Brain Development in the early years
Merle Davies, Director for the Blackpool Centre for Early Child Development (CECD) and Blackpool’s Better Start Programme discusses their programme and our shared responsibility for ensuring good long-term outcomes for our children and families.
In Blackpool, we share a responsibility for ensuring good long-term outcomes for our children and families. The Better Start Programme is one example of how these responsibilities are taken seriously, as partner agencies come together to transform the lives of our children by focusing on brain development during the early years.
Taking up my post has been the start of a fascinating journey for me. I had never really thought too much about brain development before taking on my role as Director at the Blackpool Centre for Early Child Development. I had just assumed that you were born with a brain that developed, along with the rest of your body that was fully-formed during childhood. At 18 you emerged as a moulded human being with a functioning brain that you put to good use, such as going to college or university and developing it, which would slowly deteriorate along with the rest of our bodies as we grew older. Let me ask you a question; how would you describe child development? If like most of the people our researchers asked you’re stumped for an answer, you’re not alone.
My journey at the Centre for Early Child Development made me to realise that my brain didn’t fully form until I was 25, long after my university years. That the experiences and relationships I had growing up and during early adulthood would have impacted my brain development. It never occurred to me how a range of environmental factors I was exposed to during childhood and beyond impacted on my long term health and wellbeing, especially during the first few years of my life and particularly before I was even born. But while the nurture and care our brains need well into adulthood is a fascinating and complicated science, what we can do to ensure healthy brain development is fairly simple. We as a society need to support parents during this crucial time to support them through a healthy gestation and birth.
In Blackpool we have been working closely with international experts on brain development. Courtesy of our partners at the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative, Frameworks Institute and the Norlien Foundation, we have developed materials on the NSPCC website regarding brain development to share with professionals and the local community.
We and our partners use analogies such as ‘brain architecture’, to explain in simple language and with key metaphors about brain development. For example, it’s like building a house where you need a firm foundation. The wiring can’t go in until the walls are in place and even then, if the electrician is having an off-day it may not get wired correctly. The roof can’t go on until everything else has been done and if you got something wrong in the initial build, it’s going to take time, money and probably a lot of discomfort to put it right later. Others in the field argue that describing brains in such concrete terms does not best describe the incredible ‘plasticity’ or adaptability of the human brain.
So how are we building brains in Blackpool? We’re not trying to turn our workers into brain surgeons, nor are we expecting social workers to make assessments of infants’ ‘brain architecture’. A key part of ensuring that solid foundations are in place is to provide new and expectant mothers with the right information and support to enable them to meet their baby’s needs. We support parents during this crucial time to ensure a healthy gestation and birth by providing good evidence based universal services such as the Family Nurse Partnership and Baby Steps, which will provide greater confidence and information to enable mothers to support their baby better.
Our extended Family Nurse Partnership is available to mothers under 20. The programme is delivered by health visitors and midwives, and supported by family engagement workers. The mixed skills of professionals is important to enable the programme to deal effectively with families’ emotional, social and physical needs, and building mutually respectful and valued relationships with parents. The course is interactive and uses a range of engaging approaches including discussions, creative activities and video to cover traditional antenatal education such as birth, breastfeeding and practical baby care, but it also focuses on key themes that reflect the importance of protective factors in the perinatal period such as:
- Strengthening parent- infant relationships.
- Strengthening couple relationships.
- Building strong support networks.
- Improving feelings of self-confidence as well as levels of low mood.
Another programme that builds strong foundations is Survivor Mums. I’d never considered that a mother who had been abused as a child might find it really difficult to go through many of the intimate examinations women are subjected to during pregnancy, until I met with Professor Julia Senge at the University of Michigan, who really opened my eyes to how difficult this might be. That’s why we’re working with her team to bring this evidence-based programme to parents in Blackpool. We’re building strong foundations to ensure that baby has the best possible start in life by working with mothers to enable them to deal with past trauma during pregnancy by helping her to:
- Manage her emotions better.
- Be more at ease with her doctor/midwife/baby.
- Be able to manage stress reactions when distress occurs.
It’s important that families and workers know that our understanding of brain development is itself in its infancy and that a deterministic interpretation of infant development is not helpful for anyone. One thing we can be certain of is the incredible plasticity and resilience of the brain and the clear message that children with all kinds of experiences can go on to lead healthy and happy lives. Our next stage on the journey to developing a healthy brain is dealing with the stressors in a child’s life during critical stages that can cause long-term effects on health and wellbeing. One of the things I learned in previous roles was that no matter how good or innovative interventions were it was always better if we could prevent things going wrong in the first place.
Helping parents to understand how infant development works better enables all new and expectant mums in Blackpool to recognise the importance of accessing the help and support they need to enable them to develop and nurture their child. If we can help to change behaviours and better ensure protective factors are in place, we are providing a strong foundation on which to build and support the children’s development in the crucial early years.
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