The role of early experience in shaping behavioral and brain development and its implications for social policy
This article provides a targeted review of the scientific literature on the effects of experience on early brain and behavioral development and later outcome as it pertains to risk for some forms of child psychopathology. It is argued that ample evidence exists indicating that the prenatal and early postnatal years likely represent a sensitive period with respect to the effects of stress on the developing nervous system and behavioral outcome, and with respect to the long-term beneficial effects of early interventions on brain and behavioral development for some genetically based disorders, such as phenylketonuria and autism. Moreover, evidence suggests that parental mental health during the first years of life has a significant influence on early brain activity and behavior, and long-term behavioral outcome. It is concluded that, although prevention and early intervention efforts should not exclusively focus on the earliest years of development, such efforts should begin during this period. By directing such efforts toward promoting optimal prenatal and infant–toddler development, the long-term negative consequences of factors that have their greatest influences during early development and which set the stage for future development can be minimized or avoided entirely. Several recommendations for public policy and future research pertaining to the effects of early experience on child outcome are offered.
c1 Address correspondence and reprint requests to: G. Dawson, Department of Psychology and Center on Human Development and Disability, Box 357920, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195.