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How Cancer May Affect Early Childhood Development

Babies are born wired to learn and connect with the world around them.

Young brains develop at a rapid pace. Many developmental milestones occur during infant, toddler, and preschool years.

In some cases, cancer and its treatment may delay when children will reach certain milestones, according to researchers at the National Institutes of Health.

Not every child with cancer will experience delays. But they are a possibility.

How the Brain Develops

The brain is a hotbed of activity during a child’s early years.

According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University:

  • The brain will grow from 25% of its adult size to more than 70% during the first year of life.
  • Nerve cells in the brain called neurons communicate and make connections when a child learns something new.
  • Scientists estimate that a baby’s brain makes more than 1 million new connections each second.

To learn more about brain development, watch this video from the Center on the Developing Child.

Cancer and Early Childhood Development

Certain factors may affect development in young cancer patients:

  • Cancers involving the central nervous system, such as brain and spinal tumors.
  • Treatment that involves the central nervous system. These may include surgery, intrathecal chemotherapy, or radiation.
  • Missing learning and social experiences such as play groups, day care, and other preschool activities. Treatment may take months or years. In some cases, children may not have the opportunity to interact with peers during this time.

It is possible that children treated for cancer before age 4 may take longer than other children to achieve certain milestones in areas such as vocabulary, motor skills, and brain functions such as attention and executive functioning.

Executive functioning allows people to plan, organize, and complete tasks.

Executive functioning includes:

  • Working memory: The ability to remember information for short periods of time and use it in some way.
  • Flexible thinking: The ability to think of something from different viewpoints.
  • Inhibitory regulation (including self-control): The ability to control automatic responses and stop inappropriate responses. It’s the ability to filter thoughts and resist temptations and distractions.

Problems with executive functioning development may lead to academic and social challenges later in life.

Some children may be at risk for delays in social and emotional skills. But studies show that most young cancer patients do not fall behind their peers in these areas.

What Parents Can Do

Delays may occur during and after treatment. Talk to your care team about how cancer and its treatment may affect your child’s development.

Young children with cancer might benefit from early interventions such as physical, occupational, or language therapy. When not addressed, small problems can sometimes snowball into larger issues. For example, a child who has trouble with speech may grow frustrated and stop trying to learn.

Speak to the care team about activities parents can do with your child to help him or her build social, language, and pre-reading skills. This time together can have an impact on brain development, behavior, and social skills.

Early Intervention Services

One potential resource available to parents in each state is early intervention services. Each state has an early intervention system to help eligible infants and toddlers with developmental delays or disabilities.

These publicly funded programs provide services for free or at reduced cost.

Early intervention focuses on helping children under 3 learn skills that typically develop during this stage:

  • Physical — Reaching, rolling, crawling, and walking
  • Cognitive — Thinking, learning, solving problems
  • Communication — Talking, listening, understanding
  • Social/ emotional — Playing, feeling secure and happy
  • Self-help — Eating, dressing

Services may include physical, occupational, speech or other types of therapy.

Find Your State’s Early Intervention Services

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