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A Child’s Growing Brain Needs Love as Much as Food

A volunteer weighs a malnourished child in Mumbai, India. A new study indicates in the same way that lack of food can harm children, violence, deprivation and neglect are also damaging their brain circuitry. (AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade)
A volunteer weighs a malnourished child in Mumbai, India. A new study indicates in the same way that lack of food can harm children, violence, deprivation and neglect are also damaging their brain circuitry. (AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade)
A Child’s Growing Brain Needs Love As Much As Food
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From VOA Learning English, this is the Health & Lifestyle report.

Fewer babies and very young children are dying today compared to 20 years ago.

Over that period, the number of infant deaths has dropped sharply -- from about 12 million to six million worldwide. Infant child mortality has been cut thanks to billions of dollars in aid and the work of many countries.

However, a group of experts say that is not enough. For children to grow and develop fully, they need more than a nutritious diet and access to medicine.

That is the opinion of a team of social scientists and public health experts. They found that about 200 million children are failing to meet their developmental potential each year. What is lacking, say the experts, is social interaction with the children and involvement by their caretakers.

The U.S. National Academy of Medicine set up the group of 32 academic experts. They provide strong evidence that just as a poor diet can harm children, violence and lack of care can damage a child’s brain.

And that, they say, leads to physical and social stunting, even when aid programs are available. Stunting is when a person fails to grow and develop normally.

Neil Boothby is with the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University in New York. He likens social interaction to "investing in young children.” He adds that "it's vital to ensuring international peace and security."

Boothby says that providing good, positive social interactions is as big a part of development as providing food and water. And these positive social interactions must be consistent and not, what he calls, episodic.

He calls the wiring in the brain, circuitry. And he calls the structure of the brain, 'brain architecture.'

Here is Boothby.

"This becomes part of actually strengthening the circuitry in the brain. When the response isn't there, or it's episodically there, then (that) same circuitry, that same brain architecture is weakened. So it is not just micronutrient, it is also social care."

Boothby says studies have shown that international aid programs alone are not enough to help children reach their full ability.

The Columbia University researcher just returned from Uganda. In that country, he says, more than a third of the population suffers from stunting. Signs of stunting include smaller physical growth and lower than average scores on intelligence tests.

"For example, I met with some parents on this last trip. Fathers were saying, ‘Ah, you know I don't really engage with the child until she or he is three months old because they’re too little.’ I mean that's counter to what they should be doing because holding, talking, caressing, etc., is all part of brain health."

The paper, says Boothby, is a call for social interaction to be added to the list of health and nutrition assistance programs and concerns.

"You know, we teach parents when they go to clinics about water and sanitation. We teach them about the kinds of foods children should eat. Why aren't we teaching them the things that make brains grow?"

Boothby adds it is time for international aid policies to catch up with scientific research. Aid policies, he says, must combine the neurobiology of caring with other forms of assistance.

I’m Anna Matteo.

Jessica Berman wrote this story for Anna Matteo adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

circuitry – n. the system of interconnected neurons in the nervous system and especially the brain;

stunt – v. to restrict the normal growth, development, or progress

vital – adj. needed by your body in order to keep living

episodic ­– adj. appearing, or changing at usually irregular periods

brain architecture – n. the basic structural form of the brain

micronutrient – n. an organic chemical compound (as a vitamin) that is important in small amounts to an organism's growth and health

counter – v. going in a different or opposite direction

caress – v. to touch in a gentle way

sanitation – n. the process of keeping places free from dirt, infection or disease by removing waste

neurobiology – n. a area of study that deals with the nervous system