A child’s development is a complex process that involves the synergy of social, emotional, physical and cognitive aspects. While each of these aspects plays a significant role in a child’s development, it is also largely influenced by the environment in which she grows – both before and after birth. ParentCircle spoke to Dr Nandini Mundkur, an eminent paediatrician, who has done pioneering work in the field of early detection of and intervention services for child development disorders. She is also the founder of Totsguide.com, a web portal that helps track a child’s development. In this article, Dr Mundkur explains the significance of a parent’s role in child development, how it is influenced by several factors, and why it is so important to constantly monitor a child’s milestones.
How do you define the term ‘development’?
Child development is essentially maximising the child’s potential which is inherited by the way her nervous system is built, and how she is largely influenced by the environment she lives in.
What are the processes that are involved in the development of a child?
There are a few processes that are essential for a child’s cognitive development:
- Attachment: It is extremely important that a child bonds with her parents and family. Bonding with the child does not only involve feeding or taking care of her. Instead, it implies the non-verbal communication and emotional attachment between parent and child. It’s almost like ‘falling in love’. Eye contact and touch are significant in establishing this bond.
- Developing the sensory system: We are born with five senses – taste, sight, touch, smell and hearing. Nurturing these senses is essential so the brain is stimulated enough to express itself. However, overstimulation can lead to stress and may cause the brain to shut off and stop reacting to stimulus.
- Health and Nutrition: Proper nourishment is a key factor in a child’s development. Moreover, health concerns like thyroid or anaemia can also cause developmental delays. Adequate sleep is also necessary for the brain to function properly.
What are the critical milestones in a child’s development?
There are four keys areas of cognitive development in a child:
- Communication – the ability to express and understand one’s own language
- Intelligence or cognition
- Physical or motor skills
Each of these four skills has a key milestone, which needs to be achieved within a certain timeframe and at a specific age. They are sometimes influenced by cultural diversity – the way various societies support and participate in child rearing.
Unfortunately, in India, most people including many doctors, only monitor the physical development of the child. However, if the child has no communication skills, he cannot learn; or if he has no social skills, he can in fact show indications of autism. So, even if one milestone is delayed, it is important to analyse and assess further. Sometimes, if the delay is mild then additional stimulation can help the child catch up.
What is a delayed milestone?
A delayed milestone refers to the condition when the child does not reach a developmental stage and falls below the percentile of development that is appropriate for his age. It is important for parents to check if their child has reached his milestones and share this information with the paediatrician. It is not recommended to follow the ‘wait and watch’ method. In fact, if the irregularity is detected in time, the child can be helped accordingly. However, not much can be done if the period in which the milestone needs to be achieved is lost.
All children may not achieve milestones at a particular age. Instead, they can be achieved within a certain range. For instance, a child can walk anywhere between 9 and 18 months of age. However, a child who walks at 9 months is in no way superior to a child who walks only around 18 months. More importantly, though, is the quality of movement or development of the child. For instance, an autistic child will be familiar with several phrases, but they may not make any sense to him. Moreover, a child’s development must follow the correct sequence by smoothly transiting from one phase to another. Each area of development follows its own sequential course. If a child can recite a few numbers or rhymes by mere memorisation but cannot communicate or even respond to his own name, then there is cause for concern.
Is your child lagging behind other children in reaching her milestones? Here's what you can do
What is the pace at which development occurs?
- Birth–1 year: The first year is dedicated to motor development, where the child learns to sit, crawl, stand and walk.
- 1½–2/3 years: The brain develops language and social skills enabling the child to communicate and socialise in his environment.
- 3–5 years: A child’s cognitive development begins at birth and the brain develops skills as the child grows.
During these ‘windows’, the brain makes an extra effort to absorb, connect and acquire these skills. In the first few years after birth, the brain is highly ‘neuroplastic’. Complex neural connections are formed, enabling the brain to recognise learning skills. Any part of the brain that is not utilised in the initial years will get ‘zoned out’ and not form the necessary neural connections. By the age of 5, when the brain is fully developed, some parts will fail to be productive even with additional stimulation.
What is the bio-psycho-social model of development? How does it explain changes in behaviour, thinking and functioning?
A child’s development is attributed to the biological, psychological and social factors that surround him. For instance, even if a child is born without any abnormalities, he still requires the correct stimuli from his surrounding environment during the period his brain is developing the most. Without proper input, the brain fails to develop the abilities needed to cross a milestone. Stress is also another key element in the process of development. In fact, the stress experienced by a woman during pregnancy can even affect her unborn baby.
What is the relationship between nature-nurture interactions?
While ‘nature’ implies our innate, inherent capabilities, ‘nurture’ indicates the external factors that influence development.
How do these interactions impact early childhood development? Which has a greater role to play?
Both nature and nurture interactions have an equal influence on child development. While a child can develop at the correct pace only if he is born without an abnormality, the right amount of nurturing can significantly improve his growth. For example, a child within a 50-percentile range of a certain milestone can be brought up to 90 percentile by providing the required stimulus. However, the reverse is true as well. A child who is within 90 percentile of a milestone can be reduced to 50 percentile if he is exposed to wrong stimuli like television and mobile phones at an inappropriate age. In this way, both nature and nurture are closely linked and play equally important roles. In fact, the role of the environment is so strong that it can even alter the gene pattern – the gene expresses itself in a different manner rather than what has been inherited.
What are the factors that lead to maladjustment?
A child’s failure to meet social expectations stems from his behaviour within his environment. Bad behaviour and temper tantrums are consequences of the parents’ attitude towards their children in their home setting. If parents do not correct and control actions like hitting or biting at the right time, the child will continue this behaviour outside his home. Apart from this, growing in an unhealthy environment or one that is full of discord can lead to maladjustment in children.
It is most important that a child’s development is monitored closely. Parents must gather sufficient knowledge about their child’s developmental milestones and follow advanced scientific guidance. While physical development is easy to observe, social and cognitive milestones are less obvious. They are, however, more vital and supplement all other areas of development. Apart from this, a child’s speech, vision and hearing should also be keenly observed throughout his developmental years.
Parents can help in their child’s developmental process by encouraging him to do some basic tasks such as brushing his teeth, feeding or dressing up on his own. A child must be given opportunities to discover, think and experience, which will help improve his motor skills and empower his independence, self-confidence and other developmental skills. On the whole, if parents can create a stable and harmonious environment that the children can connect with, development will be fostered effortlessly.