I dropped in on my old friend Denise for a cup of coffee. What I saw was a marvellous example of human nature. She was looking after her grandniece, a child under two. I simply watched.

In between our conversation Denise, almost without a conscious thought, was constantly aware of the child. She was tempting her into new experiences and new initiatives, accompanied by new words – related to the child’s curious exploration. I remembered the importance of those early years. And this was confirmed by a study this year which charted the effects of family environment on adult self-esteem.

Good parents have always behaved like Denise, but now we have a much better understanding of how the young child’s experience affects the infant brain. The human brain – infant to adult – has approaching 100 billion neurons, but what matters here is not the number but the connections between them.

A baby has, of course, been born with some vital connections, enabling it to survive, but it is over the first two years that a great mass of the connections are established. After that, the brain, guided by experience, starts to prune this superfluity of possibilities down to a more useful number. The quality of that experience is vital to the future of that child.

Sadly, we have the evidence from the orphaned Romanian children discovered after the collapse of its communist government in 1989. Following a state-sponsored baby boom, the crowded orphanages were filled with some 170,000 children kept in the most cruel conditions. There was no opportunity for personal relationships, discipline was maintained by punishment regimes and the level of general care was appalling. The children were denied the opportunity to edit their neural connections in the ways we take for granted. The result was underdeveloped brains, low IQs, reduced neural activity, language difficulties and, of course, attachment problems.

While some of these outcomes have improved to a degree over time, the relics of such experiences remain in adulthood. The separation of children from their parents – as we have seen in the issue of Mexican immigrants in the US ­ may well lead to some degree of long-term damage.

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