All children differ in their biological susceptibility to life experiences in a ‘for better and for worse’ manner. Some kids are particularly sensitive to both highly stressful and highly nurturing environments. Like orchids, such children bloom if lovingly cultivated, but wilt and wither if neglected.

In contrast, adaptable resilient children who don’t get easily stressed are like little dandelions, they’ll grow and thrive anywhere.

Studies are now showing ‘orchid’ and ‘dandelion’ genes linked to particular enzymes or brain chemical receptors, if and only if combined with early childhood toxic stress, can trigger behavioural problems and mood disorders later in life.

“It’s possible we’ve underestimated the importance of childhood.” Professor Richie Poulton.

Poulton is head of the Dunedin Study, a research programme that has closely tracked every aspect of the lives of 1037 people born in Dunedin, New Zealand in 1972 and 1973.

The Dunedin study has shown that early life experiences shape developing brain architecture and strongly affect whether children grow up to be healthy, productive members of society. Toxic stress — defined as stress that is extreme or long-lasting or occurs outside an environment of supportive, attached caregiver relationships — derails healthy brain development, with damaging effects on learning, behaviour, and physical and mental health across the lifespan.

While writing The Women’s Brain Book I spent much of Chapter 2 exploring what can go wrong during childhood – from the effects of trauma to family stress to learning negative gender stereotypes. I worried that if readers had young children they were probably ready to drop the book and run off to bulk-buy cotton wool and bubble wrap.

Given what we know about normal and abnormal brain development, what experiences do infants and children (the dandelions and the orchids) need to thrive, not just survive? What can adults who raise children do to foster healthy, happy brains?

Faced with wading through decades of childhood development literature, I instead picked up the phone and called my friend and colleague Dr Kristy Goodwin. Goodwin is a children’s learning and development researcher and she has summarised seven essential experiences or, as she calls them ‘building blocks’ for optimal brain development.

What do growing brains need to thrive?

1. Attachments and relationships.

Warm, predictable and loving relationships allow children to feel secure, safe and unstressed.

2. Language.

Infants and young children need ample opportunities to hear and use language: ‘serve-and-return’ interactions are crucial.

3. Sleep.

Sleep is vital for children’s emotional, physical and mental development.

4. Play.

Through play, babies and children develop cognitive skills, creativity and emotional regulation. They need ample opportunities to experiment and explore, including time outdoors in nature. Dr Goodwin highlights the modern-day need to counteract ‘screen time’ with ‘green time’.

5. Physical Movement.

Children need to master simple then complex motor skills in order to develop more sophisticated, higher-order thinking skills later on.

6. Nutrition.

Quality nutrition is vital for optimal development. Children’s diets need to be rich in foods that contain essential fatty acids optimal for brain development.

7. Executive Function Skills.

Children need to master simple higher-order thinking skills such as impulse control and working memory.

“Given that we know experience accounts for about 70% of a child’s development. It’s critical that we provide them with the right types of experiences.” Dr Kristy Goodwin.

Poulton, Goodwin and I agree that childhood is a sacred time. It’s a unique period in the lifespan that needs to be treasured, nurtured and protected.

This is an excerpt from The Women’s Brain Book. The neuroscience of health, hormones and happiness. Also published in the UK and Ireland as Demystifying the Female Brain. A neuroscientist explores health, hormones and happiness.

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