By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Q. Given the explosion of ADHD and autism diagnoses, are our children at greater risk for mental and cognitive problems than previous generations? If so, what steps should we take in research, treatment and environmental cleanup?

A. Many parents, teachers and health-care professionals suspect that our society’s decreasing respect for active, physical work is one reason for the increasing numbers of children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Most high-paying jobs go to people who are good with words or numbers, and who can sit still for hours, rather than to those who are good with their hands and bodies.

This shift in values shows up in schools, where budgets for physical education and time for recess have been slashed. Young children spend more time on language-based and mathematical learning, often with little or no physical activity. As a result, some very active children may be misdiagnosed as “hyperactive” because they can’t comply with these new stationary demands.

Misunderstandings of the “new” brain science are also part of the problem. Children’s brains develop more dramatically in their first years than at any other time. But this does not mean that schools should start teaching this material to younger and younger children.

Reading and arithmetic skills once expected of first graders are now being demanded of preschoolers. Young children are being made to sit in their seats for longer periods than many can handle. Of course it is critical for them to be exposed to words and language, but this exposure should come in ways they can accept. Abundant evidence shows that young children develop important skills through play that set them up as lifelong learners: tolerance, persistence, and a readiness to take risks.

Still, some children whose hyperactivity and inattention go way beyond the broad range of “normal” can be protected from school failure if they can be treated early. The same goes for children with learning disabilities. All too often, their frustration turns into behavior problems that get all the attention while the learning disability itself goes unrecognized and untreated.

As your question suggests, other changes also have an impact. For example: Researchers at the University of Washington have correlated the number of hours spent watching TV in the first three years of life with attention difficulties at age 7.

Numerous studies have shown that significant stress, depression and anxiety on a woman during pregnancy also increase the stress hormone levels of newborns. These newborns can be more irritable, more difficult to console, and less able to maintain the “quiet alert” states newborns use to learn about their world. Such children are likelier to have behavioral problems and learning disabilities.

Environmental pollutants may also affect babies’ brain development, even before birth. A study just published by researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health has linked exposure to high levels of airborne pollutants during pregnancy and early childhood with a greater risk of behavioral and attention problems.

We now know that the explosion of behavioral and learning problems in children goes beyond over-diagnosis and inappropriate expectations. Even before life begins, developing brains are highly vulnerable to our toxic environment. As each toxin is identified – too much stress during pregnancy, too much pressure too soon in school, too much television, specific pollutants – it is our duty as parents and citizens to protect our children from them.

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton, prior to his passing, was the founder and head of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is currently the Director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.