The impact of engaging with a child within their first three years

The early stages of a child’s life can be the most critical to their long-term success and development. Research shows 80% of a child’s brain is developed by the time they’re 3 years old. Billions of neuron connections are made during these early months and years, which can have a profound effect on a child’s potential for succeeding in school later in life.

“Everybody wants to do the right thing for their child,” said George C. Halvorson, author of “Three Key Years,” chair and CEO of the Institute for InterGroup Understanding. “Every single child whose mother or father starts to read to them early on will have a different life, a different brain.”

While a newborn baby is born with all the brain cells they’ll have for the rest of their life, it’s the connections between those brain cells that make it work. Creating those connections comes from positive interactions and brain stimulation — reading, singing, talking to your child — with an emphasis on the earlier, the better.

As George writes on, “Positive interaction with loving, caring, trusted adults is helping to form their brain’s sense of security and emotional stability.”

By age 4, the exponential growth of neuronal connections is slowing. The first three years of life, George said, is when the cognitive function and sensory pathways are peaking. It’s these critical first three years where emotionally supportive relationships and experiences with a trusted adult can help set the foundation for long-term health and well-being, he adds. After that timeframe, the brain has less flexibility to alter or change course.

“The first three years are extremely, completely important for kids because that’s when those neurons connect and then they’re there for life,” George said. “That’s a permanent infrastructure and at age 4, the brain changes. Any neurons that haven’t been connected get purged out of the brain.”

The good news is, this connection and bonding between child and caretaker is mutually beneficial.

“Once you explain this and (caretakers) start doing it, it’s addictive,” he said. “It is so good to have that kind of interaction with your child. The children are so much happier. Everyone wants to keep doing it.”

Efforts to help increase the availability of books in homes to help promote this engagement and interaction have been a longstanding priority of UnitedHealthcare, especially within the Medicaid population.

A collaboration with Scholastic Book Fairs has helped reach thousands of children, providing free books and literacy resources to several underserved communities, including in Tennessee, Missouri, Michigan, Arizona, Texas and Nevada.

“Reading to infants and with young toddlers can be such a bonding experience. Early childhood literacy promotion is fundamental to the pediatric well child visit and developmentally appropriate anticipatory guidance evidence-based standards of care. Ensuring all children have access to resources that will help build a foundation for better brain development and growth helps put them on the path to be healthy, successful adults,” said Dr. Arethusa Kirk, pediatrician and vice president of clinical strategy with UnitedHealthcare Community & State.

Reading to a child can be like exercising their young brain — the more you do it, the stronger it can be, George said.

“The positive impact of just getting one family to do it, changes one life,” George said. “That loving interaction is just so powerful. And the kids love it – they blossom, they glow, they beam.”

Tips to help a child’s brain development in the first three years

  • Reading helps develop your baby’s vocabulary and make associations to words you read or pictures being described — find a book your child enjoys and read it repeatedly
  • Talking directly to your child as soon as they’re born can help create millions of neuron connections — these talks don’t need to be complex, just loving and frequent
  • Playing with your baby with simple toys can help build connections and stimulate their brain
  • Counting helps develop your baby’s brain and sets them up for successful learning later on
  • Singing can help your child make connections to certain sounds and encourages strong emotional connection

For more information and resources on the impact of early brain building, visit

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