Child Development: What Parents Need to Know
A child’s development is a complex process that involves the synergy of social, emotional, physical and cognitive skills. However, parents and teachers have a big part to play as well.
By Amrita Gracias
While each of these skills 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 provides guidance on early childhood development. ‘Track and Act’, a brainchild of Dr Mundkur, is an app that helps track a child’s developmental milestones. 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.
Development – Process, milestones and phases
While nature determines our biological inheritance, Dr. Mundkur elaborates on the influences of nature and nurture on a child’s development. “So, 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,” she says.
Successful development of a child involves essential processes that include:
- Attachment: It is extremely important that the child bonds with the parents and family. Bonding with the child does not only involve feeding or simply taking care of her. It implies the non-verbal communication and emotional attachment between parent and child. “It’s almost like ‘falling in love,’ where eye contact and touch are significant in establishing this bond,” explains Dr. Mundkur.
- Sensory system: We are born with five senses – taste, sight, touch, smell and hearing. Nurturing these senses is essential for the brain to process and make sense of all the information it receives. 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. Inadequate nourishment may lead to health concerns such as thyroid malfunction or anaemia, which can cause developmental delays. Adequate sleep is also necessary for the brain to function properly.
Four key skills that require adequate inputs for development are:
- Communication – the ability to express and understand one’s own language (check Dr Mundkur’s website for all the 4 skills)
- Intelligence or cognition
- Physical or motor skills
Each of these skills is a key milestone in development, and is achieved within a certain period of time and at a specific age. All children may not reach their milestones at the right age. For instance, a child can start walking 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 at around 18 months. It is the quality of movement or development of the child that is more important.
Dr. Mundkur enlightens us with an example. “For instance,” she says, “an autistic child will be familiar with several phrases but they may not make any sense to her. Moreover, a child’s development must follow the correct sequence by smoothly transitioning from one phase to another. Each area of development follows its own sequential course. If a child can recite a few numbers or rhymes from memory, but cannot communicate or even respond to his own name, then there is cause for concern.”
A child’s development begins at birth and the brain develops skills as the child grows:
- Birth – 1 year: The first year is dedicated to motor development. During this phase, the child learns to sit, crawl, stand and walk.
- 1 ½ – 2/3 years: The brain develops language and social skills enabling the child to communicate and socialise within his environment.
- 3 – 5 years: The brain develops all cognitive skills
Your child should develop certain skills during the first few years of her life. These skills are known as cognitive development milestones. Go through this ClipBook to know more about it.
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.
When a child takes much longer than the average prescribed time to reach a milestone, it is considered to be a delayed milestone. “It is important that parents 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,” reiterates Dr Mundkur. “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,” she explains. Also milestones are often strongly influenced by local, cultural practices. “Unfortunately, in India, most people, including many doctors, monitor only physical development. But if the child has no communication skills, he cannot learn; or if he has no social skills, it may in fact be an indication of autism. So, even if one milestone is delayed, it is important to analyse and assess further. Sometimes, if the delay is mild, additional stimulation can help the child catch up,” says Dr Mundkur.
Bio-psycho-social model of development
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 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 another key element in the process of development.
While ‘nature’ implies our innate, inherent capabilities, ‘nurture’ indicates the external factors that influence development. 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. 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 even has the ability to alter the gene pattern – the gene expresses itself in a different manner rather than what has been inherited,” says Dr Mundkur.
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 the 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 for parents to monitor a child’s development closely. Parents must gather sufficient knowledge about their child’s developmental milestones and follow advanced scientific guidelines . 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 their developmental years.
Parents can help in their child’s development process by encouraging them to perform some basic tasks such as brushing their teeth, feeding or dressing up on his own. A child must be given opportunities to discover, think and experience, which will 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 children can connect with, cognitive development will be fostered effortlessly.
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