This week, I want to share with you excerpts from a 2019 interview with Dr. Jean Clinton, child psychiatrist at the McMaster Children’s Hospital and clinical professor in psychiatry and neurosciences at McMaster University:
A young child’s brain is flexible; its structure is shaped by interaction between genes and experiences, including environment and relationships with others. Dr. Jean Clinton was asked how parents can best support healthy brain development. First off, “pay attention to baby as a communicator right from birth,” she explains.
Dr. Clinton notes that “the brain’s DNA expression is changed by experiences. Parents are literally constructing their baby’s brain.” It’s important to learn to read baby’s cues – if baby is tired, it’s not a good time to play. Figuring out those cues isn’t easy. Is baby fussing because they need attention, are tired, hungry, uncomfortable or is it something else entirely?
“You can’t spoil an infant,” says Dr. Clinton. Building a secure and trusting relationship between the caregiver and the child is key. Pick them up when they’re distressed, as crying is their only way to communicate. Baby is soothed both by parent’s presence and body, letting baby feel safe and secure.
Different parts of the brain develop at different ages. The biggest changes come early in life when over 700 new brain connections are made every second. When baby babbles and waves their arms, they’re talking to you, so interact. And get right in baby’s face—literally! Baby experiences new sounds, foods and objects through play, so play together.
Conversely, trauma or toxic stress negatively impacts brain development. Toxic stress can result from child abuse or neglect, domestic violence, a parent’s mental illness or living in poverty. But there is also good news. Young brains can be repaired with love, attention and support. “This is a message of hope for parents who’ve suffered from post-partum depression or other events,” notes Dr. Clinton. “Because of brain plasticity, we’ve got lots of opportunities to repair things that may not have been built right in the first place.”
Through her work with families and as a parent and grandparent, Dr. Clinton has found that being a caring, responsive parent is often about shifting one’s mindset. “What you think affects how you feel and act.” When your toddler has a temper tantrum, ask yourself ‘what’s this really about?’ It’s a sign that they’re not mature enough to deal with a situation. Consider: what can you do? How can you help?”
Dr. Clinton’s mantra? “Love builds brains!” Dr. Clinton asks parents to think of themselves as coaches or gardeners, helping their child grow and mature to become the best they can be. Sounds like a recipe for success.