Why are the first three years so important?

Newborns’ brains are incomplete but by the time they are three they reach almost 90% of adult size (Perry, 2001). When we are born we have billions of brain cells (neurons) that are ‘isolated’ from each other and only a relatively few cells are ‘linked’. These are mainly to do with our basic instinctive reactions such as sight, smell, sound, sucking etc. Loving attention ‘fires’ synaptic growth and begins the process of building the links between neurons, and thus building the brain (Schore, 2001).

Every time you gaze into a baby’s eyes and lovingly communicate via speech, touch and tenderness, massive “firing” of these synapses takes place, and growth begins to occur particularly in the emotional centre of the brain (the frontal cortex) which develops most rapidly at this time. The links are forged by repetition, rather like the construction of a rope bridge across a canyon. One rope flung across would not hold, neither probably would two, but when you get multiple ropes across, then the links becomes firm, strong and permanent. Cells that are not used are ‘pruned’ or in effect die off.

Emotional neglect causes these links to be formed weakly, or not at all. For example, by the age of three, the Romanian orphans’ brains were very small compared to those of healthy children – millions of brain cells had simply died off through lack of use. There are many ways synaptic links are fired, but in the early months it is loving communication and attunement with the parents that is key.