The 'missing first year' of life

Pediatrician Dr. Carola Fleener conducts a checkup at her Sarasota Children's Clinic.

Pediatrician Dr. Carola Fleener conducts a checkup at her Sarasota Children's Clinic.

SARASOTA — Pediatrician Carola Fleener sees it all the time. Parents who are so preoccupied with the day-to-day care of their little ones that they’re not necessarily thinking about stimulating their baby’s brain.

Most parents talk to their babies, Fleener said, but they’re not informed about the science. And what science says is that those first few months of life can have a lasting impact.

Findings from a new survey on parenting concluded that many parents underestimate the importance of this time in their child's life, leading researchers to call it the "missing first year." When asked at what age babies begin benefiting from hearing people talk and read to them, parents missed the mark.

Talking to children has an impact on language skills starting at birth. About a third of the parents surveyed thought it had no effect until their baby turned 1. Reading to babies can reap benefits starting at about 6 months old, but nearly half of parents thought those benefits didn’t kick in until age 2.

It likely starts even younger than 6 months, Fleener said. “Think of how many babies listen to music in utero,” she said, adding that parents that come to her typically aren’t reading to their kids until they’re toddlers.

“A lot of parents make assumptions that seem logical from the parent perspective,” said Claire Lerner, senior parenting advisor at the early childhood nonprofit Zero to Three, which conducted the survey in partnership with the Bezos Family Foundation. “They think, ‘If my child can’t speak words why would talking and reading to them be helpful?’”

Lerner said the survey, called “Tuning In,” is important because children’s brains grow most rapidly during the first three years of life. (About a third of parents missed that, too, incorrectly identifying ages 3-5 as the period of fastest brain growth).

At the earliest stage in their lives babies are particularly vulnerable to their surroundings. Shouting and tension in the home can register in children as young as 3 months old. And witnessing repeated violence affects brain development starting at 6 months.

Translating the science

The world of K-12 education is abuzz with talk of school readiness and kids who are falling behind early and not catching up. The focus is usually on school-age children, Lerner said. But the survey was a wake-up call, she said, adding that the focus should be on early childhood, and on expecting parents.

Most of the survey participants were millennials and Generation X-ers. The researchers conducted group interviews in the participants' homes, which led to deep discussions, Lerner said.

One thing they found was that more than half of the participants pay attention to the media, with 64 percent saying they sometimes or frequently get parenting guidance from portrayals of parents on TV.

Recognizing the power of media, Zero to Three has taken its message to Hollywood. They’ve talked with screenwriters in hopes of encouraging more positive parenting portrayals on screen.

“The science is clear,” Lerner said. “There is a huge and robust body of research that shows early experiences last a lifetime. We need to do a better job of getting this information out there and helping parents put it into action.”