Exploring Factors That Influence Child Development

NICHD Researchers Study the Experience of Growing Up

Father holding small child

Countless factors, from family and environment to genes and biology, influence a child’s growth and development. Scientists in the NICHD’s Section on Child and Family Research study how these factors affect the physical, mental, and social development of growing children, along with their health and well-being.

Dr. Marc H. Bornstein is senior investigator and head of the Section on Child and Family Research, within the Division of Intramural Research. We asked Dr. Bornstein to explain the work he and his colleagues do, why it’s important to study child development, what they’ve learned so far, and what’s next for their research. Read more to find out what he had to say.

Major Research Questions
Research Approaches
Sociodemographic Factors in Development
International Studies
Neuroscience and Behavioral Pediatrics
Future Directions
Advice for New Investigators
Messages for Parents

What are some of the major research questions that your lab is working to answer right now?

We have two major lines of research. First, we study children longitudinally as they grow from infancy through young adulthood, which allows us to trace the same child’s functioning over time to understand how various aspects of behavior and experience interact with and influence one another. For example, in a recent investigation, we found that children with poorer social skills at age 4 behaved more anxiously and aggressively at age 10 and more aggressively at age 14. This study suggests that training preschool children to get along well with others and pick up on social cues may benefit them in later childhood and adolescence.

We also study children’s development around the world. Most of what science knows today about child development has been learned from studies of mothers and children in Western nations and can’t be generalized to all children in all cultural groups everywhere. Only by studying children in a variety of cultures can we begin to understand universal similarities and cultural differences in development. In a recent study with 1,247 families with 8- to 10-year-old children on five continents, we investigated how feeling accepted or rejected by their parents affected children’s behavior. Our results showed that children who felt rejected by their parents were more likely to behave aggressively and anxiously, have trouble in school, and have a hard time connecting with others. This study showed how important it is for children everywhere to feel that their parents accept them.

What are some of the main approaches you use in research?

We use many approaches to get a wide range of information from multiple perspectives. We watch families interacting together at home and in the laboratory. We ask parents to evaluate their own behavior and that of their children, and we ask children to evaluate their own behavior as well as that of their parents. We ask teachers to assess their students, and we do standard tests of children’s intelligence, success in school, and adaptive behavior. We conduct psychophysiological and neuroscience experiments and use self-report data to measure environmental and socioeconomic influences on children’s growth and development.

What has your research revealed on the effects of sociodemographic factors on development? Why are these factors important to examine?

In our Section, we study many different types of families. For example, we have been following the growth and development of a group of children adopted as healthy infants, comparing them with a group of babies born into their families. We found that relationships between adoptive mothers and infants and non-adoptive mothers and infants were very similar when the infants were 5 months of age, but that by the time the child was 4 years old, mother-child relationships in adoptive families were less harmonious. This is especially interesting because the adopted children were just as healthy and well-adjusted as their peers. Understanding these types of differences can inform our understanding of the long-term effects of adoption on children’s development. A more complex picture of adoptive family functioning will deepen our understanding of the balance between risk and resilience that adoption, an important alternative form of family building, holds for children and their parents.

Sociodemographic factors are important to study because they often relate strongly to development. For example, young girls and boys develop at different rates. Ethnic and cultural groups are differentially affected by the same experiences. And low-income families are more at risk for later problems than middle- and high-income families. Understanding which factors put families at risk or protect them from risk can help professionals determine when and how to help families that face challenges.

Your lab has study sites all over the world. Tell us about these international studies and what you’ve learned from them.

We collect data in 11 other countries so that we can understand which behaviors are universal and which might be specific to a particular culture or community. In one international study, we looked at maternal behavioral responses to crying babies together with the results of brain-scan responses to those cries. We found that mothers in all 11 countries preferentially responded to their babies’ cries by picking them up, holding them, and talking to them (instead of distracting them, for example). These universal behaviors, combined with brain scan results, suggest an evolutionary basis for a mother’s automatic response to her crying child.

In addition to our own cross-cultural research program, we are collaborating with two international groups. The first collaboration, with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and a group of leading scientists, surveys about 2 million families in 50 low- and middle-income countries to examine protective and risk factors in child development. The second collaboration, with the Parenting Across Cultures Project external link, is studying the long-term effects of parenting on children’s and adolescents’ development in nine countries on five continents.

What are you discovering through your research program on neuroscience and behavioral pediatrics?

As I mentioned, we also conduct neuroscience experiments, using eye-movement tracking, brain scans, and heart monitoring. In one study, we found that as early as 3 months of age, babies’ brains respond differently to images of their mothers’ faces than to the faces of similar-looking female strangers. Our infant research shows that those connections deepen between 3 months and 6 months of age.

Our research also explores various topics in behavioral pediatrics, such as: the effects that pediatric cancer can have on an infant’s development; parental depression and child development; development following preterm birth; autism spectrum disorders; and prenatal nutritional supplementation. Studying atypical development is valuable in itself and often helps to shed light on normal development, and vice versa.

What do you see as the most promising future directions for the field of child development research? And, why is continued research in these areas so critical?

Long-term studies tracking child and family development over time are critical to understanding which factors lead to later positive or negative outcomes. Our program of research is poised to come full circle as the children we’ve studied since infancy begin independent lives, establish homes and families, and become parents themselves. The opportunity to study multiple generations of a single family is rare and valuable and can only be carried out in organizations like the NICHD. We look forward to reaping the benefits of this significant study.

What advice do you have for new investigators who would like to start a career in this area?

The field of child development is increasingly sophisticated, complex, and multifaceted. Generous, committed mentors are critical, and knowledge of advanced statistical techniques is essential. But finding one’s own area of passionate interest and following it are the ultimate keys to professional growth, scientific contribution, and personal satisfaction.

Based on all you’ve learned about child development from your research, do you have any major take-home messages for parents?

Parents know their own children better than anyone else does. However, the more they learn about child development, the better able they will be to understand and appreciate their children. Being familiar with development helps parents put their child’s behavior into context and more accurately evaluate it and therefore parent more effectively.

Parents should also realize that no two children are alike. Carefully observing their children and respecting and valuing each child’s particular areas of strength and weakness allows parents to capitalize on the former and shore up the latter.

Parents should also understand that early experiences and interventions are important. Talking and reading to babies before they can even understand language makes a positive difference. But, at the same time, parents should temper the urge to over-stimulate their children. More is not always better, and children need time to play, to learn at their own pace, and to pick and choose activities that interest them.

Finally, parents should learn to respond sensitively to their children. A child learns to trust the person who sensitively interacts with him or her, and this trust, in turn, provides a firm foundation for all of later learning, growth, and development.

More Information

For more information about topics related to child development, explore the following links:

Originally Posted: September 29, 2014


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