Children exposed to neglect, abuse have weaker brain development: Telethon Kids Institute researchers

Telethon Kids Institute Professor Donna Cross
Telethon Kids Institute Professor Donna Cross

TELETHON Kids Institute (TKI) researchers have found that if a child is exposed to “toxic stress” such as extreme poverty, neglect or abuse, the architecture of the developing brain is weakened.

However, the CoLab Evidence Report on ‘Brain development in early childhood’ also discovered that the experience of at least one stable and responsive relationship with a parent or caregiver can help protect against the damaging effects of toxic stress on children’s brain development.

TKI, which is based at Perth Children’s Hospital, recently launched its Bright Tomorrows Start Today advertising campaign to promote the results of research by CoLab on how interaction with babies and young children helps develop the brain.

Children in State care are largely left to fend for themselves once they turn 18, making them our most vulnerable young people.

Community News is supporting Home Stretch, a national campaign urging all state governments to change legislation to support them until they are 21.

Here’s how YOU can help:

1. Join the Home Stretch campaign at: thehomestretch.org.au

2. Sign up to be a foster carer at: dcp.wa.gov.au

CoLab director Donna Cross said the campaign translated the evidence on the importance of “serve and return” interactions for lifelong development, learning and wellbeing.

“Infants and young children naturally reach out for interaction – through babbling, facial expressions and gestures – when adults respond by gesturing back the baby learns that ‘I can communicate’ and that ‘I can be understood’, Professor Cross said.

“An infant’s confidence in communicating with their caregiver, through patterns of serve and return interactions, and the love and understanding establishing between the caregiver and child, creates emotional well-being in infancy and early childhood.”

Prof Cross said TKI research had also found that reading built children’s vocabularies at a faster rate than children who were not read to at all.

She said that at the age four, there was a 12-month gap in vocabulary development between children read to daily versus children not read to at all.

“Results from a 2015 study involving 19 pre-schoolers aged 3- 5 years showed that greater home reading exposure was strongly associated with activation of specific brain areas supporting semantic processing (the extraction of meaning from language),” Prof Cross said.

“These areas are critical for oral language and later for reading.

“The advice is to read to babies early and often.”