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Simple Strategies for Building Brains: Secure attachments, sleep and stress

A child’s early experiences form brain circuits that provide the basic architecture of the brain. These brain circuits are constructed through a process that begins early in life (before birth in fact) and continues into adulthood.

Much like constructing a house simpler circuits are built first and then more complex brain circuits build on them later. Whilst a child’s genes provide the basic blueprint for their brain architecture, their early experiences influence how or when these genes are expressed. It is essential that we get the basic right so a child’s brain is wired right from the start.

So What Can Parents and Teachers Do?

1. Form a secure attachment with young children. Neuroscience now tells us that young children need to interact with adults. Even newborn babies can mimic facial expressions (they have something called ‘mirror neurons’). Scientists now call this the ‘serve and return’ interaction between children and parents/caregivers. It is an essential ingredient in building brains. It is also one reason why we encourage minimal screen-time for babies and children under 2 years of age: children need face-to-face interactions with adults. (This is not to say that ALL screens are bad as we now have lots of interactive technologies that promote learning).

2. Avoid toxic stress. We are not talking about never letting young children experience stress. This is neither achievable nor desirable. Children need to experience some forms of stress (in age-appropriate amounts) so that they can learn to cope accordingly. By toxic stress we are referring to extreme poverty, maternal depression and ongoing abuse. Instead, we are talking about sustained and/or significant stress. The stress hormone ‘cortisol’ has been shown to impede the development of brain cells (neurons), so it is essential that we avoid toxic stress.

3. Encourage good sleep habits. Children need plenty of sleep. We have emerging evidence to suggest that perhaps some children diagnosed with ADHD and other attentional disorders may in fact have been mis-diagnosed, as they may simply be not having an adequate amount of sleep. Know how much time children need for sleep. Sleep allows the brain to process critical information and build the brain pathways. As anyone who deals with toddlers knows, a missed nap can have dire consequences on a toddler’s mood. A study by the University of Colorado Boulder showed that toddlers who missed a single day nap showed higher levels of anxiety, less joy and poorer problem-solving skills.

How much sleep do they need?

Newborns (0-2 months)- 12 -18 hours
Infants (3 months to 1 year) 14 – 15 hours
Toddlers (1 to 3 years) 12 – 14 hours
Preschoolers (3 to 5 years) 11- 13hours
School-aged children (5 to 12 years) 10 – 11hours

We cover more practical tips for both parents and teachers in our workshops and seminars on early brain development and learning. Click here to find out more.


I’m Dr. Kristy Goodwin

Researcher, speaker, author, and mum - and not only do I GET it, I’ve dedicated my entire career to helping my fellow professionals and parents explore this exact digital dilemma.

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