Caregiving Changes Everyone
Caregiving practices change the brains of parents and other caregivers as well as the children they are supporting and play a key role in children’s future success
As a neuroscientist, I know that the first few years of a child’s life are a time of rapid brain development. Starting during pregnancy, the brain develops neural connections that form the pathways through which people learn and behave. Those pathways influence children’s future success and develop in stages.
Sensory pathways like those for basic vision and hearing are the first to develop, followed by early language skills and higher cognitive functions. These functions include not only the ability to learn content, such as letters and numbers, but also social skills such as patience, delayed gratification, and the ability to manage conflict.
However, scientists have discovered more about the impact that caregiving has on the brain—not only the child’s brain, but also the caregiver’s. Earlier this fall, I was honored to share some of what I’ve learned at the Parents as Teachers annual conference in Denver.
Everyone has the capacity for caregiving
A study that looked at mothers, fathers, and homosexual father-father couples who were raising children demonstrated that caregiving activates the “parenting” network in the brain. In other words, the neural underpinnings of “maternal instinct” can be developed by anyone who chooses to be a parent, not only mothers.
Connections among brain structures support caregivers’ ability to translate emotional connection to future planning, select among behavioral options, and inhibit distraction to serve long-term goals. Caregiving actually changes these pathways in the brain, allowing caregivers to build the networks that support the needs of their children.
In addition, caregivers’ brains exhibit a great deal of plasticity, meaning they can adapt quickly to new situations that arise when they become responsible for a child.
Caregiving is critical to children’s development
Of course, the care they receive in the earliest years has a massive impact on growing children. In particular, good caregiving helps children develop executive function, which is very important to their future success in life.
Executive function includes impulse control, cognitive flexibility, and working memory. In other words, with these skills, children begin to think before acting, shift attention and use creative thinking, and keep multiple pieces of information accessible in their minds. A range of tests measuring different forms of executive function skills indicates that they begin to develop shortly after birth, with ages 3 to 5 providing a window of opportunity for dramatic growth in these skills.
Moreover, repeated experiences —like playing with a caregiver or hearing a story—create pathways between brain regions. These pathways link experiences with thoughts, memories, and behaviors, connecting what we do with how we feel. Through these pathways, children learn what experiences they want to repeat.
So as parents, and other caregivers, raise children, their brains change with one another. By providing support and care for the children in their lives, adults can help those children develop skills and resilience that will give them the opportunity to succeed in school, work, and life.
If you are interested in learning more, you can watch my presentation for the Parents as Teachers conference here. In it, I combined scientific knowledge with art—specifically the Indian classical form of Bharatanatyam, which I have been practicing since childhood—to give different perspectives on caregiving and brain development.