Environment & Infant development
Physiological stress, sustained attention and cognitive engagement in 12-month-old infants from urban environments
Over recent centuries an increasing proportion of the world’s children are being raised in cities, but the question of how early city life affects development remains largely unexplored. To assess this, 82 infants growing up in the South-East of the UK were observed across a 2-day battery. On day 1, noise exposure and physiological stress was observed in home settings using miniaturised microphones and autonomic monitors. On day 2, the same infants attended a lab testing battery where cognitive performance and emotional reactivity was measured. Infants from high density urban environments showed increased physiological stress in home settings – a relationship independent of socio-economic status. Consistent with previous research into how stress affects attention, infants from urban settings showed both cognitive strengths, and weakness. Weaknesses included reduced sustained attention and increased reactivity to a stressor; strengths included superior retention of briefly presented information and increased neural theta power during visual attention.
Wass, S., Smith, C., Stubbs, L., Clackson, K., & Mirza, F. (2019). Physiological stress, sustained attention and cognitive engagement in 12-month-old infants from urban environments.
What does that mean for parents?
A stimulating environment to play in and explore helps your child learn and grow. But sometimes too many activities add up to overstimulation, so downtime is important for your child too. It’s all about finding a balance that’s right for your child.
What is overstimulation?
Overstimulation happens when a child is swamped by more experiences, sensations, noise and activity than it can cope with.
For example, a newborn baby might get very unsettled after a party where he’s been cuddled by lots of grown-ups or if it is kept in a constant noisy environment while sleeping. A preschooler might have a tantrum after a big event like a birthday party or when the family environment is constantly nois polluted by music and TV etc. . A school-age child might be cranky if he goes to school, then after-school care and then a swimming lesson and and comes home to a noisy home environment.
Overstimulated children get tired and can feel overwhelmed. When this happens, they need quiet time and a familiar, calm environment.
Balancing activity time and quiet time
In the first five years of life, your child’s brain develops more and faster than at any other time in his life. Your child’s early experiences – the things he sees, hears, touches, smells and tastes – stimulate his brain, creating millions of connections.
For optimal development children need a positive stimulating environment with different activities that give it ways to play and learn, and lots of chances to practise what it learning.
But you don’t need to spend all day every day dangling toys in front of your baby, or that you have to rush your child from one course, baby and children gathering, school to extracurricular activities, all day, every day.
Children growing up in urban environments, have it more difficult to find spaces that are not by default filled with noise and activity. For city children it is therefore even more important to find a space and time per day where they have no stimulation at all. Times when they can linger on uninterrupted thoughts, reflect and can day dream.
Babies and young children need quiet time in predictable and familiar settings. Times when they find their own way to entertain themselves, times when there is no 3th party noise (sound, tv, people) around them. And times where they just can “be” in silence.
In the early baby and toddler years this is accomplished with letting your child sleep, preferrably at the same times every day, in a quite, cool and dark environment. When children start to grow out of afternoon naps, you can still make it a family tradition to have a quite hour per day, where all family members either have a nap, play (with non-digital toys) or read in silence.