Few stages in life are as pivotal as the early stages of a child’s development. It is this stage that begins building the foundation of a child’s well-being and future health. If they don’t receive adequate attention and care, the impact will have far-reaching consequences that can linger for the rest of their lives. Nurses are absolutely crucial to the early stages of child development by supporting the child’s growth and providing guidance to parents and caregivers. Without experienced and capable nurses, the quality of care children receive and, as a consequence, their overall quality of life would likely drop significantly. This article explores the various responsibilities and contributions of nurses in promoting the health and development of children during their early years.
Why is a child’s early development so important?
If you’re wondering why this stage of life is so important, you aren’t alone. Many people wonder the same and sometimes pay less attention to their children’s growth as a result. It is important to remember that, while children will develop to a certain extent without rigorous parental support, the outcomes will not be as effective as they are with youth whose parents played an active role in their development.
With all of that in mind, what counts as “early child development”? The term typically refers to a child’s growth during the first eight years of life. The way that children grow during this time is truly remarkable, with millions of brain connections creating pathways that will help them and will dictate their behavior throughout their lives. There are five main stages of early childhood development:
- Cognitive development
- Social and emotional development
- Language and speech development
- Fine motor skills development
- Gross motor skills development
Cognitive development refers primarily to the ability to solve problems and learn from mistakes. Social and emotional development is related but focuses on relationships and the ability to interact with other people. Language and speech development dictates how well a child learns to speak on a technical level (as compared with social and emotional development, which dictates how children learn to speak with others on a broader level). Finally, the development of gross motor and fine motor skills gives children the ability to walk, jump, and run as well as to adeptly use their fingers and hands.
Note that there are milestones children should meet as they develop in the first few years of their lives. These are goals for each area of development at each year of life and include:
- Learning to walk and run
- Learning to speak
- Learning to use light switches and doorknobs
- Learning to use the toilet independently
These are only a few of the important milestones children must reach in order to properly develop. Parents might find a milestone tracker helpful as their babies begin to grow. The CDC offers a comprehensive list of milestones on its website.
How do nurses impact early childhood development?
We know now that early childhood development plays a critical role in a child’s life, but what role do nurses play? Nurses are important to health at every stage of life, but their support during a child’s formative years is truly invaluable. They offer parents advice about the milestones their child should be hitting as well as how their physical development matches ideal standards. Children also develop important skills from nurses, one of the most important of which is healthcare responsibility.
Curious about what else nurses do to promote early childhood development? Let’s take a closer look at some of the crucial roles they play.
Health assessment and monitoring
First and foremost, nurses are responsible for assessing and monitoring the growth and development of children. They do this in a few different ways. While they certainly do routine things such as conduct physical examinations, measure vital signs, and document growth parameters such as weight, height, and head circumference, nurses also observe and track developmental milestones to identify any potential delays or concerns.
Before the child is born, nurses promote early childhood development by working directly with mothers and providing important information about how their behavior can impact the child growing within them. Evaluating pregnant women’s alcohol consumption, smoking habits, and consumption of illicit drugs sometimes helps mothers-to-be kick bad habits to promote good health in their child and aid in the developmental process by not adding additional difficulties such as fetal alcohol syndrome.
Nurses offer pregnant women information about identifying potential pregnancy complications and when to seek help. Once they do seek help, nurses work with pregnant mothers to identify and remedy the complications as soon as possible so that their child’s development doesn’t suffer. By offering comprehensive maternal care, nurses can often prevent a wide range of development issues in the womb, leading to better outcomes once the child is born.
Nurses administer vaccinations to children according to the recommended immunization schedule, too, and make sure that young children receive the vaccines necessary to protect against common infectious diseases. They often help parents who are unsure about the safety of vaccines understand their importance, too, which also benefits children in the long run. Beyond even this, nurses often detect disorders before they become serious problems and can provide early intervention to remedy any issues and allow children to live a fulfilling and happy life.
A significant aspect of a nurse’s role is providing health education to parents and caregivers. They offer details about the child’s development and growth to ensure that they receive the support they need at home. Nurses also provide parents with guidance on nutrition, immunizations, hygiene practices, and safety precautions as well as the importance of play to childhood development. They also provide more information about age-appropriate activities that support the child’s cognitive, physical, and emotional development.
The above support is provided in a few different ways. First, nurses might show parents how to stimulate their baby’s mental development through touch, play, and speech directly with their child. This practical experience is especially important as it reassures parents that they are doing the right things for their children. The use of video guides might also be implemented, and nurses might request that parents record some of their child’s play activities to ensure that they are developing appropriate behaviors specific to that activity.
By providing this support, nurses help promote the child-parent relationship by helping parents understand the way their child communicates and how their responses impact cognitive and emotional development. They give parents an increased sense of not only satisfaction in parenting but their confidence in child-rearing as a whole. Nurses also serve as valuable support if negative behaviors arise in young children; they can sometimes help parents track the trigger and learn adaptive strategies to reduce it.
Breastfeeding support and early care
Once a child is born, nurses begin their interventions early. This includes providing new mothers with support and guidance regarding breastfeeding techniques, including proper latch and how to maintain an adequate milk supply. Resolving common breastfeeding challenges and educating parents about the benefits of breastfeeding are other important functions that nurses play throughout a baby’s earliest days. Additionally, nurses offer feeding guidelines and goals as children transition to solid foods, ensuring appropriate nutrition and healthy eating habits.
If you are wondering why we’re including a section on breastfeeding in an article surrounding early childhood development, don’t worry – we can explain ourselves! Breastfeeding has been linked again and again to better cognitive development during a child’s first five years of life. In fact, babies who were breastfed are often as much as six months ahead of children who were not. This is true even in families where the non-breastfed child was very well supported throughout those formative years.
Encouraging mothers to breastfeed and making the process less difficult and painful is an important step in ensuring optimal childhood development. Nurses provide important care during the sometimes-difficult early days after birth when breastfeeding can be challenging to master.
Beyond breastfeeding, nurses play crucial roles in providing effective care to newborns and infants. Once again, this is done through important and strictly-ratio-based tasks like assessing vital signs, conducting newborn screenings, and assisting with initial breastfeeding as outlined above as well as via more educational approaches. Nurses teach parents about newborn care practices, for example, including proper bathing, diapering, and soothing techniques.
Finally, nurses address parental concerns as they arise. This is especially important during the first few days and weeks after birth as parents are often nervous and have yet to develop confidence in their parenting ability. During this time, nurses provide emotional support and offer guidance on managing common issues related to infant care.
Creating strong care teams
Nurses collaborate with pediatricians, healthcare professionals, and specialists to ensure comprehensive care for children. We mentioned above how nurses are responsible for detecting health issues early and providing critical intervention before problems become too big to handle, but they can’t always provide all of the care that children need. Instead, they often communicate relevant information directly with the rest of a child’s care team, share observations, and actively participate in care planning. Nurses often act as advocates and guide children and their families through the healthcare system, facilitating effective communication and coordination among the healthcare team.
Somewhat related to this is the nurse’s role in recognizing signs of child abuse or neglect and communicating those concerns to the rest of the child’s care team as well as the relevant reporting agencies. They play a crucial role in identifying and reporting suspected cases to the appropriate authorities, ensuring the child’s safety and well-being. Whether their actions create more work for themselves or not, nurses always advocate for the best interests of the child and ensure that their rights are protected. They also provide appropriate support and intervention when necessary.
Challenges to caring for children in the early stages of their development
While nurses play an incredibly-important role in early childhood development, the job isn’t an easy one. They must deal not only with children and their parents but also with the anxiety and concerns that parents and children have about the care they are receiving. For children, the first visits to a doctor’s office can be scary and overwhelming. There are a lot of new things to experience and people to interact with. Similarly, parents are typically anxious about their child’s health and will want to know in-depth information about their development and what other goals their child should meet.
In response to these concerns, nurses must master the art of being kind but firm. Offering respect and empathy without compromising on the child’s health is the overall goal of nurses in this position. This is not an easy position to take. The good news is that nursing education prepares students for these challenges, and their MSN salary reflects the skill mastery that they acquire during these years. While nursing isn’t all about the money, it should be relieving to know that the work you put into your education is typically reflected throughout your career in tangible ways.
Hopefully, it is now easier to see the vital role nurses play in the early stages of a child’s development. Far from simply administering shots and checking a child’s physical development, their responsibilities encompass a wide variety of areas, including health assessment, health promotion, feeding and breastfeeding guidance, newborn care, parental support, child advocacy, and collaboration with the child’s broader healthcare team. By providing comprehensive care, education, and support, nurses can play a crucial role in the health, well-being, and development of children during their early years.