Parents spend a lot of money on their children's care, education and extracurricular activities to help them reach their potential and to give them the best possible start to their lives.

But to give them the best opportunity, new research shows that it's what you do in the first 12 months of their lives that really counts, not five, 10 or 15 years down the track.

This research shows in the first years of life, infants' brains are much more sensitive than previously understood.

A baby's brain is 25 per cent developed at birth and by the time a toddler is three years old the brain will have reached 80 per cent of its capacity. Many of the vital connections between the cells are made during this time, connections that help the baby's brain grow, and form the wiring for how a child controls their emotions, communicates, solves problems, thinks logically and reacts to the world.

Brain development models show that the sensitive period for the lower-level motor and sensory systems of the brain begin to close by about six months old. The next major systems of the brain involving language, social skills and reflective thinking are now developing, based on the foundations laid down during that earlier period. Language development at this early stage is essential – children who begin school with poor language skills are likely to continue having difficulties with reading and writing throughout their childhood.

This research shows that what happens, or doesn't, in these first years has a major effect on brain development and long-term mental and physical health.

A baby's relationships and the type of care it receives in the first formative years play a crucial role in how the connections in the brain are made. When involved in positive and continuous one-on-one interactions with parents, a baby's brain connections are strengthened.

Infants need these continuous interactions, not only in their first 14 weeks or six months of life, but for a minimum of 12 months, and perhaps longer.

If an infant's relationship with their carers is inconsistent or unstable, they won't get the ongoing, responsive interactions required for the healthy development of these capacities. If you have a less attentive care – when an infant is rarely noticed, touched or talked to – you lessen their ability to withstand stress, to learn, to control emotions and develop into healthy adults.

Knowing this, we should welcome the recent comments by the children's author Mem Fox about the importance of good care for our babies and infants. The responses to her comments show the community is justifiably concerned about how we provide the quality of care young children need for optimal development.

At a time when the nation is deciding the best model for a national paid maternity leave scheme, it is timely that the needs of the child become the central focus in any decisions that are made around care. Yes, some parents will always have to return to work early. However, a well-supported paid parental leave scheme of at least 12 months would make this an exception rather than the rule it may become.

If we continue to abandon our parents to find their own unsatisfactory way out of the dilemma of working and having a family, then premature return to work will occur.

The more time parents spend with their children, the more they learn how to be better parents. The repeated interactions parents have with their children help them to become better at responding to their baby's needs and identifying problems. When parents are in prolonged employment during their children's early years of life, the opportunities to learn these parenting skills can be affected.

We need to find better ways to allow parents to stay at home during the first year of their child's life, to provide these continuous one-on-one interactions that infants need with their parents for healthy brain development.

However, parents will only take leave from work to spend time with their infants during these critical first few years if they can afford it. We now need a system that supports parents in their role as carers as well as their role as workers.

It is much more cost effective and developmentally advantageous to provide parents with paid leave for at least 12 months so they can foster that important one-to-one relationship and nurturing environment that will optimise their baby's chances during a crucial stage of their early development.

Gillian Calvert is the NSW Commissioner for Children and Young People and Marie Coleman is the spokeswoman for the National Foundation for Australian Women.

Source: Sydney Morning Herald, Australia