and consonant-vowel sounds such as “ma,” “da” and “ba.”
- Reinforce your baby’s attempts at vocalizing by maintaining eye contact and imitating vocalizations by using different patterns and emphasis on letters and words.
- Expand on single words your baby uses: “Here is Mama. Mama loves you. Where is baby? Here is baby.”
For ages 2-4:
- You should model the use of good speech your child can understand. Repeat what your child says indicating that you understand. Build and expand on what was said. “Want juice? I have juice. I have apple juice. Do you want apple juice?”
- Sing simple songs and recite nursery rhymes to show the rhythm and pattern of speech.
- Ask questions that require a choice. “Do you want an apple or an orange?” “Do you want to wear your red or blue shirt?”
For ages 4-6:
- When your child starts a conversation, give your full attention whenever possible.
- Make sure that you have your child’s attention before you speak.
- Acknowledge, encourage and praise all attempts to speak. Show that you understand the word or phrase by fulfilling the request, if appropriate.
So, next time you see that sweet little 2-year-old and the struggling mom or dad in the grocery store, give them a reassuring smile and remember how that little Corvette is just revving his or her engine. Making connections and literally firing on all brain cells! I always want to pat mom or dad on the back and say, “Don’t worry, we’ve all been there. You are well on your way to having a well-adjusted, charismatic child!”