ST. LOUIS, Mo. — How do you make sure your kids “thrive”? Researchers from Washington University in St. Louis have identified the top five factors they say are key to ensuring infants thrive and develop into well-functioning, healthy adults. Scientists say these five conditions during the first year of life help to guarantee a baby has what they need for healthy development.

The 5 factors are:

  • Environmental stimulation
  • Nutrition
  • Neighborhood safety
  • Positive caregiving
  • Regular circadian rhythms/sleep

More specifically, proper nutrition refers to a healthy diet and breast milk if possible. Environmental stimulation means infants need lots of looking, reciprocal interactions, exposure to language and interesting stimuli. Neighborhood safety means the child needs to feel secure in their own home. Additionally, parents must also help the baby learn how to regulate themselves, which includes the development of regular circadian rhythms and sleep.

While some of these factors may appear somewhat simple, researchers explain these pillars of infant development have fallen to the wayside due to various reasons, including the fact that modern researchers have failed to provide empirical data in support of making the “Thrive 5” a public health priority.

The research team believes its finally time to change all that. Study co-authors Deanna Barch and Joan Luby argue that “Thrive Factor” is a key element of healthy brain, behavioral, and cognitive development in infants.

“When they have access to these basic supports, even in the face of adverse environments, it enhances their brain development, cognition (measures of IQ) and social-emotional development,” says Dr. Luby, the Samuel and Mae S. Ludwig Professor of Child Psychiatry at the School of Medicine, in a media release.

Mother and father with baby
Scientists say these five conditions during the first year of life help to guarantee a baby has what they need for healthy development. (Photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels)

While prior studies have touted the benefits of individual thrive factors, like encouraging breastfeeding to facilitate growth in general, this new study looked at several key factors influencing brain development, ultimately showcasing their relationship to outcomes by age three.

“The novelty here is putting them all together and thinking of them as a constellation of things that are necessary and important for a child to be able to thrive,” adds Dr. Barch, vice dean of research, a professor of psychological & brain sciences in Arts & Sciences and the Gregory B. Couch Professor of Psychiatry at the School of Medicine.

This project was part of WashU’s ongoing research into how psychological and social factors during early development impact biological processes and potentially change the brain. Moreover, this course of study also represents a shift in thinking within the larger field of child development. Scientists have recently learned that much of our health is not solely genetically predetermined but also powerfully influenced by our psychosocial environment. At birth, the human brain is still undergoing rapid developments. Researchers are still attempting to grasp all of the environmental factors shaping this development.

This study encompassed 232 infants and their mothers and focused on positive factors in the environment in the fetal period, as well as the first year of life, that can enhance brain development, minimize negative behaviors, and increase cognitive outcomes. Researchers evaluated participants using social disadvantage indexes beginning in the womb and calculated early life T-Factor scores. As the babies approached three years of age, each one underwent a re-evaluation focusing on social, emotional and cognitive development along with MRIs to scan brain structures.

The results left little room for debate that T-Factor is powerful. Even infants living in adverse conditions and under-resourced backgrounds can enjoy healthy development so long as they get their Thrive 5.

Teaching child to walk
Even infants living in adverse conditions and under-resourced backgrounds can enjoy healthy development so long as they get their Thrive 5. (© M. Business –

The research team adds policymakers and pediatric primary care providers alike should be aware of the importance of focusing on elements of the T-Factor, and how those factors can promote various downstream advantages for both children and society as a whole.

It may seem obvious to some that a baby needs care, sleep, food, stimulation and safety but “nobody has particularly focused on or prioritized the importance of this during fetal development and in the first year of life to enhance critical developmental outcomes,” Luby says.

“The Thrive Factor provides a solid foundation for healthy development. It has been underappreciated in primary care just how malleable the brain is to experience,” the researcher continues.

Moving forward, Barch says the next step is to implement interventions for testing across randomized controlled trials. Another advantageous aspect of T-Factor is it is highly feasible to share and promote among broad populations.

Interventions are likely to formalize as multiple Zoom sessions with parents to educate and coach them on how to best provide each specific thrive factor. Of course, that would just be the start; parents also need tangible resources to ensure they can provide the factors. Although T-Factor can help kids overcome adverse conditions, Barch emphasizes just how tough adverse conditions can be on new parents.

“If you’ve never suffered from financial adversity, you don’t understand how hard that makes life,” Barch notes.

Parents may struggle to provide conditions to thrive because they also must support other people in their household. Alternatively, parents may not have an adequate number of rooms to ensure easier child sleep training. They could be forced to work multiple jobs and thus can’t find time to breast feed or live in unsafe neighborhoods that require a constant state of vigilance.

While education can undoubtedly help caregivers, public policy interventions are also necessary to ensure parents can access all the Thrive Factors, particularly when it comes to accessing safe housing and adequate income to support the basic needs of developing infants.

“We need to make it so families can have the resources necessary to provide these core things to kids because it’s going to have such a big impact on kids’ development across the course of their lifespan,” Barch concludes.

The study is published in JAMA Pediatrics.

About John Anderer

Born blue in the face, John has been writing professionally for over a decade and covering the latest scientific research for StudyFinds since 2019. His work has been featured by Business Insider, Eat This Not That!, MSN, Ladders, and Yahoo!

Studies and abstracts can be confusing and awkwardly worded. He prides himself on making such content easy to read, understand, and apply to one’s everyday life.

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