Does Lack of Stimulation Affect Cognitive Development in Children?

Infants cry when they are hungry or tired, toddlers will constantly interrupt their parents for attention and young children thrive on approval from their parents. Child development researcher Nathan Fox says that “infants and young children expect an environment in which they are going to interact and receive nurturance, not only food, but psychological nurturance, from adult caregivers.” Early childhood stimulation has long-lasting effects on the brain, and is responsible for cognitive development in children 1.

Critical Periods

Romanian orphanages were notorious for being overcrowded and providing little interaction with children; researchers like Nathan Fox found that the lack of early childhood experiences cause detrimental consequences in the brain, including decrease in gray matter and lower-quality brain activity. While brain development is an ongoing process, the Zero toThree website points out there are critical periods in which children are particularly sensitive to their environment, most of which are in the first 5 years of life 1. Infants require visual and language input to develop vision and language, and a child’s socio-emotional development depends on a nurturing attachment to a caregiver

Brain Development

By age 5, the brain develops to about 90 percent of its adult weight, according to Zero to Three 1. Brain scientists believe the brain over-develops its cells and connections by age 5, and a child’s experiences, including sensory, motor, emotional and intellectual activities, determine which of these cells are preserved. Those connections that are not used will be lost. When children are “starved” of stimulation, they lose the chances to keep those important brain connections.

Parental Involvement

Children learn through their senses, and infants will instinctively respond to stimuli like a parent talking or smiling by looking at the parent and imitating facial expressions or sounds. Children who are verbally engaged by parents are more likely to develop language skills than those who do not receive this stimulation, according to Zero to Three. Since language is a foundation for other cognitive skills, talking and listening to a child is essential for cognitive development. According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, children need opportunities and acknowledgment from their caregivers to achieve developmental milestones.


In addition to language development and thinking skills, stimulation from a parent gives a child a sense of security and provides a foundation for emotions and relationships. Lack of stimulation often results in an inability to identify and respond to emotional cues, according to the Child Welfare Information Gateway. For example, children who are not nurtured will likely have trouble seeing someone who is upset and show empathy. They might also have trouble forming attachments throughout their lives.