Why are nurturing and responsive relationships critical for infants and toddlers?

"Hello, families! It has been a long time since my last posting. My life has been non-stop but now I am here to share my latest post. This article represents my passion, the reason I am in this industry as well as my belief and scope to see the relationships between babies and their primary caregivers"

          The views of human development have evolved over the last few centuries. Previous views of children’s development held by many theorists such as Darwin, Chomsky, Bandura, and Skinner were believed to be a result of nature or nurture influences. These views have more recently been replaced by a more balanced point of view (Berk, 2012). Especially, Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) social-ecological systems theory, which considers multidimensional influences that impact a child’s development and experiences. Discovering epigenetics (1) is another platform which has opened our eyes to see complex, constant interaction between multiple factors on human development (Gonzalez-Mena, 2007). The theories of human inborn nature and mind have also changed. We have seen new born babies as good, evil, not determined, incapable, and finally capable (Berk, 2012). Looking at newborn babies as human beings who are capable and ready to learn has a tremendous impact on the early childhood education area as well as human rights realm (Komulainen, 2007). In fact, many studies have uncovered their incredible ability to learn. This shift of our perceptions brought our attention to this youngest citizen in our society about how they learn and how they develop. In this paper, based on these contemporary views on development and human nature, I will explain the importance of nurturing and responsive relationships with primary caregivers and its connection to developmental characteristics of infants and toddlers.

          During the first three years of life, infants and toddlers experience significant milestones in their development (Berk, 2012). Sensitive periods, also known as “prime times” occur in this timeframe (Shore, 1997). During prime times, both positive and negative experiences have a greater chance of affecting the development of infants and toddlers in a serious and sustainable manner (Wittmer & Petersen, 2006). One of the strongest factors which shape their experiences is the caregivers around them. According to Bowlby (1969), infants develop relationships with their primary caregivers immediately after birth. Nurturing and responsive bonding experiences with their caregivers lead them to achieve secure-based attachments. Although infants or toddlers respond differently to their caregivers (Bernier & Meins, 2008), secure-based attachment is positively correlated with social and emotional development, as well as learning (Bowlby, 1969). Several studies (Bohr & Tse, 2009; Schore, 2001; Sroufe, 2003) have also addressed the notion that the formation of attachment in children’s early years has a direct correlation to their future self-reliance, emotional regulation, and social competence. For these reasons, developing attachment is the most crucial emotional milestone for children in this age group. In fact, we have to focus on the correlation between the characteristics of caregivers and different types of attachment that can occur with infants and toddlers (Ainsworth and Bell, 1970). According to this study, caregivers need to have the following characteristics to promote secure-based attachments among infants and toddlers: empathy, openness, warmth, dedication, carefulness, sensitivity, and responsiveness. 

          During the first two years of life, children experience significant changes in their body size and proportions. Even though many variables such as heredity, emotional well-being, nutrition, sleeping patterns, childhood injuries, and infectious diseases all affect children’s physical growth (Berk, 2012), children typically grow approximately 75%, and their weight quadruples from birth to their second birthday (Karpowitz, 2008). Brain development is another attribute that increases rapidly during the first three years of life (The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2004). In fact, ‘serve and return (2)’  is one of the most essential experiences in brain architecture. Healthy brains develop based on stable, responsive relationships with caring adults. In other words, based on positive or negative relationships, the brain will form accordingly (Center on the Developing Child, 2017).

           Piaget (1952) conceived cognitive development from infancy to adulthood into four stages: sensorimotor, pre-operational, concrete operational, and formal operational. According to this theory, infants and toddlers are in the sensorimotor stage, and they construct their knowledge primarily through motor activities (Karpowiz, 2008). Similar to other areas of development, differences in cognitive development among individuals can vary greatly (Karpowiz, 2008; Whitebread, 2012). Whitebread (2012) argued that this may be due to innate differences in brain functionality, as well as early social interactions with caregivers. For example, different parenting behaviors (Pino Pasternak & Whitebread, 2010; Karreman, van Tuijl, van Aken & Dekovic, 2006), maternal interaction styles (Fivush, 2007), and different types of maternal stimulation (Tamis-LeMonda & Bornstein, 1989) impact children’s development and their performance of cognitive processes. 

          In terms of language development, Tomasello and Farrar (1986) revealed the vital role of joint attention (3) in the acquisition of language. Joint attention can be presented in various forms, such as mutual eye gazing, pointing, and gestures. Positive and frequent joint attention experiences can scaffold early mother-child linguistic interaction (Tomasello & Farrar, 1986). 

           We often sub-categorize child development into five closely linked areas: physical, social, emotional, cognitive, and language. However, DeGraffenreidt, Gransmick, Grafwallner, and O'Malley (2010) argued that children are born with tremendous potential and capacity for learning across all developmental domains. Not one area of child development is more important than another. However, we have learned that developing nurturing and responsive relationships with caregivers provides a crucial basis for healthy development in all domains among infants and toddlers due to their developmental characteristics. Unfortunately, we are still at the beginning stage of unveiling the mystery of infant mental health area. Therefore, more research is required.  

(1) Epigenetics. Gene expression based on people’s experiences. Some genes are turned on or turned off based on their experiences (Gonzalez-Mena, 2007) 

(2) Serve and return. Constant back and force interaction between adults and children while adults response to child’s cues and actions (Center on the Developing Child, 2017)

(3) Joint attention refers to mothers’ and infants’ shared experiences on the same object or activity (Tomasello & Farrar, 1986). Infant joint attention is largely related to language acquisition, and social and behaviour outcomes (Vaughan Van Hecke, Mundy, Block, Delgado, Parlade, Pomares, & Hobson, 2012)


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