Baby's First 18 Months: A Critical Time

As a baby develops, many changes in the brain related to language, learning, social ability, vision and perception occur at a fast pace. Most of this complicated development is completed by 18 months of age. So it is important that during this period babies are in a situation and environment that allows their brains, nerve cells and learning and cognitive abilities to develop normally.  We know that if they do not achieve this development properly or fully, there can be long term consequences. These consequences may not be obvious early on in life, but may appear years or even decades later. Obviously as parents and child caregivers we want our babies to grow and develop as normally as possible in order to reach their full potential as adults.

The term, `Life Course Perspective` recognizes that early effects on a child`s development, growth or behaviour can have lifelong consequences. We know that genes play a role in determining ones potential and characteristics. However the study of epigenetics has proven that external factors like the environment (home or family and social situation) can actually modify one`s genetic potential or programming. This is also true during pregnancy.  The Life Course Perspective explains how early experiences in life can impact longer term health and functional capacity. We have long known that effects of certain insults to a developing child are visible and obvious. However, there are many other types of insults or “damage “whose effects are not immediately apparent, but which may add up over time to create significant effects. These include social disadvantage, abuse/neglect, lack of bonding (lack of TLC) environmental insults and more.

We have seen babies admitted to hospital with growth failure. Almost miraculously these babies, once admitted, start to grow. This is because the hospital staff showed affection and care. Sadly, these babies came from home situations of neglect or abuse. Further studies on the effect of brain and hormone controls by lack of nurturing during the first year of life have shown rather worrisome results. Animal studies, and to some extent human studies, suggest that lack of maternal care, stimulation and love (affection) result in abnormalities in the brain, nerve and hormonal system connections. These control the secretion of important hormones including adrenaline and cortisol. Studies have confirmed that damage or mis-development of this control system can be caused by neglect, even during the first few months of life. The resulting hormonal imbalances can last decades and actually cause chronic medical disease. Up until now it was very clear that lack of bonding and nurturing in babies can result in long-term psychological and mental problems. It is now clear that neglect can exacerbate or even cause chronic illness such as diabetes. So investing in a child’s early support, by providing as much TLC and attention as possible, not only assures proper mental and psychological development and maturation, but indeed is a form of chronic disease prevention, which may only appear decades later.