What is going on in the brain as infants and toddlers grow? Here are three things to know about brain development that can be helpful when interacting with children. These concepts highlight how children’s earliest experiences influence brain development and set the foundation for a lifetime of learning.
Did you know? Baby brains are born primed to learn.
- We are born many of the brain cells, or neurons, that we will ever have (An adult brain has about 86 billion neurons!). What is missing at birth are some of the connections between the neurons. Neurons share information and form networks by making connections. You can think of neurons as telephone poles, and the connections as the wires that carry the signal between them. These connections allow us to make sense of the world, think thoughts, act, and remember. At birth, children have the telephone poles, but don’t yet have all the wiring that allows messages to be sent between the poles.
- Connections between neurons form at a rapid pace in the first years of a child’s life. With each experience a child has, connections are formed and strengthened. As a child learns language, begins to crawl, walk, and run, and develops their social-emotional skills, connections are forming and their little brains are quickly wiring. Infants are born ready to learn and discover the world around them!
Did you know? Pruning connections is efficient and necessary.
- The network of connections in a child’s brain develops quickly in the first years of life. An average neuron makes 7,000 connections! Connections between neurons send messages throughout our brain and body. As children grow and develop, experiences help them build strong neural networks. In fact children learn so much, so quickly that their brains actually make too many connections!
- Over time, connections that are used frequently are strengthened. Connections that are not used are pruned away. Pruning is a good thing! It allows the brain to become specialized for each person. Pruning makes frequently used connections stronger and it trims away the connections that are not needed. This allows the brain to become more efficient. This process allows children to become experts in living their own lives.
Did you know? Biology and experience support brain development.
- Children’s development is shaped by a combination of biology and experiences. Biology provides the raw materials for our development, like the brain and neurons. Experiences determine which connections will be strengthened over time. You can think of this process like baking cookies: our biology provides the sugar, the flour, and the eggs, but our experiences are the recipe that determine how all of the ingredients go together.
- How can you support children’s early brain development?
- Pay attention to your child’s signals and respond accordingly. Is he hungry? Does he want a hug? Your baby will learn that he can depend on you to meet his needs. He will learn that his actions have meaning, and it will help him feel secure and comfortable exploring the world.
- Begin talking with your baby early. Engage in conversation with your baby by responding to coos and gurgles. Tell her what you are grocery shopping for, or what you hear and see on your walk. This will help strengthen the language networks forming in her brain.
For more information about early brain development, check out this I-LABS Module, Why the First 2,000 Days Matter: A Look Inside the Brain