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Question: I’ve heard my pediatrician talk about my baby’s “critical periods.” Exactly what does that mean?
Answer: There are critical development periods that are time frames in your child’s development during which she is ready to learn, master, or develop a new skill. The child must be ready, and the environment should be able to nurture the mastering of the new skill. Some behavioral scientists believe that if a child is not assisted to learn a new skill in certain critical periods, she will not learn it on her own and may never learn it as well as if she had learned it in this “critical” period.
The National Center for Early Development & Learning has written its third book on the topic of critical periods, aptly named Critical Thinking About Critical Periods. In its preface, the authors write, “One could distill popular understanding of the importance of brain science for child development in a single sentence: Following birth there is a period of rapid brain reorganization that is a/the critical period in brain development during which children are most sensitive to environmental stimuli.”
Critical Periods to Know
There are many specific physical, psychosocial (also called social/emotional or relating), and cognitive development milestones that most typically developing children go through. One of the earliest psychosocial critical periods is bonding. This happens in the newborn period. Holding, soothing, and caring for your baby makes it easy for her to move through this critical period. (In understaffed, overpopulated orphanages where babies do not receive the nurturing they need in this critical period, irreparable damage can be done emotionally, making it difficult for those children later in life to form close relationships.)
Another critical period involves the development of language skills. During the first two years of your child’s life it is important to provide a rich environment with regards to language. Activities like talking, singing, and reading to your child will provide a foundation for her vocabulary and speech development that will last a lifetime.
Mind Your Child’s Individual Development
Each child develops differently, so you should not compare your child’s progress with that of another child. Taking your child to the pediatrician for regular checkups and watching for typical child development milestones on your own will help assure you that your child is on track. The pediatrician will ask you questions about your baby’s physical, cognitive, and emotional development and should be able to help you identify problems and assuage any fears.