How The Brain Develops In Early Childhood

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Early childhood development is unrivaled! In the first five years of life, children grow from helpless infants, dependent on adults, to independent little humans.

Development is so rapid during this period, that the brain doubles in size. By the age of three, the brain is 80% of its adult size and by five years old, it is almost fully grown at 90%. All of this in the first five years of life!

Why brain development is crucial for children

Neurons connections are central for brain development. They enable us to think, move, speak, or problem solve. Early childhood development of these neural connections shapes the brain.

The connections needed for the abilities we need as adults, such as resilience, problem-solving, motivation, and self-regulation, also form during the early years.

If children do not make vital brain connections in the early years, the physical structure of the brain is altered, and it is much more difficult to form later on.

What can influence child brain development


One of the key factors influencing brain development in early childhood is attachment. From the moment they are born, babies seek out nurture and positive interactions with their primary caregivers.

Consistent, loving care shapes babies’ brains positively and it builds important neural connections. For optimal early childhood development, meeting children’s needs is vital. Neurological research shows that the ability to self-regulate emotions relies upon having been responded to and soothed by a caregiver in infancy.

Toddlers with a secure attachment to a loving, responsive caregiver are healthier and have fewer “temper tantrums”. They also develop a sense of right and wrong earlier than children who struggle with attachment issues.

Secure attachment lays the groundwork for later life. As children with a healthy attachment get older, they are more co-operative with parents, and quicker to learn academically. Moreover, they are more sociable, have higher self-esteem, and are more resilient under stress. 

In contrast, as children with secure attachment experience more rapid brain growth, children without this experience the opposite.


Adverse childhood experiences can have a variety of negative effects on children’s brain. Neglect impacts upon brain development and MRI scans have highlighted this difference. It can influence children’s behavioral, social, and emotional functioning.

Toxic stress

Toxic stress is an excessive or prolonged,activation of normal stress responses. As a result, the physical development of the brain is impaired, and the child’s mental and physical health can be affected into adulthood. Exposure to domestic violence, parental mental health, abandonment, or substance abuse can cause toxic stress.

5 ways to nurture healthy brain growth

1. Parent responsively

Leaving babies to cry creates a stress response in the brain and disrupts the symbiosis between infant and caregiver. Quick response to a crying baby builds trust and a secure attachment. Responsive parents pay attention to children’s individual emotional needs.

2. Adequate nutrition

Healthy nutrition plays an important role in the brain’s development. Nutrition is especially important during pregnancy and infancy. Key nutrients for development are protein, zinc, iron, and fatty acids.

3. Stimulating environment

Scientists found that the more mental stimulation a child gets around the age of four, the more developed the parts of their brains dedicated to language and cognition will be.

A stimulating environment means plenty for children to do and explore. Great brain development activities include open-ended imaginative play, problem-solving, sensory, and exploratory play.

4. Limit screen time

Early childhood development involves the constant building of neural connections. Screen time is passive, and whilst there are educational apps and videos, these do not provide the same stimulation of the developing brain as other activities such as play for example.

Watching screens does not need to be banned completely, but what we watch, and how we watch it, has a profound impact on brain health.

5. Read

Above all, reading is fundamental for early childhood development. It provides many opportunities to learn vocabulary and develop imagination. Most importantly, it lays the building blocks for academic success in later life.

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