First Love: The Importance of Early-Childhood Relationships

Jul 13, 20183 Issue, Best of 2018, Stories

Photo by Annie Thompson

By Lydia Howard


When I first became a parent, I was struck, as I am sure all parents are, by this sense that what I was doing was very important. I didn’t fully understand the feeling at the time but from the moment I held my daughter and nursed her, from the first time I bathed her, sang her a song and read her a book, I felt, or maybe even knew, that these things mattered.

As rapidly as our bookshelves filled with stories about ducks and trucks and alligators under the bed, they became crammed full of books on early child development. As often happens when we begin to look deeper into any subject matter, I quickly became acutely aware of just how little I knew about the young brain. I also became aware that as a society, our understanding of just how crucial this period of life is, and how it can be best supported, is in many ways still in its infancy.

Research into early child development, and in particular the plasticity of the brain in early life, is now a vast and rapidly growing field. Today, it is generally accepted by experts that the years from birth to about age four are absolutely critical for brain development. During this time, the vast majority of human brain growth occurs and the foundation for learning, from language to social and emotional skills, is laid.

While it’s common to hear very young children referred to as “little sponges,” the extent to which this is true can be hard to fathom. The reality is that the little baby who is still unable to control most of his basic functions, the toddler who is having a conniption because you gave her the blue sippy cup instead of the yellow one, is in fact making more neural connections right now than they ever will again in their lives. It’s no wonder they need naps!

Love in my Family

As I delved deeper into the magic and mystery of the developing brain, I became increasingly more fascinated by the connection between caregiver-child relationships and healthy brain development. Why did I feel that my interactions with my children were somehow so much more than simply diaper changes and baths and feedings?

We all know that children need to have their basic needs met to survive and to thrive, and that the people whose care they find themselves in must provide this. Proper nutrition, clean water… actually, I’m just going to let Canadian children’s singer Raffi explain this part, as he does the job so well:

“All I really need is a song in my heart, food in my belly and love in my family … and I need some clean water for drinking, and I need some clean air for breathing.”   ~ Raffi Cavoukian

Current research shows that a child’s need for a connected relationship with at least one dedicated caregiver is as important for healthy growth and development as the need for food, water and air. Thanks Raffi, for so beautifully articulating what experts have spent years trying to understand.

Tragically, one of the reasons experts know that the recipe for growing a healthy child calls for large servings of love is through cases where children have been deprived of this ingredient that proves to be so crucial.

In 1945, a doctor and psychoanalyst named Rene Spitz studied babies in orphanages in the United States and compared their health and development to babies raised in US prison nurseries. The orphaned babies had their basic physical needs met but no individualized care. The babies in the prison were able to interact with their mothers for a significant portion of their days. While there were no fatalities in the group of infants living in the prison, and they developed completely normally, by the age of two almost 40 percent of the orphaned babies died.

This study, and many other studies of institutionalized children, outlined in the book Born for Love, co-authored by Maia Szalavitz and Bruce D. Perry, have led researchers to a greater understanding of the importance of attachment between children and their caregivers in the first few years of life.

In her book Thirty Million Words, pediatric-surgeon-turned-social-scientist Dana Suskind explains that a language-rich environment is essential for early brain development, but only within the context of a loving, nurturing relationship: “The most important component in brain development is the relationship between the baby and his or her caretaker,” she says.

Social Beings: Connections Strengthen Connections

According to Jack P. Shonkoff, a medical doctor and director at Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, the debate about nature versus nurture is over: scientists now understand that while our genetics clearly play a part in how we develop and who we become, a child’s potential for healthy cognitive, social and emotional growth is strongly impacted by their early environment.

From the very beginning, one of the most important jobs of a child’s brain is to search out information about this place in which she finds herself. Humans are social beings, and no one relies more on other people than a tiny person in diapers. Biologically, children are meant to form bonds with the people who care for them and to look to these people for important messages about their world.

As it turns out, the most important message our children need to receive is that they are safe; it is from this place that all learning can unfold. I’ve always been amazed by my toddlers’ need to graze: two blueberries here, a few crackers there, all day long! I would argue that the same applies to their need for little snacks and bites of love and affection.

In her book Rest, Play, GrowDeborah MacNamara of the Neufeld Institute writes, “What young children need most of all is at least one adult who can satiate their hunger for contact and closeness.” When, and only when, our children’s hunger for attachment is satisfied can they turn their energy away from any fight-or-flight tendencies and focus on the important work of their early years, which of course is to explore and learn through play.

We literally feed our children’s hunger for love in all those hundreds of interactions we have with them daily; when we are physically near them, when we hold them, nurse them, read to them, talk to them, listen to them, notice what they do and play with them. Feeding this hunger is not all unicorns and rainbows—it’s intensive, it requires immense personal growth, it’s often sleepless and not very pretty—but loving, attentive parenting is the key to unlocking our children’s potential.

In The Beginning of Life, a fascinating documentary that explores the importance of childhood, Flavio Cunha, an expert in human capital formation in childhood, sums up the connection between love and brain development beautifully when he says, “Affection is like electrical tape that bonds neurons together. Once the connections among neurons have been established, affection comes in and makes this bond so strong that it can never be undone.”

Imagine a World…

In 2018, our children’s biological need for love and attention from caring people has not changed, but the context in which our children are growing up has. That’s the funny thing about biology and culture: The former moves much slower than the latter.

Today, we are not raising our children in close-knit villages, and our lives are filled with commitments: cultural, social and economic. Many parents work outside of the home, the vast majority of children attend some form of childcare long before they attend school, and many of us live far away from extended family who in previous generations provided secure, attached relationships when parents were otherwise occupied.

In a society where we are developing technology at a faster rate than ever before, in a culture that claims that our future will be through a knowledge economy, changes in policies to best meet the needs of our very young children within this current context seem to be moving at a glacial pace. Since the ’80s, groups like the Child Care Advocacy Association of Canada have been pushing for a universally accessible, high-quality childcare system, one that meets the diverse needs of modern Canadian families regardless of economic situation.

If we recognize that in the years before they enter school our children’s brains undergo the most rapid growth, and that relationships with loving caregivers are crucial to this process, then it’s simple: we need to invest in the people who care for our young children.

One of my favourite things about children is that they are always saying: “Imagine if…” This is because they are masters of seeing the world, not just as it is, but as it could be. So, imagine if governments all over the world celebrated, supported and invested in families while their children were very young, and imagine if the importance of caregiver-child relationships was put at the heart of policies relating to, for example, parental leave and universal childcare.

What, then, might the future of our world look like, as each new generation of children achieves its developmental potential?

Further reading: The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children by Alison Gopnik.

Lydia Howard, originally from New Zealand, has a Bachelor of Arts with a major in English literature and a diploma in creative writing. Lydia grew up on a sailboat and spent her childhood writing, drawing and imagining. She has worked in education policy, provided communications for non-profit organizations, dabbled in freelance writing and written and illustrated a children’s book. Lydia lives in Smithers, B.C. and currently spends most of her time chasing after her four-year-old daughter and two-year-old son.

Lydia Howard