A lot of parents operate on the assumption that their children think like tiny adults. But for children, their brain development is at a different physiological stage. Their brains are still developing and with this comes cognitive growth. Parents need to know at least a little bit about child brain development so that they can understand how and why their children respond the way that they do.

Of course, not all children think the same. Their personalities are part of the equation and also any developmental differences that they have such as the onset of ADHD or autism. The most important thing to remember is that children’s brains are still growing and changing and developing. While it is important to their education and for educators to understand these things, it is also helpful for parents to know a little bit about it as well.

It can be a bit overwhelming to comb through the research, so we’ve done a bit of that work for you here. This article will simplify it and break it down into the most important aspects of children’s brain development that you need to be aware of so you can understand your children better. At the beginning of each subsection of this article we will also include some links for great resources. This way, you can further explore and learn in the areas most important to you and your child.

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Here are some of the things that you need to know about child brain development.

Why are children’s brains different?

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Science has shown through some very interesting research studies that children’s brains operate very differently than those of their adult counterparts. In one particular research study that involved children over the age of 7 and up to adult aged participants, during resting MRIs children’s brains were shown to be firing in certain areas while adults’ brains were firing in other areas. This is particularly fascinating for several reasons but it’s how the two differed that makes it very interesting.

For these 7-year-old and up aged children that they used in the studies, the MRI showed that when different areas of the brain lit up to show they were being used, the areas were typically close in proximity to each other. This differs in adults because their brains will show simultaneous activity in parts of the brain that are not close to the same area of the brain, appearing to indicate more advanced and specialized brain activity.

While the reason for all of this can get very complex dealing with the neural behavior in the brain, what is most important to understand here is that there is definitely a physiological difference between the way children’s brains operate and how adult brains operate, as evidenced clearly in MRI brain scan results.

Beginning before your baby is born and continuing on into their adulthood, the brain is consistently forming new neural connections and unused neural connections become disengaged and that brain matter kind of “dies off,” as if the brain is responding to what is needed and what isn’t at various stages of life. In children, those early years are the most active times for their brains to be forming these very important neural connections which will help them learn to process information, learn, behave, grow, and experience life. As a parent you can see on the outside just how much your child is changing, but that pales in comparison to the rapid changing that is going on inside of their brain during these early years of development.

Those connections that form early are foundational for the growth and development of their brains that will take place into adulthood. These early formative years are extremely important for you to also provide “brain support” for your children and help give them the best start in life that you can.

What are the important things to know about children’s brain development?

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It is an important thing to remember that when your baby is born their brain is not fully formed. The brain continues to grow and change and develop as your baby grows first into a toddler and then into a small child, etc.

When a baby is first born their brain is very delicate and your baby will have soft spots on their head called fontanelles, one at the front/ top of your baby’s head and a smaller one at the back, which accommodate your baby’s head to be able to narrow when in the birth canal. These fontanelles are extremely important, although worrisome for new parents. Your baby’s growing brain needs to be able to expand and because of these softer areas where the bones don’t quite meet up, your baby’s brain is able to grow and expand. These delicate areas you will want to be protective of when your baby is small.

Your baby’s brain is also very delicate when it comes to sudden impacts or shaking which is why it is highly inadvisable to shake a baby in any way. Shaken Baby Syndrome/Abusive Head Trauma (SBS) Is the term given to the form of child abuse when a parent or caregiver shakes a baby. This is a crime because it can result in injury or death to a newborn infant or baby. These sudden jerking movements at this age cause your baby’s brain matter to slam against the skull resulting in bruising, bleeding, or tearing of the fragile brain tissue. The effects can be devastating to your baby’s brain. It can also cause your baby to die.

Any kind of head injury for a small child or baby is considered very serious. If you suspect that your child has had a head injury, it is wise to take them to see a pediatrician or even to the emergency room to make sure that your baby does not have a brain injury that cannot be seen from the outside. Just as if they had broken an arm or hurt their foot you want to make sure that you protect and care for their brain by protecting them from injury and by seeking medical treatment if you suspect a head injury. If your baby has been out of your care for a period of time, perhaps with a new sitter or family friend, and you return to find your baby is unresponsive or has unusual eye movements–trust your gut! Call your baby’s doctor immediately or take your baby to the emergency room for a brain scan or whatever else the doctor feels necessary. It is always “better to be safe than sorry” when it comes to your child’s brain.

How can you know if your child’s brain is developing ‘normally’?

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There are some stages of brain development that are fairly predictable. The above referenced article breaks it down into five stages which we have outlined very briefly for you below.

The 5 stages of brain development

  • 1–Up to 10 months
    • Neural connections forming
  • 2–Up to 6 years
    • Age 6– by this age your child’s brain is about 95% of the weight it will be at adulthood
    • Frontal lobe is further developed and allows for more experience of emotion
    • Voluntary movement is developing
    • A sense of self and ‘perception’ are developing
    • Memory is developing
    • Children at this age are learning to make attachments and demonstrate reasoning capabilities.
  • 3–7-22 years
    • Neural connections are still forming and pruning as needed.
    • The white matter of the brain which is the fatty tissue surrounding the neural connections is becoming more developed and your child’s brain is becoming more efficient.
    • The prefrontal cortex takes a bit longer to develop. This is why teenagers experience such impulse control issues and difficulty rationalizing decision-making. They tend to take more risks at this age and it is linked with the relatively late maturation of the prefrontal cortex.
  • 4–23-65 years
    • The brain typically peaks at about 22 years of age.
    • A decline in brain function begins typically after about five years post-peak.
    • Memory begins to decline as well as other brain functions.
  • 5–older than 65 years
    • More rapid brain decline at this age greatly affects memory.

There are a few signs that you can look for in your baby or child to alert you that there may be something wrong with their brain. Here are a few of those signs that you may want to discuss with your baby’s doctor.

  • If you suspect a head injury or brain injury. (This is very serious.)
  • If you suspect concussion. Here is an excellent sheet by the CDC that goes into more detail about what concussion looks like in your child or teenager. Concussion Information Sheet. (This is also very serious and should be treated as an emergency.)
  • Eye movements that do not appear normal.
  • If your child doesn’t seem to be reaching developmental milestones as expected.
  • Sudden slurred speech or slackness on one side of the face.
  • Cognitive regression or confusion.

Some factors can affect your child’s brain development negatively

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Your child’s brain development is affected by both nature and nurture. The “nature vs nurture” concept has been around for a long time and it is basically the argument between which is more important for a child’s development and growth: the nature, which refers to their physiological and genetic makeup, or the nurture, which refers to the environment that the child was raised in, the influences of the people and caregivers in their life, and other factors such as socioeconomic status.

When it comes to your child’s brain development, both nature and nurture are very important. With nature, however, you have limited control over the influence on your child’s developmental progress and capabilities. You  have more ability to influence the nuture portion of this equation.

Some of the factors that affect your child’s brain development:

  • The presence of chronic stress
  • Extreme stresses or trauma
  • Diet during pregnancy
  • Infections during pregnancy such as Cytomegalovirus or Zika virus
  • Exposure to toxins during pregnancy (including smoking and alcohol)
  • Traumatic brain injuries/head injuries
  • Inherited genetic factors or genetic abnormalities in the brain tissue
  • Environmental input from interactions with people and experiences

How can you help your children to have good brain development?

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During your pregnancy it is important to eat a well balanced diet which includes the taking of folic acid or by eating foods that are rich in folic acid.  You should also avoid exposure to diseases, pathogens and infections to keep you and your baby healthy while your baby is developing. Keeping you and your baby healthy during pregnancy is of utmost importance so that your baby’s brain structure forms correctly while in the womb.

It is also important that after your child is born you help to reduce stress and trauma to your baby. Ongoing stress can have a negative impact on their brain development.

After your baby is born, how you interact with them can have an influence on how their brain develops. The more interactive (in a positive manner) that you are with your baby the more healthy their brain is able to develop. “Serve and return” interactions refer to the way that you interact with your baby. For example when your baby makes cute little sounds and you respond to that with a smile or a kind word, you are returning that positive energy to your baby. Those interactions are crucial for healthy brain development in your baby. This, of course, continues into childhood. Positive parenting and positive interactions with your baby and your child will ultimately help their growing brain to develop well. Positive interaction, high-quality childcare, and a nurturing environment are all very important to brain development.

Attachment and trust is important for babies’ brain development. Providing an environment in which your baby can feel trust with you and feel safe and comfortable will also help their brains to develop naturally. Cuddle with your baby, sing to them, and interact with them on a regular basis so that they feel secure, loved, and safe. Nurturing your relationship with your baby is helping their brain to develop in a healthy way. Isn’t it fascinating to know that by simply singing with your baby and cuddling with them that you are helping their brain?

Quick response to trauma or potential brain injuries can help to avoid more complicated medical issues. Quick treatment and careful care under a doctor’s supervision is important when a brain injury occurs.

Teaching executive function skills also helps your child’s brain to develop properly. These are skills such as sharing or taking turns, thinking through problems, and learning to self soothe and calm themselves when something is upsetting. These are all skills that are typically nurtured during the early formative years, but they are also skills that  help your child to develop healthy brain function. Teaching social skills during this time is also very important. Children learn a lot by how they interact with each other and these relationships help their developing brain learn how to self regulate during social situations.

The Takeaway

A lot of what you are already trying to do as a parent is helpful when it comes to your child’s brain development. You’re trying to bond with them and teach them new things and regulate their behavior while they are learning about new situations. You’re also trying to keep them healthy by feeding them a healthy diet and getting exercise for them and a good sleep schedule.

All of these things work together by way of nature and nurture to help your growing child learn to function in the world around them. But all of these factors also contribute to healthy brain function and development. We hope that some of the resources mentioned in this article and some of the tips are helpful to parents and caregivers even if simply a reminder to pay attention to the careful cognitive development of children. Also to be mindful of the fact that their brains are still developing and growing and that this process is taking place all of the time. We hope that you will  check out some of our other articles on child development as well.

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This article is brought to you by the blogging contributors at Babienet Parenting Community, a community of caring parents just like you! We welcome you to share your journey with us.

Author Bio:

Christina M Ward is a mom, grandmother, and writer of lots and lots of words. When she’s not busy obsessing over writing poetry and well-living articles, she is out in nature exploring or doing needlepoint crafts in front of Netflix. She loves books and reading, learning geeky things about nature, and helping other people live their best life.

Christina M. Ward,

Babienet blog contributor

Mother and grandmother

What You Need to Know About Child Brain Development helps parents and caregivers to understand baby and child brain development and things they can do to help their baby or child to have healthy brain development.