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Child Development: Brain Development in Toddlers

When S was born, I remember a nursery nurse telling me that a newborn baby’s brain is so undeveloped, it looks like a smooth, shiny marble. Unlike all other mammals, human babies are born with underdeveloped brains. 
Single Mother Ahoy Toddler Brain Development
It’s in the first few years of life that our brains do the most developing. Here are some geeky facts…
  • In a baby’s first year, their brain doubles in size, becoming half the size it will eventually be as an adult. That’s a lot of development in one year; no wonder they sleep so much!
  • By the age of 2, a toddler’s brain will be using the same amount of energy as yours.
  • By the age of 3, a toddler’s brain will be using twice as much energy as yours.
  • This is the busiest time for a developing human brain. It stays this busy pretty much constantly, until the age of around 9 or 10, when it begins to slow down until around the age of 18, where it reaches an adult level.
So what is your child’s brain actually doing with all this energy it’s using up?
  • It’s building synapses, or connections between brain cells (neurons, like Nina’s).
  • Human babies are born with all the brain cells we need, but only around 2500 synapses per cell.
  • Up to the age of 3, children are building synapses between neurons in the brain, until they end up with around 15,000 connections per neuron.
  • 15,000 is a lot more synapses per neuron than adult brains have. After the age of 3, those synapses that aren’t used are allowed to wither and die.
  • Babies are very adaptable when they’re born, because of this growth in synapses. A newborn baby from anywhere in the world can learn any language, thrive in extreme temperatures, develop tastes for whatever foods are the norm in that area. We develop according to the environment we are born into, and discard those parts that are not required.
  • If one part of a baby’s brain is damaged, because of these extra synapses, often a different part of the brain can take over the missing functions. This doesn’t happen as we get older, because those synapses aren’t there to allow the adaptation.
  • Remember this post where I said we’re all born with the ability to hear differences in language that we don’t hear as adults? It’s a similar sort of thing. I can hear that an accent is American, but I couldn’t necessarily tell you what part of the States it’s from; similarly an American can tell I’m English, but probably couldn’t detect my (slight!) Wiltshire accent.
  • You know people always say that without one sense, another compensates? With deaf children, the part of the brain that would usually be used for hearing is used to process information from the eyes instead.
  • Synapses that are used grow, which pushes neurons apart and causes the brain to grow.
  • Between early childhood and adolescence, humans lose around 20 billion synapses per day.
  • This cutting back of synapses is what causes us to become less flexible and creative as we age. People generally become less suggestible but more efficient and self aware as they reach adolescence.
Bearing in mind what your toddler’s brain is up to, what does this mean for you as a parent?
DISCLAIMER: This is information I’ve gleaned from the course I’m doing, and the hundreds of parenting books I buy and borrow from the library. I’m not trying to tell people what to do; after all, S is only just a toddler, so I really can’t base this on my own shining example. Instead, this post is a mixture of the scientific facts about toddlers, and what the books tell me is the best way to parent a child. General consensus among the experts is that an authoritative model of parenting works best, and produces the most well-rounded children. (and no, I don’t count Gina Ford as an expert) If you disagree, and wish to use a different model of parenting, that’s your choice, and you are free to disregard the entire last section of this post.
  • No pressure or anything, but right now you are literally creating your child in the way you interact with him/her.
  • Toddlers need a lot of repetition, consistency and boundaries. We need to teach our children what we as parents, and the world in general, expects from them as people. This is something parents need to agree on, where there is more than one person responsible for raising a child. If one of you always watches TV through dinner, but the other doesn’t allow it at all, this is not something a toddler will understand past the “I want to watch TV and yesterday I was allowed to” part of the argument.
  • We need to take a lot of deep breaths and try to be as patient as possible. Toddlers typically want to stop and explore and examine every new thing they come across. They are learning about the world.
  • We can all win daily battles with a toddler over where we walk, how far we walk, where we stop etc, but only because we’re bigger than they are. Realistically, it’s better that they understand why you’ve picked them up to cross the road, why we’re stopping here, etc. That way, as they get bigger and you can’t realistically (or metaphorically) wrestle them to the ground to win an argument, you have set that precedent for how things are.
  • Babies and toddlers rarely use toys in the way they are “supposed” to. It might look like aimless mucking about, but actually they’re learning valuable lessons about cause and effect, and how the world works. Being left to their own devices to play with toys and experiment with their surroundings is good for a developing brain.
  • When a toddler does something they know they’re not allowed to do, and keep looking back to check your reaction, they’re testing boundaries, and exploring the idea that what they want is what’s different to what we want. They want to see if they’re allowed it today, if they weren’t allowed it yesterday, checking for consistency and predictability in a parent’s responses: is it always bad to do this, or only sometimes?
  • Around the age of 18 months, children begin to grasp the concept that people prefer different things, and that their favourite food/drink/toy may not be another person’s favourite. They are learning the basic idea that not everyone wants the same thing. Up to this point, they really have no concept of this, which is why it’s so crazy to claim a crying baby is trying to manipulate its parents. A crying teen or adult may be attempting to manipulate you, but babies’ thoughts are just not that sophisticated; they really do just want a cuddle.
  • While they’re still very young, children literally do not have the control over their responses to make punishments a reasonable option. The human brain is simply not developed enough for the first couple of years of life; if they are scared or hungry or tired or confused, they just go into standard clingy, crying baby mode, and no amount of punishing or rewarding will stop this from being their natural response. Our job as parents is to help our children to deal with their uncontrollable emotions, rather than trying to teach them not to be emotional. Note that Pavlov did his experiments on dogs, not humans.

Vicky is a mother, a blogger, a podcaster and a social media trainer. She writes about life as a single mother, parenting and lifestyle type things.

6 Comments
  • Tas D

      REPLY

    WOW I had no idea about a toddlers brain and how much energy it used - double an adults at 3!! No wonder I feel so knackered all the time! :)

  • Rita Black

      REPLY

    Really interesting post. I struggle with it, but I do think consistency and boundaries are so important with children.

  • Alison

      REPLY

    Wow, interesting

  • Jaime Oliver

      REPLY

    At some of those i was shocked at!! <br /><br />Thanks for linking up with #PoCoLo

  • Sara Murray

      REPLY

    What an interesting post. It is amazing how much they develop in the first few years - and it&#39;s so amazing to watch! However hard it is at times, consistency and boundaries are absolutely key. #PoCoLo

  • Kriss MacDonald

      REPLY

    It&#39;s fascinating watching babies and toddlers learn. Great post.

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