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Children’s Brain Development Ages Birth through Three Years

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Looking at a newborn baby is awe inspiring and a little overwhelming for most parents. For the next 18 years, parents are primarily responsible for molding and shaping their new human being into a healthy, happy contributing member of society – no pressure right? Yikes!

But now is not the time for parents to wonder how they could have thought they were ready for such a huge undertaking…parents take a breath…remember parenting happens one day at a time. Moreover, remember every parent makes mistakes, hindsight is always 20/20, and with the aid of unconditional love and a decent amount of patience, everything will work out. Parents play an instrumental role in their child’s development right from the beginning, as the brain goes through a significant amount of changes between birth and three years of age.

At birth, an infant’s brain is made up of more than 100 billion neurons. Neurons can be likened to fiber optic cables sending and receiving information that governs everything from conscious and unconscious movement, thoughts and feelings, and speech and vision. Some of these neurons are connected from birth allowing babies to hear, begin to see, touch and feel, keep their heart beating, breath, sleep, and make sounds. However, most connections have yet to be formed such as those that govern language, abstract thought, and impulse control. Connections (or synapses) are created when the area of the brain that corresponds with that function is stimulated. Therefore, the more positive and varied a child’s interactions, the more positive and varied the connections between neurons will be. A healthy toddler can create two million connections per second, and by the age of three, he or she may have created 1,000 trillion connections. With proper and consistent stimulation these connections will strengthen and remain intact.

Alternatively, negative environments also impact brain development. Children who grow up in stressful environments where abuse and neglect take place, or where children suffer from poor attachment to their caregiver, causes the release of a hormone called cortisol in quantities that are too high. High levels of cortisol may result in neuron death and a reduction in the number of connections that are formed.

How can parents create an environment that encourages healthy development?

  • Establish a routine that grows with the child. Feeding times, nap times, and play times should be scheduled (but not too rigid). Children find comfort in knowing what comes next. Toddlers especially have difficulty transitioning from one activity to another, so having an established routine and letting them know ahead of time when an activity is due to change can help toddlers prevent a “meltdown”.
  • All children are unique with different temperaments and personalities that are constantly evolving. Try to notice how a child shows how he or she is happy or upset and tailor responses accordingly. If a child indicates he or she wants to play – play with them, but when it’s obvious that a child has had enough stimulation – switch tactics, perhaps go for a quiet walk. Redirecting a child when he or she is becoming frustrated will prevent escalation.
  • Talk, read, and sing to a child as a way to encourage language development and a bonding relationship.
  • Provide positive feedback for good behavior.
  • Create areas in your home that are safe for a child to explore and learn. Likewise visit places that allow for such experiences. Understand that for the average toddler fancier restaurants do not provide opportunities for exploration. Expecting a young child to calmly sit for two hours is an unrealistic expectation.
  • Avoid excessive stimuli or over an over-stimulating environment while still providing appropriate sensory input for the young brain according to the windows of opportunities across all areas of development.

A Challenging Period of Early Childhood Development

Between the ages of 12 months and three years toddlers begin to develop language and invariably struggle with expressing their wants and needs. Moreover, the part of the brain that is responsible for impulse control is just starting to develop. To help speed this process parents can encourage their children to link the feelings a child is physically expressing into words. In age appropriate language, explain the concepts of excellent and poor behavior, the rationale behind it, and the age appropriate consequences for their behaviors. And always affirm that regardless of the behavior he or she is still loved unconditionally.

With regards to consequences, time outs allow toddlers to calm down and regroup. Somewhere around the age of two years they are able to understand the concept and comply. One minute for each year of age is an appropriate amount of time. The key is to be consistent and use time outs for more extreme negative behavior (i.e. hurting another child).

Don’t Forget Parents Need Care Too – Find A Healthy Balance

Ensuring parents receive adequate rest, exercise, good nutrition, and social interactions that may not always include children, can help prevent parents from burning out.

Photo Credit: Philippe Put via Compfight cc

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Pikul Arsirawech, M.D. Summary: Pediatrics Pediatrics