My great nephew, Ethan, turned one yesterday and we are celebrating at Disney World. Yes: Disney World. For months, friends and colleagues have said that this was a crazy idea. “He’s too young!” “He’ll never remember anything!” I demurred and abdicated responsibility. You see, it wasn’t my idea – it was his mother (my niece) who thought this was the perfect first birthday celebration. Of course Ethan will not remember meeting Mickey and Goofy, but there’s also no doubt that Disney is working its magic on his developing brain.
Many reasons might prompt you to opt out of celebrating a 1-year-old birthday at Disney. But the fact that Ethan won’t remember the trip isn’t a good one. None of us has conscious memories from our first twelve months – at Disney, at home, anywhere. But like all babies, the environmental experiences of these first twelve months will lay the groundwork for Ethan’s brain structure and functioning, impacting his mental health and wellbeing for years to come.
Year 1 is an extravaganza of brain development. There is no doubt that what happens to an infant’s brain from zero to twelve months seems magical. The brain forms somewhere between 700 and 1,000 new neural connections every second during this period. And although genes provide the blueprint for the formation of brain circuits, environmental stimulation determines which neural connections get strengthened through repeated use – thickening the myelin around certain pathways that make those connections faster and stronger. Those that don’t get strengthened through use wither away through a process called “pruning.”
Stimulating environments promote brain development. The brain needs stimulation to help the central nervous system develop, and Disney World is about as stimulating as life can get for a little one. Conversely, impoverished environments are associated with diminished brain development and activity. In extreme settings of deprivation, like the orphanages in Romania, when infants lack attentive caregiving they are at increased risk for developmental delays and disturbances like repetitive rocking and head-banging.
Healthy attachment in year 1 predicts adult wellbeing. A healthy infant-caregiver bond has profound effects on the development of biological stress-response systems that are intimately linked to mental health. Responsive parenting and loving caregiving is associated with secure attachment and well-being. At the other end of the continuum, neglect and abuse disrupt information-processing systems in developing brains, putting children at risk for attentional, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral disorders, which cascades into risk for anxiety and depression as we grow up.
The profound power of human touch. How cute are baby kangaroos in their mothers’ pouches? Turns out kangaroos aren’t the only ones who need to cuddle close to mom. Functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, shows that human touch shapes the developing brain. After studies demonstrated the benefits of skin-to-skin contact over the safety of an incubator for premature babies, most hospitals around the world adopted “Kangaroo Care” as the standard. In fact, we now know that children who are held against their caregiver’s skin as infants have enhanced cognitive development and executive functioning ten years later.
Life is full of stress from our first breath. From the very beginning, infants must learn to manage stress – from getting fed to securing comfort and safety. Responsive caregiving prepares infants to deal constructively with stressful situations later in life. In contrast, when a baby’s stress responses are repeatedly activated at high levels without supportive relationships to help calm oneself, the stress becomes toxic, and chronic stress in baby’s first year can actually negatively affect gene expression in ways that are passed on to future generations.
Sure, Ethan won’t remember this trip to Disney World (although we will have many photos to prove to him we were here). But even without conscious memories, these Disney days are laying a neural foundation that his brain will never forget. Of course, you don’t have to go to Disney to cultivate an environment that is good for brain development. But to all those naysayers, myself included, despite the crowds and overpriced Mickey paraphernalia, Disney’s fast pass invites us all to leave our worries at the gate and delight in fantasy and imagination. No doubt, our birthday boy is benefitting from the magic.
Happy 1st Birthday Ethan!