Building Better Baby Brains

We’ve all experienced stress, but when is it considered toxic?

For infants and young children, when it happens often enough that it starts to change the way their brains develop, then it is toxic.

Dr. Nicole Letourneau will tell us more about this topic at the seminar TEDx Whitehorse on Nov. 23. Then on Nov. 25, she will give a free public lecture: “Moms and Dads Matter: Building babies’ brains through everyday interactions.”

Letourneau is a professor in the Faculty of Nursing at the University of Calgary, where she researches, develops, and tests methods of supporting families where there is toxic stress.

Letourneau explains that toxic stress can be caused by addiction, family violence, mental health issues, and any other situation that interferes with a caregiver’s ability to interact appropriately with a child.

“We help parents understand the ‘serve and return’ relationship with their child,” Letourneau says. “This is a term we use to describe when a child does something a parent should respond to, and which creates a healthy dynamic. A simple little strategy like that activity and responsiveness predicts a whole host of health outcomes for kids.”

In other words, when babies and children initiate contact with a caregiver, and the caregiver responds, it helps grow connections in a baby’s brain.

If there is no response, that opportunity for growth is lost.

Babies and children are constantly experiencing stress, says Letourneau. It can be mild, like being in a strange place, or serious, such as witnessing violence.

If a caregiver buffers the stress, a child can become resilient, but if it is not mitigated, the stress interferes with brain growth. The stressed children are likely to see the effects for the rest of their lives.

In a world that changes rapidly, children need brains that are prepared.

“If we want children that are mentally well and cognitively flexible – kids that can go out there and interact socially and thrive in today’s economy, and be healthy functioning citizens – we know for a fact what children need,” Letourneau says. “It’s healthy nurturing relationships with parents or caregivers.”

Letourneau’s research is focused on improving parents’ understanding of the importance of caregiver-child interaction, even in the face of their own stress.

“I work with parents to tell them not only what they can do, but to help them understand what they do already; what, from their history, might have brought them to this point where they might misinterpret children’s and infants’ needs,” Letourneau says. “In all the work that we do we always assume that parents are doing their best. But their best might be contextual, so they might be doing the best that they can be in the situation.”

Letourneau publishes prolifically, and her research is always based in the community. For example, she may work with a social service agency. Together, they identify the needs of the people they serve, develop a program, and test it. At the end of the project, the agency will continue the program and she can extract data, which contributes to the body of knowledge in this field.

And this knowledge contributes to the ultimate goal.

“We need to do more than raise a child today; we need them to be healthy and mentally well and a learner in the knowledge economy,” she says.

Dr. Nicole Letourneau will be speaking at TEDx Whitehorse on Saturday, Nov. 23 at the Yukon Arts Centre, see for tickets and details. On Monday, Nov. 25, she is presenting a free talk at the High Country Inn at 7 p.m.

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