Childhood: Physical Development of Infants and Toddlers

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This paper will explore the physical development that an individual may experience during their infancy and childhood. This includes the development of the brain, the development of reflexes and motor skills as well as the milestones that a young individual will go through during these stages of life. Other than genes being the main foundation for how an individual physically develops, this paper will also explore an analysis about the environmental influences on the physical development of a child and how these particular influences can make an impact on the child’s life. Such environmental factors include the nutrition of the child, the health care that is being provided for the child, and the lifestyle of the child and their parents. Not only do these factors influence the physical development of a child, but the interaction of nature versus nurture also plays a role in shaping the physical development of a child. The purpose of this paper is to analyze the environmental factors that may contribute to an individual’s physical development in their early stages of life.

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“The average neonate, or newborn up to 28 days old, enters the world 20 inches long, weighing 7 pounds. One year later, the average infant is 29 inches long and will have tripled in weight, emphasizing how rapidly babies grow during infancy” (Pastorino, 2018). Just in a short amount of time, physical changes among an individual start to begin early in their stages of life and as this individual progresses in physical growth as well as developmental growth, interactions and other environmental factors can influence the development of this individual. Not only does an individual’s genes help determine certain attributes, but environmental factors such as nutrition, healthcare, and their lifestyle can influence one’s development physically. As a baby takes its first breath, environmental factors as well as interactions with nature and nurture began to shape the physical development of an individual.

The development of one’s brain also begins during the first stages of life, which may be the reason why most of us cannot recall memories that have happened during infancy or anytime before the age of 3. The development of an individual’s brain is attributed to not only heredity, but due to experience and learning as well. As a child gains more experience and learn, more neural connections develop in the brain. As a the child begins to use certain connections more often, it’ll become permanent. If the child doesn’t use these connections, ones they will be discarded. It is crucial to keep a child’s mind stimulated during these early stages of life as it can strengthen the child’s brain development. A child’s environment can also positively or negatively affect their brain development. Indigent environments can potentially cause the weakening of these neural connections in contrary to a prosperous environment. In these early stages, it is easier to develop and change the brain of a child compared to adults as they already developed and formed certain neural connections.

When an infant is born, they don’t acquire all of their reflex and motor skill capabilities. They aren’t able to walk, feed themselves, or do any other everyday activity on their own. Infants usually acquire the reflexes to cry, sucking, and breathe. These reflexes later develop into more complex reflexes that enables the child to walk, eat, smile, and grasp. Although not developed at this stage yet, infants are also born with communication capabilities despite not developing any formal language skills yet. Children also begin to develop gross motor skills around the age of 2, which allows the child to partake in activities such as running, jumping, hopping. As the child ages, these skills become more proficient. Fine motor skills also develop during this time. Fine motor skill activities include writing and using utensils. Many of these skills develop in the same sequence as any other infant, but due to environmental factors, this development could either be slowed or sped up. “For example, despite living in poverty and poor sanitary conditions, Ugandan infants sit independently on average at 4 months compared to 6 months for U.S. infants” (Pastorino, 2018).

When a child is developing cognitively and physically, it is important to nourish their growing bodies and instill great nutrition habits early. This is necessary so that the brain and body develops and functions normally. Starting nutrition as early as during pregnancy and infancy helps build the foundation of the child’s cognitive, motor, and socio-emotional skills throughout their life. If the deprivation of nutrients occur during gestation and infancy, it could potentially leave long term effects on the child’s brain function. Factors that can influence the impact of undernutrition is the experience and input from the environment, the timing of deprivation, the degree of nutrient deficiency, and possible recovery. It is possible for additive, interacting or mediating effects to occur from nutrient deficiency. Since this deficiency may have an independent additive effect on brain development, children who are at risk would be expected to perform at lower levels.

Interacting effects may or may not affect the child at all depending on the quality and amount of stimulation. “For example, in Chile, low-birth-weight infants born into families with high socioeconomic status were at lower risk for poor developmental outcomes than those born into disadvantaged environments” (Prado & Dewey, 2014). By improving the nutrition of child can also help improve the child’s experiences and stimulation. Undernutrition can affect a child’s physical growth and activity as well as their motor development, which could influence the child to take one of two pathways. “The first pathway is through caregiver behavior and the second is through child exploration of the environment” (Prado & Dewey, 2014).

Another factor that can influence a child’s development is the healthcare that is provided to them. In Argentina, the implementation of universal health coverage has made an impact on child growth and nutrition. “Unequal access to health care, inadequate nutrition, and higher levels of exposure to infections are the major causes of disparities in morbidity and mortality in children” (Nuñez, Fernández-Slezak, Farall, Szretter, Salomón, & Valeggia 2016). With the lack of healthcare, many of these children experience stunting, being underweight, and other long term effects. Universal healthcare is being made available for vulnerable populations in order to improve the health of these populations and reduce inequality of health access. These programs were implemented to prioritize health services for children under the age of 5 and for pregnant women. “Our findings describe a substantial decrease in the prevalence of stunting and underweight among children covered by UHC programs in Argentina between 2005 and 2013. Findings are representative of only this target population, who are substantially more vulnerable to undernutrition than is the general Argentine child population” (Nuñez et al., 2016).

Other than nutrition and health care, the lifestyle of the child’s parents could also influence the physical development of the kid. Iowa schools are implementing nutrition education lessons its third-grade students. These programs encourage children to live a healthier lifestyle by emphasizing the importance of eating fruits and vegetables as snacks as well as being active every day. “The Iowa Nutrition Network, housed in the Department of Public Health, coordinates the Building and Strengthening Iowa Community Support for Nutrition and Physical Activity Program (BASICS), which uses a social marketing model to encourage and empower children, parents, and caregivers to eat healthily and be physically active” (Natalia, Mack, & Doris, 2013). The children who participated in the BASICS program were able to learn about a healthy lifestyle. By instilling these habits early, children will get the nutrients they need for physical growth. “The program also led to children’s increased preferences toward fruits, vegetables, and low-fat milk products, and to parents’ increased willingness to offer healthy foods to their children” (Natalia et al., 2013).

The interaction of nature versus nurture is also factor that influences the physical development of a kid. Nature refers to genetics and tendencies that may influence development whereas nurture is the environmental factors that may influence development. As mentioned earlier in the paper, the comparison between Ugandan infants and U.S. infants is a matter of a nurture interaction. Two siblings can also be raised in the same environment and still turn out completely different as well. “It was in the context of the eugenics controversy that scientists first considered the possibility that traits and differences in those traits might arise not from either nature or nurture, but from the interaction of nature and nurture”(Tabery, 2014). Especially at a young age children can be very impressionable, therefore it’s not just nature or genetics that affects their physical development, but also how their parents and others influence them. “Environmental influence is important but what is even more important seems to be parental influence. The effect that parents have on their children has little to do with those aspects of parenting that are experienced similarly by two children in their family” (Kamran, 2016).

Both nature and nurture contributes to a child’s physical development as a combination rather than separate. “It’s a mixed bag, and we should not assume one way or the other whether interaction exists for any particular trait or any particular gene-environment relationship” (Tabery, 2014). According to a study that was done on the perception of nature versus nurture, “The parents perceived their children’s unique personalities and idiosyncratic traits as product of genetics interacting with psychosocial influences such as parent-child, sibling-sibling, and significant others interaction and life experiences” (Kamran, 2016). Environmental factors such as home and school can also contribute to the way a child may perceive, react, or adapt to a particular stimuli.

In conclusion, during an individual’s infancy and childhood years, vast changes will occur while they begin to physically develop.These changes occur due to the complex interaction with nature and nurture or due to other environmental factors such as the nutrition of the child, the healthcare provided to the child through their parents, as well as the type of lifestyle that the child is introduced to by their parents. Depending on extenuating circumstances, most of these environmental factors can be changed only if the parent allows for this change. If you have the means, it’s easy to fix a child’s nutrition level, healthcare, and lifestyle. Children are influenced by what they learn and what they see.

With the interaction with nature and nurture, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly which one has the most influence on the development of a child as the concept itself is debatable. Not only does an individual’s genes help determine certain attributes, but environmental factors such as nutrition, health care, and their lifestyle can influence one’s development physically. As a baby takes its first breath, environmental factors as well as interactions with nature and nurture began to shape the physical development of an individual.

Works cited

  1. Pastorino, E. (2018). What Is Physical Development? In Fundamentals of Human Neuropsychology (pp. 32-37). Worth Publishers.
  2. Prado, E. L., & Dewey, K. G. (2014). Nutrition and brain development in early life. Nutrition Reviews, 72(4), 267-284.
  3. Liu, J., Raine, A., Venables, P. H., Mednick, S. A., & Malnory, M. (2003). Effects of breast-feeding and maternal smoking on offspring IQ and academic achievement. The Journal of Pediatrics, 143(6), 754-758.
  4. Kurth, S., Dean, D. C., Achermann, P., O’Muircheartaigh, J., Huber, R., Deoni, S. C., ... & LeBourgeois, M. K. (2016). Increased sleep depth in developing neural networks: New insights from sleep restriction in children. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 10, 456.
  5. Cheong, J. L., Hunt, R. W., Anderson, P. J., Howard, K., Thompson, D. K., Wang, H. X., ... & Doyle, L. W. (2016). Head growth in preterm infants: Correlation with magnetic resonance imaging and neurodevelopmental outcome. Pediatrics, 137(1), e20152788.
  6. Gentile, S. (2017). Infant Attachment: What We Know Now. Pediatric Clinics, 64(1), 167-182.
  7. Bhutta, Z. A., Ahmed, T., Black, R. E., Cousens, S., Dewey, K., Giugliani, E., ... & Shekar, M. (2008). What works? Interventions for maternal and child undernutrition and survival. The Lancet, 371(9610), 417-440.
  8. Anderson, L. M., Shinn, C., Fullilove, M. T., Scrimshaw, S. C., Fielding, J. E., Normand, J., & Task Force on Community Preventive Services. (2003). The effectiveness of early childhood development programs: A systematic review. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 24(3), 32-46.
  9. Isaacs, E. B., & Fischl, B. R. (2020). The Impact of Early Nutrition on Brain Development and Cognitive Outcomes. In Pediatric Nutrition in Practice (pp. 57-69). Springer, Cham.
  10. Graham, C. B., Ruis, A. R., Maurer, A. P., & Mullan, B. (2019). How socioeconomic status (SES) shapes infants' speech processing: Evidence from cortical and behavioral responses. Neuropsychologia, 128, 135-145.

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