Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children
Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

It’s no wonder that constantly moving infants and toddlers wear out their parents. As Conor P. Williams, the dad of a baby and a toddler, writes at Ed Central, a New America Foundation blog: These busy babies have even busier brains that are forming 700 new neural pathways per second.

“Like most young parents of very young children, my wife and I are only barely keeping up with these two creatures that have a combined age that is still younger than most of the T-shirts in my dresser,” Williams writes.

“This is the paradox of young children,” Williams explains. On the one hand “they are weak, incomplete beings just learning the basics of being alive.” But on the other hand, developing infants and toddlers “display patience, resilience and flexibility well beyond adults’ capacities.”

The good news about these mile-a-minute children is that they’re teaching neuroscientists and policymakers about the importance of early brain development — and how crucial it is for children to get needed stimulation before the age of four.

As Williams explains, “Last fall, researchers from Brown University and King’s College London published an article in ‘The Journal of Neuroscience’ that helps explain how toddlers get their speed—and why it’s so important that they do.

“The report studied the neural development of 108 children from one to six years old. Specifically, the researchers were interested in tracking ‘myelination’ patterns in young children’s brain development.”

Myelin, Williams says, “coats frequently-used neural pathways to speed stimuli throughout the nervous system. If we perform certain cognitive and physical actions often enough, our brains eventually use myelin as a sort of electrical shortcut to hurry things along. For young children building new skills, myelination is a critical part of brain development.”

As other studies have, this study found that “the early years are enormously important for children’s linguistic development.”

Another key finding in the study is that “myelination patterns stabilized around age four, suggesting a critical developmental point when children’s brains start to become less pliable. As they age beyond then, their brains become more like adults—and their pace of development slows down.”

Williams says these results can be “a useful reminder to policymakers considering when they ought to invest limited resources for improving children’s linguistic abilities.”

Click here to see images from Brown University’s Baby Imaging Lab that show the increase of myelination in babies’ brains from age three months to age ten months. (As the lab’s website explains, these images are done using MRIs — Magnetic Resonance Imaging — which “does not use ionizing radiation,” but rather “a strong static magnetic field and radio-waves (similar to those of an FM radio) to make images of the brain. There is no known health effect associated with strong static magnetic fields.”)

One policymaker who is already helping to spread the message about children’s brains is former U.S. Senator and physician Bill Frist.

“Between birth and five years old, 90 percent of a child’s brain development occurs, and at a lightning-fast pace. Every sight, smell, sound, and sensation makes an impact. Long before most children step foot into a classroom, neurons are building networks, cognition is exploding, language is developing, and the foundations are being laid for a lifetime of learning,” Frist writes on the Too Small To Fail website, which encourages parents and business people to “take meaningful actions to improve the health and well-being of children ages zero to five.”

Early educators should encourage their own representatives and policymakers to learn more about the science of infants’ and toddlers’ brains. Or just invite them to come and see these young children and their bustling brains in action.