In many ways, raising children is like saving for the future. Investing early and often can pay huge dividends later.

That’s why La Crosse, like so many other counties, has adopted a “Birth to 3” parenting education program. Because so much neurological development begins at birth, the nurturing — meaning the total environment (care, feeding, sleeping, clothing, interacting and relationship development) — of children in their earliest years truly lays the foundation for the rest of their lives.

The brain is a fascinating organ that grows increasingly capable over time. At birth, the brainstem areas that control primitive actions are developed, but the limbic and cortical regions that control more complex thoughts and behaviors are still developing. Parents and caregivers have enormous control over that development, with critical foundations being established in the first three years of life.

Birth to six months — Infants recognize their mothers’ voices and can sense anger, frustration and happiness. The more verbal you are with your child even in these early months, the more verbal he or she will be later on. These verbal skills are essential for building rewarding relationships and coping skills throughout life.
Six to 12 months — At this age, babies start taking more cues from their parents. It is a time for cognitive learning, socialization and attachment formation. Stranger anxiety often sets in as children continue bonding with their primary caretakers. This is the ideal time to pour attention on babies, giving them as much attention as they need. If you are especially attentive during this period, your child will be less demanding later on — even as early as toddler years.
12 to 18 months — Children become interested in more autonomy in this stage. They begin discerning the difference between yes and no, right and wrong. Because so much of what they have learned at this stage has been visual, it’s critical for your words to match your expressions and actions.
18 months to two years — Children continue cognitive and emotional development while becoming more physically capable. Gross and fine motor skills define themselves; children begin walking, tripping, running, picking up large and small items.
Most parents, if they’re honest with themselves, will admit to making some mistakes in these first three years. That’s OK. Every parent in the world makes mistakes, most of which will not traumatize children.

The key is to be there emotionally for your babies. It’s OK to leave them with a trusted caregiver so long as when you are with your child, you are truly engaged with him or her. Brain development depends on the amount of stimulation it receives. It’s a dynamic organ that relies on sensory, motor, emotional and cognitive input. The more information you consistently feed the brain, the more you will strengthen it. And the more love, care and attention you invest in your baby, the greater the potential for success later on.

As published in the April 2008 Edition of the Holmen Courier and Onalaska Community Life.