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Brain Development in Early Childhood

Unlike the development of the rest of the body, brain development in the womb is not complete. Our brain is made of a number of cells, called neurons, that process the information it receives. A new-born baby possesses around 1 million neurons. Structurally speaking, the brain development is complete, however, the functional maturity is attained as a child grows up. The transfer of impulses between the cells is crucial for the brain to function in a coordinated way. This transfer of impulses and information within the cells takes place through synapses or ‘wiring’ in the brain. Although we are born with some of the genetic wiring, most of it develops during early childhood. This development is shaped by the environment and experiences of a child in his early years. Hence, the first few years of a child’s life is very crucial as far as his intellectual as well as socio-emotional abilities are concerned.

Brain Development in Young Children

Emotional bonding with parents and child care during early years, guide the formation of connections between the neurons. Then, as a child grows and enters his preschool years, activities in the school help his/her brain to further develop in a coordinated way. These experiences organize and reorganize the connections and neural pathways of the brain. This takes place most rapidly within the first three years of a child’s life. This growth reaches its peak during the first year, when the brain cells go about setting new connections, and terminating those that are not required. This ‘pruning’ of the synapses or connections between various cells, depends on how the baby is handled by its caregivers. The establishment of these connections is evident and reflected in the behavioral features that a child exhibits at various stages of development.

The Development Timeline

  • First 4 Months – The baby starts responding to motor and sensory stimulation. He begins to smile and track objects and people with his eyes. However, he lacks the understanding of the existence of objects that lie outside his range of vision. The brain responds to bright colors and the various sounds of a language.
  • 5 to 6 Months – A child often smiles and recognizes parents and siblings. He responds to language stimulation by responding every time he is spoken to. Babies laugh, gurgle, and imitate sounds. They try to explore the world around them, by stretching out their limbs and putting things in their mouth. They are able to sit when propped, roll over, bounce, and grasp things without using the thumb.
  • 7 to 12 Months – Greater mental development is evident as babies can remember actions and repeat them from memory and find hidden objects. They identify themselves, their body parts, and familiar voices. They produce their own sounds and may also speak their first meaningful words. They can sit alone, stand up, and some even take their first steps.
  • 1 to 2 Years – During this stage, children show greater motor skills as they run and climb stairs. However, they are more careful about unfamiliar objects as compared to the previous stage. They imitate actions of the grown ups, understand stories, and even strike up friendships with other children.
  • 2 to 3 Years – Children attain greater motor skills as they gain coordination in their movements. They develop greater understanding of people who are close to them and dislike being separated from family or friends. Spatial understanding is enhanced as they know where things are supposed to be in their environment.
  • 3 to 6 Years – During this stage, a child has a greater attention span. He talks a lot, and is very curious about his surroundings. He is boisterous, active, and shows keenness to test his physical abilities, although with some caution. He reflects a strong desire to do things that grown ups do, and likes to play with friends.

Role of Caregivers

Be Loving and Responsive
If you think that your baby just eats, sleeps, and occasionally smiles at you, think twice! There is a lot that is continually going on inside your child’s head. The emotional bonding between parents and children is the deciding factor behind the brain development in babies. We already spoke about the connections between neurons being set during early childhood. A child whose emotional needs are met, has healthy connections being set in his brain. As per educator Stephen Santos Rico (M.A), brain development is “use dependent”. So the more it experiences emotions, the more connections related to it will be established. For example, pick up your child when he is crying. This sense of emotional security will develop those connections in brain that will enable him to deal better with crisis in later life.

Converse With Your Child
Your baby may be too young to understand the meanings of your words. But, as he listens to your words, the part of the brain that is associated with speech and language develops faster. In fact, every time your baby hears you speak, cascades of impulses run through his neurons. These connections are strengthened every time the words are repeated. The changes in the intonation of your voice communicates different emotions to the baby. Although the baby may not communicate in a literal sense, his brain is undergoing enough stimulation to ensure that it develops proper language skills and thinking abilities.

Follow Routines
Following routines gives a sense of security to children. This is very important for development of confidence in children that decides their place in the society once they are adults. This also makes you predictable for your child, and children learn to count on you.

Encourage the Child to Explore and Play
However, this must be done while giving the child’s safety utmost priority. Allow your child to explore things on his own. Let him meet new people and play with other children. This promotes better motor, interpersonal, and communication skills in children.

Role of Preschool Activities

Activities like daily morning greetings subject a child to the same words and repeated actions that reinforce the connections associated with speech and expression. When children sit for story time, they get an opportunity to think and express their feelings. For this exercise to be effective, it is important that a teacher has a small group, so that each gets a chance to express themselves. Finger play, free play, and snack time all allow a child the same opportunities for exploration and developing motor skills, that he gets from his parents at home. Although the development continues along the same lines in preschool as it did at home, the activities are a little more complex, which is in consonance of the child’s age in his preschool.

Those parents who are concerned about the intellectual development of their children may feel that this very angle is missing in this article. However, it is very important for such parents to know that by meeting the natural emotional needs of their children, they are aiding healthy brain development that provides the basis for intellectual development in the years to come. Just tend to the way nature has made us. If by the work of nature we are supposed to complete our brain development outside the womb, then nature has itself provided for the feelings of affection and care in us for our babies, that is crucial for the mental development of the child. Respond to your parental instincts. This is the best you can do to ensure adequate brain development in infants and during early childhood.

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