Babies need 5 things to thrive
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Babies need five things to thrive – what are they, and how can ECEC put them in place?

by Freya Lucas

April 05, 2024

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis have discovered five things which every baby needs for the best possible chance to develop as a healthy well-functioning human.


These ‘thrive 5’ conditions are: 


  • environmental stimulation
  • nutrition
  • neighbourhood safety
  • positive caregiving
  • regular circadian rhythms and sleep


“When they have access to these basic supports, even in the face of adverse environments, it enhances their brain development, cognition (measures of IQ) and social-emotional development,” Professor Joan Luby explained.


A number of studies have shown the benefits of individual ‘thrive factors’ (T Factors), such as encouraging breast-feeding to facilitate growth in general, however the new study looks at several key factors known to influence brain development, and shows their relationship to outcomes at three years of age.


“The novelty here is putting them all together and thinking of them as a constellation of things that are necessary and important for a child to be able to thrive,” fellow author Professor Deanna Barch explained. 


The study is part of broader research into how psychological and social factors in early development impact biological processes and change the brain, and supports a shift in scientific thinking away from genetic determinants towards the psychosocial environment. 


The human brain is still undergoing rapid development at birth, and researchers are trying to understand the environmental factors that shape this development.


To reach their findings researchers conducted a study of 232 infants and their mothers, looking at positive factors in the environment in the fetal period and first year of life that enhance brain development, minimize negative behaviors and increase cognitive outcomes.


Participants were evaluated on social disadvantage indexes beginning in utero and early life T-Factor scores were also calculated. As infants approached three years of age, they were re-evaluated for social, emotional and cognitive development along with using MRIs to scan brain structure.


The results were clear that T-Factor is powerful: Even infants coming from adverse conditions and under-resourced backgrounds can have healthy development if they get their Thrive 5.


As a result of their findings the researchers hope that policymakers and pediatric care providers will place greater emphasis on the T Factor elements, and how they can lead to many downstream advantages for both the child and society.


“The Thrive Factor provides a solid foundation for healthy development. It has been underappreciated in primary care just how malleable the brain is to experience,” Professor Luby added.


Though T-Factor can help kids overcome adverse conditions, Professor Barch emphasised the need for understanding just how tough those adverse conditions can be on a new parent.


“If you’ve never suffered from financial adversity, you don’t understand how hard that makes life,” she said.


Parents can struggle to provide conditions to thrive because they may have to support many people in their household, may not have adequate number of rooms to ensure easier child sleep training, must work multiple jobs and can’t get away to breastfeed, and live in unsafe neighbourhoods that keep them in a constant state of vigilance.


Though education can help caregivers, it will take public policy interventions to ensure parents can access all the Thrive Factors, especially when it comes to access to safe housing and adequate income to support even these basic needs of developing infants.


“We need to make it so families can have the resources necessary to provide these core things to kids because it’s going to have such a big impact on kids’ development across the course of their lifespan,” she said.


Read the study in full here

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