Day home mom Lindsay smiles warmly at the waiting three-year-old. “Did you want to ask a question, Jasper?” she asks. The mother-of-two, who also cares for four other small children, spends much of her day playing on the floor and thinking up fun activities to share. “They are so special,” she says.

1.Early years affect how the brain is built

New research shows that ages zero to six are even more crucial in the development of the human brain than first thought. Interactions during this stage actually affect how the brain is physically built.

Healthy exchanges between young children and their caregivers, dubbed “serve and return,” are needed to build a solid foundation for the brain to support future development. You can see it in action when young children reach out and adults respond through simple eye contact, cuddles, singing songs, reading books and playing games like peek-a-boo. Many such interactions are needed each day to build a healthy brain, according to the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative (AFWI). “Serve and return, similar to hitting a ball back and forth in a game of tennis, sets the stage for learning of all kinds that takes place in early childhood.” It affects language learning, cognitive learning and the ability to regulate emotions.

Dr. June Bergman, physician with the Calgary Foothills Primary Care Network, says it is important to support parents and children in their health journeys, particularly during this earliest stage. “I would say to parents in general, spending time with your child is very important,” she said. “You can’t respond every time they serve, but it is good to be aware of children’s needs. If there were parts of your own childhood that you didn’t like, you don’t have to perpetuate that parenting.

2.Parents should get help to deal with their own issues

Calgary child, adolescent and family psychiatrist Dr. Joan Besant says it is really important for parents to get their own therapy if they have anger management problems, depression or anxiety. She likens it to asking parents on an airplane to don their own oxygen masks first. “You have to be the best you can be in order to be useful to somebody else,” she said. If you have difficulty soothing yourself and managing your own stress, seeking personal help can be a good first step to better parenting.

Parents may have access to a behavioural health consultant (BHC) through their family doctor’s office. Behavioural health consultants address a wide range of mental health concerns. Private therapists and work-based Employee Assistance Programs are other options. In its Parenting Programs for Everyone, Alberta Health Services outlines parenting programs available locally, for example, through the Boys and Girls Clubs of Calgary. The goal of these programs is to increase parental confidence and capacity.

3.Toxic stress in early life can affect mental and physical health in later life

Toxic stress in childhood can also adversely shape a child’s brain. While positive stress, such as meeting new people or preparing for a test, can help develop useful skills for later life, toxic stress is always harmful. “Toxic stress is intense, long-lasting and uncontrollable, and occurs in the absence of supportive relationships,” according to AFWI. “For children, it can occur as a result of abuse, neglect, or living with a parent who is unable to provide appropriate care due to mental illness or addiction.”

If toxic stress is experienced in early life, it takes root in a child’s biological system and may lead to a range of disorders and chronic illnesses in later life. Examples include hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, asthma, cardiovascular disease, mental illness and addiction. One study has found a correlation between maltreatment in childhood and elevated inflammation in later years. “We need to stop asking, ‘What is wrong with you?’ and start asking, ‘What happened to you?’ ” Dr. Bergman says.

Dr. Bergman hopes the new research will lead to greater support for challenged families. “My hope is that we can give families the support they need to create healthy children and that we see less chronic disease down the way,” she said. If you believe a child you know is experiencing toxic stress, please contact Alberta Human Services on 403-297-2995.

Click to watch the short AFWI video, How Brains are Built: The Core Story of Brain Development.

Click here for more information about behavioural health consultants. Ask your family doctor if you can access a behavioural health consultant through his or her clinic.