Brain Development in Early Childhood

Anisa Kelley, MD, Neurology, provides an overview on brain development and why it’s a critical process of early childhood.

What is brain development?

Brain development is the process in which a child’s brain forms and grows over a child’s life.

The process consists of a cascade of steps including proper organization of the brain, rapid proliferation of neurons ("messengers of information"), myelination ("speeding up" information processing), and subsequent synaptic "pruning" of neuronal circuits that are not being used (improving "efficiency" of the brain). This process begins before birth and continues into adulthood. It is both genetics and early childhood environmental influences that determine when and how well different stages of the brain will develop.

How does a child’s brain develop?

Children's brains develop from the “back” of the brain (the occipital lobe) to the “front” of the brain (the frontal lobe). The occipital lobe is important for vision and visual integration. Therefore, the first skills newborns acquire are recognizing and tracking objects and faces. Subsequently, as the brain develops forward in the first year of life, children began learning language and motor skills. Finally, the frontal lobe is developed, a process that continues until early adulthood. The frontal lobe is involved in higher cognitive functioning such as motor planning, behavior, personality, impulsivity and executive functioning.

In the first few years of life, there is a rapid proliferation (growth) of neurons. There are more than one million neural connections (synapses) formed every second. After rapid proliferation, there is a process called pruning, where certain neural circuits are strengthened, and other connections weaken. Pruning is influenced by what factors in the environment are supporting certain circuitry over others. Later more complex circuits are built upon earlier simpler circuits.

For instance, toddlers and babies naturally want to engage with their caregivers through babbling, facial expressions and gestures. If adults reinforce these behaviors by responding with the same kind of vocalizing and gesturing back, those neural circuits become hardwired and strengthened. If the responses are unreliable, inappropriate or absent, the brain’s architecture and neuronal circuits do not form as expected, and this could lead to longer term issues in learning language and proper social skills.

Why is brain development important, particularly in early years?

We call babies' and toddlers' brains “plastic” because they’re ripe to be shaped and molded. Babies’ brains are like sponges, wanting to “soak up” new experiences, lessons and skills from their environment.  

The first five years of brain development are very important to long-term learning potential and success in life. Early experiences in a child’s life can help to establish either a study or fragile foundation for cognitive, emotional and social capacities throughout a person’s life. The brain’s capacity for change decreases with age. As the brain is able to complete more complex functions, it is less able to reorganize or adapt to new experiences and challenges. Early plasticity of children’s brains is why it is easier to influence a baby’s developing brain architecture compared to an adult. 

When does the brain stop developing?

There is massive growth and development of the brain in the first couple of years of life – 90 percent of brain development is complete by age 5. However, the brain continues to develop into a person’s mid-20s when the frontal lobe fully develops.

As mentioned, the frontal lobe is involved in higher cognitive functioning such as motor planning, behavior, personality, impulsivity and executive functioning. This may be why individuals in their early 20s can sometimes still be a bit impulsive and don’t “think through” all their actions – their frontal lobes are still not fully formed! 

What role do parents/caregivers play when it comes to early childhood brain development?

Supportive and Nurturing Environment

A child’s experiences in early life can have a large impact on their brain development. Provide your baby and toddler with a nurturing, stable and caring environment. Care for them, attend to their needs and protect them from stress to help improve brain development. Some examples of chronic stress that can negatively impact a baby’s brain include extreme poverty, repeated abuse, neglect, severe maternal depression, or lack of stability of the home environment.  

Children grow and learn best in safe, stable and stimulating environments to play and explore. Interact and engage with your child as much as you can, even at a very young age when it does not appear that they are engaging back. Talk to your child, read books with them, tell stories and sing songs! The more words a child hears before age 2, the better for a child's long-term communication and verbal skills.

Minimal Screen Time

It’s important to remember that screen time is not a substitution for interaction and engagement with caregivers. It’s recommended that children younger than 2 years old do not engage with screen time at all. After age 2, minimal screen time, i.e., no more than two hours a day, is the recommendation.

Early Education

If you are able, enroll your child in pre-school at age 3 or 4 to continue to help them develop long term cognitive potential. 

Proper Nutrition

This starts in pregnancy with taking a prenatal vitamin with folic acid and DHA, which promotes a healthy brain and spinal cord development in neonates. While pregnant, it’s also recommended to get regular pre-natal checkups, and to avoid smoking and alcohol.

After birth, parents should work with their pediatrician to find the most optimal, well-balanced diet for their baby and toddler.

For older children, consider starting them with a daily multivitamin to help with overall development.

Finally, minimize toxin exposure, such as lead, which can be incredibly harmful to a child's developing brain.

Learn more about the Division of Pediatric Neurology

Sources 

CDC, “Early Brain Development and Health.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 25 Mar. 2022, https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/childdevelopment/early-brain-development.html.

Center on the Developing Child (2007). The Science of Early Childhood Development (InBrief). Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu.

Robinson LR, Bitsko RH, Thompson RA, et al. CDC Grand Rounds: Addressing Health Disparities in Early Childhood. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2017;66:769–772. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6629a1

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