Throughout our children’s early years, we are concerned about their nutrition. Are we feeding them properly? Are we supplying all the essential nutrients? Are we encouraging habits that will lead to obesity? Are we providing a balance of nutrients?
These are wise and appropriate concerns. Yet we should also have similar concerns about nourishment of their brains. Over the past several years, scientists have become increasingly aware of the important role of the child’s early years in optimal brain development. Access to proper food is part of that awareness. It has been shown, for example, that children who do not receive adequate protein, certain vitamins and supplements like folic acid tend to have lower IQs by the time they reach elementary school. In general, this evidence is based on comparisons made in developing countries with acute food shortages. In America, although not all children are adequately or appropriately fed, such dramatic nutritional deficiencies are fortunately rare.
However, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of American children do not get a proper “diet of experience” during their early years. As experiences are filtered through our culture, these children used to be labeled “culturally deprived.” Some people thought that was an insulting term, and it dropped out of use. In my opinion it is a fairly good term, indicating that some children do not get from their families and communities enough of the necessary “experience nutrients” to allow their brains to develop properly.
Nutrients of Experience
Although I am oversimplifying matters somewhat, it is reasonably accurate to say that the four major nutritional categories are proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins and fats. I think there are corollaries for each of these in the realm of experience that must be provided young children if their brains are to be properly fed.
Proteins = Love. The experiential equivalent of protein for young children is love. Proteins provide the building blocks for the growth of bones, muscle tissue and vital organs. Love provides the building block for the development of selfhood, personality and character. The infant who is loved begins to trust people and expect that his needs will be met. This sense of basic trust essentially relaxes the baby enough to allow stimulation to enter the brain and be registered and stored there. As the experiences accumulate and get organized, the baby begins to make sense of the world. The infant who trusts the people who care for him becomes willing to explore, try new things and develop new skills. Such emotional security is associated with low levels of a chemical in the brain called cortisol. When the young child lives in a highly stressful world, cortisol levels rise. Elevated levels of cortisol are associated with feelings of fearfulness and anxiety. Under such conditions, new learning is blocked and occurs with difficulty. Being loved brings joy and happiness, and those emotions seem to flood the brain with receptivity to various forms of input that can enhance learning. In human development, there is no substitute for love, the protein of experience.
Carbohydrates = Stimulation. The adult world seems to be “low carb” obsessed these days, and probably many of us need to limit our carbohydrate intake. But children need carbohydrates for both growth in body mass and energy. And they need a steady diet of the carbohydrates of experience—stimulation from parents and other objects in their world—if their brains are to grow and function energetically. This means simple things like talking to the baby while you change a nappy, labeling objects for her and commenting on her attempts to signal or communicate: “Hey, that cry sounds like you’re hungry. How about a bottle?” These carbohydrates also include toys the child can manipulate. The eye-hand coordination involved in shaking a rattle, putting a ring on a pole or taking a toy cup in hand and pretending to drink all force the brain to develop new connections and strengthen old ones. For the energy to learn to adapt and cope, these everyday carbohydrates of experience are necessary.
Vitamins = Enrichment. Vitamins are often called supplements, and that is exactly what certain types of experiences are in relation to brain development: a supplement to what the child is receiving in routine daily care. Virtually anything you do for your young child that goes beyond what is necessary to keep him or her alive and growing reasonably can be considered an “experience” vitamin. At the top of my list would be reading aloud. Having your little one snuggle against you while you read a story is just as important for development as providing multivitamin drops. Other critical supplements are toys that challenge the child in problem solving and skill development. Any time you sit with your child and participate jointly in an activity he or she enjoys, you are providing an experience supplement. I also would place a high-quality early childhood program under the category of an experiential vitamin. Although such programs must also offer love, in addition to routine care that guarantees health and safety, they most assuredly supplement, and hopefully enrich, the care the child is already receiving. As the child responds to enrichment activities, new connections (called synapses) are formed in the brain, making the child more amenable to future stimulation and better able to organize thoughts and actions effectively.
Fats = Discipline. Originally I used the word “abuse” as the experiential equivalent of fat in the diet. After all, adults are constantly cautioned to limit fat intake, so I thought I needed a strong word. At the same time, nutritionists now remind us that there are “good fats” and “bad fats” and urge us to use them selectively. As I couldn’t imagine any sort of “good abuse,” I softened the word to “discipline”—experiences that corrects maladaptive behaviour likely to create difficulties and unhappiness for the growing child. Negative discipline is the perfect example of an experiential “bad fat.” In this category I include neglect, harsh and extreme punishment, abuse and dysfunctional family life. But discipline, if not all negative or too severe, can be considered the equivalent of good fat. If used with love and compassion, if more likely to consist of deprivation of privileges than physical action, and if offered with new information about what is appropriate behaviour, discipline can serve as a “good fat” in the child’s behavioural world. However, when the only type of discipline served in his daily diet of experience is severe and frequent punishment, this will serve to “freeze” brain development and inhibit further learning and development.
So here we have four essential nutrients that feed the brain—love, stimulation, enrichment and discipline. Hearty servings of the first three, and an appropriate intake of the last, are what our children need to nourish their brains. If they are to lead happy and productive lives, a well-nourished brain is crucial.
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education
Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.