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‘Golden window’ to have a happier, smarter child

The average 18-month-old can say about 10 to 30 words, but some normal 18-month-olds can say only five words. Sometimes I see a toddler of the same age who can say more than 70 words and can put these words in combination to form phrases or sentences. Kate, Trevor, Ryan and Cameron, all my patients, were already talking like a three-year-old when they were 18 months old. Trevor, at 15 months, was able to say more than 40 words when most of his peers could say only three to five words. Our son Len, at 24 months, was able to read the words “Toyota” and “Subaru.”

What do all of these children have in common? They were lucky to have parents and grandparents who started talking with them from the first day of life. They read to them early on and continued reading every night as part of their bedtime routine. These toddlers were fortunate to have parents who challenged and stimulated their brain cells during the first 12 months of their life by frequently talking, reading, counting, adding, singing, and playing in a happy way.

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Unfortunately, most parents have the wrong idea that education starts at Grade K. To have happier and smarter children, education must begin during the first 36 months. This is the “golden window” of opportunity for parents, grandparents, daycare workers, babysitters, and nannies to make a huge difference. And for a dramatic educational outcome, educators and policymakers should look into this “golden window” of learning and apply recent cognitive research on how to boost babies’ language and brain development in their curriculum.

The first six months of life are critically important because that is the time when the visual neurons (brain cells for vision) of the occipital lobes, at the back of the head, connect with the retina (seeing part of the eye). A newborn with a cataract obstructing the vision in the left eye, if not operated on as soon as feasible, will have visual impairment or blindness in that eye. However, the right eye will be able to see normally. This is good evidence that if the eyes are not stimulated during the early months of life, the optic nerve will not connect with the visual neurons of the brain, resulting in poor or no vision.

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And this is probably true with all the other developing brain cells or neurons of an infant. For the brain to develop faster, it needs to be stimulated more often. The stimuli can come from the talking, counting, singing, reading, caring, and playing with parents. Without these stimuli, neurons will not be connected with each other. It’s called neurogenesis, which is the basis of learning.

When a baby is born, most of the neurons are not yet connected. For normal or advanced brain development to happen, these neurons should connect their axon (outgoing fibers) to the dendrite (incoming fiber) of the nearby group of neurons. Where an axon connects with the dendrite is called synapse. Without these early critical synapses, mental and language growth is delayed, leading to mental retardation.

One neuron can connect with 5,000 to 15,000 other brain cells. These connections form a “brain chip” just like an Intel computer storage microchip. The earlier and more neuron-chips are connected, the earlier and more advanced the language and brain development occurs; it is the basis of intelligence, as shown by the early talking of Kate, Trevor, Ryan, and Cameron, and the early reading of Len.

During a child’s first 12 months the head size grows about 10 centimeters from 35 cm at birth to 45 cm. At 12 months old, a boy has a head size of about 47 cm, and at three years old, 50 cm—growth of only 3 cm in 24 months compared to the 10 cm from birth to 12 months. This is why I think the first 12 months of life are crucial to start early stimulation and education. The brain is growing the fastest in this period, creating billions of synapses.

Mrs. S, the mother of Ryan, talked with him frequently at about 35 words a minute and read to him as often as possible. She played classical music to him starting from when he was a week old. At three years old, he was advanced in language and much more talkative than his friends.

When Len reached preschool age, we nurtured him to discover his interests and gave him toys advanced for his age. We also read a lot of books to him daily. TV time was limited. We supported his achievements and we were “liberal” and open-minded enough to encourage his independence, thinking, and sense of adventure.

Len is now a certified specialist in Schodack, New York, practicing internal medicine and pediatrics.

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Dr. Leonardo L. Leonidas ([email protected] gmail.com) retired in 2008 as assistant clinical professor in pediatrics from Boston’s Tufts University School of Medicine, where he was recognized with a Distinguished Career Teaching Award in 2009. He is a 1968 graduate of the University of the Philippines College of Medicine and now spends some of his time in the province of Aklan.

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TAGS: adding, Childrearing, counting, education, Filipino children, Reading, singing, talking
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