Sensitive periods are optimal times in development when certain areas of the brain are most ready to benefit from experience. The brain’s plasticity is high during sensitive periods, meaning the brain has a strong ability to adapt to and learn from experiences. Plasticity also allows the brain to strengthen and expand new pathways in order compensate for an injury or illness.
·The brain is the most plastic during infancy and childhood
·As children have repeated experiences, the repetition strengthens specific neural pathways
·As the neural pathways continue developing, the brain becomes less plastic
·For example, a child learning how to walk repeats the motion of their legs moving one in front of the other. Due to the plasticity in the child’s brains, these connections are then strengthened, and the child then learns how to walk.
Sensitive periods are windows of opportunity where experiences have a greater impact on specific areas of the developing brain. During sensitive periods, different areas of the brain undergo pruning. Pruning makes the brain more efficient by creating space for the most important networks of connections to grow and expand. Some pruning begins very early in development, but the most rapid pruning happens between ages 3 and 16.
Growth in a specific area of the brain is still possible after the sensitive period ends, but that growth is not as easy or automatic. Our brains are flexible and adaptable, and many abilities can develop later in life if important experiences are missed in the early years. Making up for lost experiences, however, is much more difficult, takes much longer, and can require intensive intervention.
The following are examples of sensitive periods in development:
Infants are born with the basic ability to see (unless their vision is impaired by prenatal damage or genetic defects), but a newborn’s vision is not as good as the vision of an 8-month-old. The opportunity to look at people and things in the early months strengthens the brain connections that control vision.
Babies begin to learn language by listening to and imitating sounds around them. Babies begin cooing at about 6-8 weeks, and begin combining vowels and consonants to make babbling sounds (such as “baba” or “gaga”) by about 6-9 months. Adults help babies learn to communicate by engaging in serve and return interactions.
·As infants get older, they can form words, and then label objects with words. Listening to adults speak and practicing babbling strengthen the brain connections that control language.
How Adults Can Help
Adults can help support healthy brain development by ensuring their young children have a variety of experiences that are developmentally appropriate. These experiences should be repeated regularly to help strengthen the connections in the child’s brain.