Brains in training

Early childhood is a critical time for brain development, and children need their parents for their brains to develop properly.


A developing brain

Before birth and during early childhood, a baby’s brain is in a period of intense growth, for everything has yet to be learned. Here’s a look at what’s happening inside your little one’s head.

By Nathalie Vallerand

Before birth and during early childhood, a baby’s brain is in a period of intense growth, for everything has yet to be learned. Here’s a look at what’s happening inside your little one’s head.

Babies grow so fast! A few weeks after they’re born, their first pyjamas are already too small. And though the process is invisible to the naked eye, their brains are growing just as fast.

A newborn’s brain weighs about a quarter the weight of an adult’s brain. "During the first year of life, the brain doubles in volume, and between ages three and four, it triples," says Miriam Beauchamp, director of the ABCs Developmental Neuropsychology Lab at the University of Montreal and a researcher at the CHU Sainte-Justine Research Center. Every new milestone your child reaches or new skill they learn is a sign of this growth. Smiling, babbling, holding a spoon, playing, walking—all of these are linked to the development of their brain.

Even during pregnancy, children’s brains are growing. Several thousand neurons are created every second. When babies are born, their brains have about 100 billion neurons—all the neurons they will need throughout their lifetime, and more.

For the brain to function, these neurons have to connect to one another. The first connections occur before birth. "In the mother’s womb, babies hear sounds and voices: they move and feel the sensation of the amniotic fluid," says Beauchamp. "These stimulations help improve the connections between the neurons."

A nimble brain

After birth, the connections continue to multiply. Billions of them will be created throughout your child’s first years. Every time your little one learns something, connections form in her brain. At the same time as connections are being created, others are solidified, while still others (those that aren’t being used) are eliminated. This ability of the brain to rewire its own connections is called neuroplasticity.

Did you know?
The connection between two neurons is called a synapse. Every kiss, every diaper change, every game—every experience influences the creation of new synapses. These connections are essential to the development of your child’s brain.

"The connections that are used the most become stronger, and those that are unnecessary or deficient are eliminated," says Beauchamp. "It might seem strange that the brain gets rid of certain connections, but it’s a necessary process. It makes the brain more efficient. Think of it like a tree that you make stronger by pruning the damaged branches."

The brain is at its most pliable during early childhood, when it is developing most rapidly. It modifies itself to adapt as the child grows and learns new things.

Neuroplasticity can also help toddlers recover after a brain injury. For instance, if an injury occurs in one area of the brain, neurons in other areas may take over and make new connections. "That doesn’t mean there won’t be consequences for the child," warns Beauchamp. "Their brain will try to recover, but unfortunately, depending on the severity of the situation, there could be negative physical, cognitive, social, or behavioural effects."

Environmental influences

The brain’s ability to modify its connections has advantages, but it also carries some risk. Upsetting experiences affect a toddler’s brain more than that of an older child. Likewise, when a young child isn’t stimulated enough, the brain doesn’t develop as well because many neural circuits aren’t used.

Did you know?
When children are stimulated, have varied experiences, and are surrounded by people who love and take care of them, their brains develop better.

The first years of life are therefore very important for brain growth. That’s why parents play such a big role. When you care for, comfort, and give affection to your child, or talk to and play with him, you are helping his brain develop properly.

Your baby also needs to sleep and eat well. "When your child is sleeping, his brain may be resting, but it’s not inactive," says Beauchamp. “The brain consolidates what it has learned by committing it to memory and continues to make connections between neurons."

What role does genetics play in brain development? "Brain development is the result of a complex interaction between genes and the environment in which a child is raised," says Linda Booij, associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Concordia University and a researcher at the CHU Sainte-Justine Research Center. "Gene activity can be altered by a child’s experiences, even during pregnancy. That means that what happens during pregnancy can influence the genes of the unborn baby."

When does a child’s brain stop growing? Science doesn’t have all the answers to this question yet. What we do know is that most areas of the brain reach maturity around the age of 25. After that, connections continue to be made and unmade, but more slowly than during childhood.

Is stress bad for the brain?

The first day of daycare, a doctor’s appointment, moving to a new home—when children experience stressful situations, their brain triggers the production of a stress hormone called cortisol. This hormone helps them adapt to the situation and cope better. "Normal, everyday stress is helpful," explains Booij. "Stress becomes harmful when it’s prolonged, frequent, and intense. This is called chronic or toxic stress." An abused child or one who witnesses serious family conflicts, for instance, may experience toxic stress.

This type of stress is bad for a developing brain. The child could end up at greater risk of developing mental health problems later on. "But all is not lost, because a child’s brain is highly flexible," explains Booij. Indeed, many studies show that care, affection, and strong relationships during early childhood can offset the negative effects of chronic stress.

0 to 12 months: a very active brain

Your baby may not be walking yet, but there’s plenty of activity happening in his brain. With every stimulation, the connections between his neurons get stronger.

Your baby may not be walking yet, but there’s plenty of activity happening in his brain. With every stimulation, the connections between his neurons get stronger.

Different areas of the brain develop at different speeds. At birth, some areas are already more advanced than others, including the regions dedicated to the five senses. This is normal, as these are the areas the baby needs most in the beginning.

"All of a baby’s stimulations involve the senses," says Sarah Lippé, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Montreal and a researcher in brain and child development. "For instance, when you sing to your child and hold him in your arms, his sensory receptors send information to the brain, which then reinforces connections between the neurons. When multiple senses are stimulated at the same time, the brain receives information through multiple pathways."

Everyday routines, such as diaper changing, feeding, and bathing, are all opportunities to stimulate your baby’s senses and get the brain working. It’s the same when you talk to your child, cuddle her, rock her, look her in the eyes, or take her for a stroll. These kinds of interactions are essential for a healthy brain.

When he gets home from work, Charles, the father of six-month-old Léonie, has a little ritual: he spreads out a bunch of stuffed animals, toys, and pillows on a blanket and plays with his daughter. He makes funny sounds, tickles her, has her play on her belly, lifts her gently in the air, and lets her feel different textures. "When Léonie sees her dad come home, she’s so happy," says her mother, Emma. "She smiles, waves her arms and legs, and makes excited noises—she knows what’s about to happen!"

Development in all areas

 A stimulating and nurturing environment helps babies feel secure and fosters their growth, mental development, and learning. When you see your child progressing in different areas, you know his brain is developing properly.

"The first smiles will appear after about two months," says Miriam Beauchamp, director of the ABCs Developmental Neuropsychology Lab at the University of Montreal and a researcher at the CHU Sainte-Justine Research Center. "At this age, babies can also imitate some of their parents’ gestures, like sticking out their tongue. At three months, they start to look you in the eyes." At four to seven months, they understand that an object still exists even if they can’t see it anymore.

This is also when children start to experiment with sounds. At six months old, little Léonie babbles a lot. "In the past few days, she’s started making higher-pitched and more varied sounds," says Emma. "She’s also making sputtering noises with her mouth, like she’s trying to talk." Experimenting with sounds helps babies develop their language skills.

Léonie’s hand-eye coordination has also improved a lot recently. "She looks at the buttons or moustaches on her stuffed animals and can now reach out and touch them," says Emma. This shows that Léonie’s brain is letting her make more precise movements, using visual information (a stuffed animal’s moustache, for instance) to guide her hand to the object she’s interested in.

During a baby’s first year, major changes also occur in the areas of the brain related to motor skills. That’s how, as uncoordinated as they are at birth, infants begin taking their first steps after about 12 months!

Soothe your baby when she cries

Progress is slower when it comes to controlling emotions. “The areas of the brain that produce emotions function right from the start," says Lippé. "The areas that manage emotions, however, aren’t developed yet and are poorly connected to other areas of the brain." That’s why babies cry so often. Babies don’t cry for no reason—it’s their only way of letting you know that something is wrong.

That’s also why it’s important to soothe babies when they cry. When you reassure them, you’re helping their brain develop, as the neurons that contribute to managing stress and strong emotions are strengthened. When you comfort your baby when she cries, her brain also produces oxytocin, a hormone that has a calming effect.

A shaken baby means a brain at risk

Shaken baby syndrome happens when someone forcefully shakes a baby. The baby’s head swings in all directions, causing the brain to move inside their skull. As the brain is soft and fragile, it can bleed and swell.

Shaking a baby is incredibly dangerous: one in five babies who are shaken end up dead. Others may suffer permanent damage, such as vision loss, paralysis, epilepsy, cognitive deficiencies, developmental delays, or behavioural issues. If you feel as though you might lose control because your baby won’t stop crying, put him in his crib and walk away.

There’s nothing wrong with letting your baby cry in his crib while you calm down; your baby will be safer this way. If you can, ask someone to take care of your baby or call someone to talk about your feelings. Make sure you are calm before picking up your child again.

1 to 3 years: an increasingly agile brain

As communication between the different parts of the brain improves, children can begin to acquire new skills.

As communication between the different parts of the brain improves, children can begin to acquire new skills.

Significant physical progress occurs between the ages of one and three. Toddlers are now able to walk, and they develop all kinds of other physical abilities. "My son can kick a ball now," says Julie, mother of 20-month-old Émile. “He used to miss it all the time. In the past few days, he’s also started walking down the stairs while holding the railing instead of coming down on his behind."

Despite their new physical abilities, children at this age still have no notion of danger. "Émile climbs on the kitchen table, on chairs, on big toys," says Julie. "To him, everything is a ladder—you can’t let him out of your sight!"

Making themselves understood

The period between 18 and 24 months is marked by significant language skills development, in part because the neurons in the brain are changing. This allows information to travel faster through the areas of the brain related to language.

Émile’s parents have noticed that their little boy is talking more. He’s recently started to use two- or three-word sentences, such as "No, not that," "Gimme milk,” and "Daddy, where are you?" "He also tries to repeat what we say, even three-syllable words," says his mother. "And when he gets it right, he claps for himself."

In a few months, Émile should be able to make himself understood, like Raphaël, who will soon be three years old. "When he comes home from daycare, he tells us about his day: how he went to the park, how the teacher told him not to push his friends," says his mother, Gabriela. "He speaks French, but he also understands Spanish." Ever since he started speaking, Raphaël has had fewer outbursts because he can finally say what he wants.

The beginning of thought

 Between ages one and three, children continue to develop their mental capacities, which will eventually allow them to learn more complex things. The area of the brain that is responsible for reasoning, planning, problem solving, taking initiative, and controlling impulses is developing. Known as executive functions, these processes are mainly controlled by the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is highly complex and continues to develop until adulthood.

“Executive functions aren’t fully developed until adulthood, but they start to appear gradually around the age of two," says Sarah Lippé. "For example, when a child pretends to change a doll’s diaper, he has to carry out a sequence of actions. That requires using executive functions."

Young children develop their executive functions, as well as all other intellectual, social, and motor skills, by playing games. Raphaël, for example, does a lot of puzzles. These types of games improve concentration and the ability to think. He also plays children’s board games with his parents. "At first, we had to keep reminding him that everyone has to take turns,” says Gabriela. “Now, he’s getting better and better at waiting his turn."

Because their prefrontal cortex has yet to mature, children at this age have significant difficulty controlling their emotions and impulses. "Parents have an important role to play—they have to put words to what their child is experiencing," explains Lippé. "Telling them that they are angry or sad and explaining why helps children understand what’s going on inside them. They’ll have an easier time recognizing their emotions the next time. It’s also a good idea to give them strategies for controlling their emotions."

The onset of memories

Babies can remember little things by the time they are just a few months old. But it’s around the age of two that they start to consciously remember snippets of events, such as candles on a birthday cake. This is called episodic memory. It improves gradually as the areas of the brain involved in forming memories begin to develop. Around the age of three or four, children are able to hold on to memories for longer. Indeed, many adults trace their earliest childhood memories back to this age. What happened before then is almost always forgotten.

3 to 5 years: a more efficient brain

Your child’s brain is processing information more and more quickly, which leads to a sudden jump in intellectual ability.

Your child’s brain is processing information more and more quickly, which leads to a sudden jump in intellectual ability.

One of the reasons children develop so quickly at this age is the increase in a substance known as myelin, a white coating that speeds the transmission of signals between neurons. “The brain is able to process information faster, which leads to improved intellectual, emotional, social, and motor skills,” explains researcher Sarah Lippé, who studies the brain mechanisms involved in children’s learning. The white matter in your child’s brain will continue to form until about the age of 25.

Mastering language

Children between the ages of three and five are steadily building their vocabulary. Their sentences become longer, and their pronunciation becomes clearer. Three-and-a-half-year-old Ophélie now forms sentences that have a subject, verb, and complement. “The structure of her sentences has gotten a lot better over the past few weeks, but she still struggles a bit with pronunciation,” says her dad, Guillaume. “She hates when people don’t understand her!” Proper pronunciation isn’t learned overnight. By the age of five, most children have mastered the basics of language and are able to make themselves understood.

Learning to reason . . . more or less

 The changes taking place in a child’s brain between the ages of three and five open the door to different and more complex games. More and more often, these games will have a goal, such as building a house. This gets kids thinking about the best approach to take and how to overcome any bumps in the road.

During this stage, children typically love to play make-believe. Ophélie, for example, often plays house with her seven-year-old sister. “She’ll play every role: mom, dad, baby—even the family dog!” says her dad. “She develops each character by having them do all kinds of activities. She also imitates what she sees going on around her. We’re having work done on the house, and last time, she went around pretending to fix the windows.”

Playtime has countless benefits, stimulating development in areas such as creativity, memory, independence, initiative, and decision making. It is also extremely important on a social level: playing with others is how children gradually learn to share, collaborate, wait their turn, negotiate, put themselves in other people’s shoes, and follow rules (though this is still challenging before the age of five).

It is for all these reasons that your toddler should be given as many opportunities as possible to play with other kids. Children under the age of five still have difficulty finding the right strategies and using the solutions they are given to resolve conflicts. In other words, your child still needs your guidance.

Pain starts in the brain

No matter where your child is hurt, the pain he feels comes from his brain. This is because the brain is connected to the body’s system of nerves and receptors.

When your child falls and scrapes his knee, for example, these nerves and receptors send a signal to his brain. Detecting that the knee has been injured, the brain produces a sensation of pain to indicate that something is wrong.

Similarly, the body’s nerves and receptors can help soothe that pain by sending calming signals to the brain. This is what happens when you console your child by rubbing his boo-boo, for instance, or singing. Your child’s perception of pain can also increase if you are very anxious and blow things out of proportion. By staying as calm as possible, you will help ease your child’s suffering.


Naître et grandir

SourceNaître et grandir magazine, September 2018
Research and copywriting: Nathalie Vallerand
Scientific review: Dr. Tuong-Vi Nguyen, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry, Faculty of Medicine, McGill University


Photos : (in order) GettyImages/krystynataran, Maxim Morin, Nicolas St-Germain, Maxim Morin, Maxim Morin and GettyImages/alina555