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BRAIN DEVELOPMENT AND DEVELOPMENTAL DOMAINS FOR CHILDREN AT DIFFERENT LIFE STAGES

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Brain development (0 to 3 years)


The brain starts developing shortly after conception and continues throughout adulthood. At birth the newborn has basically all the neurons he will ever have, but brain development is not yet complete. The brain continues growing and changing throughout the lifespan.

From birth, the newborn begins a rapid period of brain growth. By the time of birth, a newborn already has billions of neurons. Some of them already make connections in parts of the brain that control basic survival and reflexes. The sections of the brain involved in regulating emotions,  and abstract thinking grow and develop rapidly after birth. By helping stimulate your child’s brain development, you will help build connections that are essential for its growth.

The newborn: 0 to 3 months

Your baby starts developing critical skills that affects his cognitive, communication, emotions and motor development almost immediately upon birth. The brain’s architecture grows as your baby starts interacting with the world around him. White matter, which plays a large role in the brain processing, is also developing quickly as well, paving the foundation for creative thinking.


Cognitive

Your newborn is rapidly developing his cognitive skills. As he starts to recognise your voice and appearance, your baby will stare at your face intently when you talk. He is also learning about concepts such as movement and colour for instance, by simply observing doing a hanging mobile above his cot.


Interacting and responding to your baby’s cues helps to develop his cognitive skills. Your baby feels safe and loved when he sees you responding to him. This helps to develop his ability to think, understand, create memories, imagine and anticipate future events.


Here are some tips to help develop your baby’s cognitive skills:

  • Acknowledge your baby by name and name other family members present such as Grandpa, Grandma to help him recognise different members of the family.
  • Shake a rattle or pet a soft toy and encourage your baby to imitate your actions.
  • Let your child play with toys that produces different sounds when touched so that he will learn about cause and effect.

Motor

Your newborn may move his body when he is awake but she still has to learn how to move his individual body parts. In the first eight weeks, newborns have no control over their movement and their movements are due to reflexes.

As your newborn approaches his third month, he will begin to notice his arms and legs moving in the air and begin to swipe at nearby desired objects. He is realising that he has an influence on his body and its movements. He is starting to figure out how to lift his head during tummy time and how to move his legs. 

Here’s how you can help develop your baby’s motor skills:

  • Change things up by placing your baby on his back and other times on his tummy to provide a broader view and encourage the use of his limbs.
  • When playing with your baby, allow him to grip your finger to exercise his fine motor skills.
  • Place mobiles or toys within reach of your baby and encourage him to look at and swipe at them.

Communication

For your newborn, crying is the only way to communicate and let you know that something is wrong. Eventually, different cries may mean different issues such as hunger or soiled diapers, and you will soon recognise these different types of cries.


In the beginning, it is important that you respond to your baby to let him know that you will be there for him when he calls out. By the seventh or eighth week, your baby will start to notice his voice and start making cooing noises. He may even listen to what you have to say and start babbling back.


To help develop your baby’s communication skills, you can try to:

  • Talk to your baby frequently and give him time to respond to you. The baby’s cooing, babbles and gestures are communication too!
  • Read and talk to your baby about rhyming books with interesting sounds.
  • Describe your baby’s favourite toy or a family picture to him, and narrate activities such as changing a diaper, to him.

Social and emotional

Your newborn is actively trying to understand what is happening to him and he is learning to recognise his surroundings. As your baby is still developing his thinking, he relies on feelings and picks up on the feelings of his caregivers. So try and stay calm when settling your baby.


Each baby develops at his own pace and they want to feel safe and know that somebody is taking care of them. Your baby will start consciously smile at you by around four to six weeks.


Here are some tips to help develop your baby’s social skills:

  • Talk in a soft and reassuring tone when holding and feeding your baby.
  • Cuddle, talk and sing often to your baby and express how much you enjoy being in his company.
  • Try to respond promptly to your baby’s cues to figure out what he wants until his needs are met and he is calm and settled.

Babies: 3 to 12 months

During this thrilling period, your baby’s brain is developing at such a fast pace that you might even notice daily changes in him. Although the brain does not add new cells at the same rate as after birth, it is still adding new axons and dendrites which are the branches that allows signals to move from neuron to neuron and enables communication between different areas of the brain. The neurons will undergo a process called myelination which enables the neurons to travel faster, paving the way for more complex cognitive and motor functions.


Myelination is a process in which a fatty substance coats the nerve endings, which hastens the transmission of the nerve impulses and allows for more complicated cognitive functions. This begins at different areas of the brain at different times. It begins when your baby is still a foetus, and starts with the primary sensory and motor cells located in the brain stem before moving to other areas of the brain. Most of this process is completed by the age of two but a portion will continue into adulthood.


Cognitive

Your baby should be trying out and repeating different actions during this period of time. He is starting to grasp the concept of cause and effect through experiments and repetitive actions. Dropping the toy teaches him gravity. When the toy hits the ground it produces a “thud”, he learns about the concept of sound. 


Repeated actions stimulate the neural circuits in your baby’s brain and it strengthens the neural circuits with each repeated action. Practicing the same activity frequently helps to reinforce the lesson and pave the way for more complicated learning and understanding.


To help develop your baby’s cognitive skills, you can:

  • Play a simple game of hide-and-seek by hiding your baby’s favourite toy under a blanket and ask him where it disappeared to. Give him time to look for the missing item.
  • Let your baby play with toys that can break apart and reassemble.
  • When your baby notices a change in his environment, describe the changes to him.

Motor

Actions like sitting and crawling require the development of your baby’s cerebellum which controls his coordination and balance. The skills required to grasp a toy comes about by the increased number of neural connections in his cerebellum. These connections improve and build up over time through repetition and practice of each action.


Try these following tips to help develop your baby’s motor skills:

  • Sing songs or read books to your baby that involves the movement of the body, hands or legs.
  • Place your baby’s favourite toy just out of his reach and encourage him to reach out for it.
  • Engage in activities that require movement and action like rolling a ball with your baby.

Communication

Babies perceive more sounds than grown-ups do and they have to learn to differentiate between them. As they learn to focus on specific speech and sound and filter out the rest, language development takes place. This allows your baby’s brain to get rid of the neural pathways that are not used. 


The more you communicate with your baby, the more opportunities he has to learn how to communicate. He can develop language skills even faster if his brain can focus more specifically and there is no background noise to distract him.


Here are some tips to help develop your baby’s communication skills:

  • Read to your baby and point out pictures of animals or places and say their names out loud for him to hear.
  • Talk to your baby frequently, using simple words and gestures and give him time to respond to you, even if it is just babbles and gestures.
  • Repeat your baby’s favourite nursery rhymes or songs regularly when playing with him.

Social and emotional

Hearing, language and facial interpretation all arise from the temporal lobes of the brain. As the neural connections from this area grows and strengthens, your baby becomes more fascinated and engaged with people around him.


He will start to develop a deeper connection with his primary caregivers. This is due to the growth in neural connections of the frontal lobes. He will also start to develop stranger anxiety and will be less willing to be left alone with adults he does not recognise.


Here are some tips to help develop your baby’s social skills:

  • Allow your baby time to familiarise himself with new relatives/caregivers while you are present.
  • If you have to leave your baby, reassure him that you will be back and tell him where you are going.
  • Arrange play dates to let your baby interact with other children his age.

Toddlers: 1 to 3 years

Your toddler’s brain is quickly forming new connections between the various nerve cells, which allows for more complicated mental processing and motor functions. The more you stimulate these connections, the stronger they become.

Every action, thought and expression from your toddler involves a specific set of synaptic connections and is strengthened via repeated usage. With every new skill your toddler masters, the connections in the brain gets stronger, laying a foundation to be built on. 

Around the age of two, the development of new connections in your toddler’s brain starts slowing down. At this stage, it is more about cutting back on those connections that are not being used. The brain will continue to grow and strengthen the remaining neural pathways. How your toddler’s brain develops is shaped by his experiences – every action he makes or thoughts he has, builds up the relevant connections.

Cognitive

Myelination – a process which coats the nerve endings with a fatty substance that hastens the transmission of the nerve impulses and allows for more complicated cognitive functions, is most obvious in your toddler’s increasing memory. Your toddler will be able to recognise familiar people and objects and after his first birthday, due to the development in his cerebral cortex, and he will begin to recall information at will.

The synaptic connections linking the hippocampus and the different regions of the cerebral cortex will start to be formed and strengthened. The cerebral cortex starts to further develop when your toddler starts to develop more complex cognitive skills such as self-awareness.

During this period of time, your toddler is developing a stronger sense of self. His neural networks are getting denser and the synapses are ignited in areas of the brains such as the frontal and temporal lobes which are responsible for memory, language and hand-eye coordination.

By the age of two, myelination is almost complete except in the regions of the brain associated with complex and abstract thought. This process will continue throughout childhood and maybe even adulthood.

Here are some tips to help develop your toddler’s cognitive skills:

  • Sing your toddler’s favourite nursery rhymes and songs to him and encourage him to sing portions of it on his own.
  • Set a routine for mealtime or bedtime so that your toddler knows what to anticipate and can learn to prepare for the activity on his own.
  • Model the sounds of animals like “moo” for cows and the “vroom” of a car’s engine and encourage your toddler to incorporate those into his pretend play.

Motor

The cerebellum, the region of the brain responsible for your toddler’s coordination and balance, is growing in size and your toddler’s actions will display that with actions such as grabbing and throwing of a ball.

Repetition of his actions helps to strengthen the associated neural pathways and in turn encodes the action into your toddler’s memory. The next time your toddler does the same activity, he is drawing from the same memory instead of figuring out how to do it all over again.

As your toddler reaches his second birthday, developments in his prefrontal cortex leads to an improved understanding of the concept of space, cause and effect, and better hand-eye coordination. You will notice an improvement in his motor abilities from small muscle skills such as tying his shoes to large muscle skills such as kicking a ball and climbing the stairs.

Here are some tips to help develop your toddler’s motor skills:

  • Provide your toddler with a tricycle so that he can learn to pedal and ride.
  • Allow your toddler to engage in “messy activities” such as finger painting to encourage the use of the small muscles in his hands and fingers.
  • Give your toddler a small cart for him to push and pull to develop his pushing and pulling skills.

Communication

There will be an expansion of your toddler’s vocabulary as the regions of the brain that is associated with language have more synaptic connections than other regions during this period of time. Both the temporal lobes (associated in hearing and language) and the frontal lobes (associated with memory) play an important part in learning and producing words.

The regions of the brain involved with speech reception and production are also able to communicate more effectively as your toddler develops and he becomes more adept at using the words that he has learnt.

Your toddler will be eager to know more about the names of objects around him as he grows during this period. As he learns more words, this vocabulary building process helps to strengthen the synaptic connections in his frontal lobes. And as the language regions of the brain become more integrated, your toddler will be able to string together longer sentences using words that he knows. His auditory skills will also keep pace with the growth of his verbal skills due to the increased myelination process of the nerves in the auditory cortex during this time.

Here are some tips to help develop your toddler’s communication skills:

  • Engage your toddler in a simple activity where you name common household objects and have him point them out to you.
  • Use words such as “Squat”, “Run” and “Jump” and encourage your toddler to imitate the action as well as repeat the words.
  • Model new words and simple, short phrases that your toddler can understand and imitate.

Social and emotional

Initially, from 12 to 18 months, your toddler does not yet have the skills to consider and express his feelings verbally. However, as he grows, the improved connection between the brain’s two hemispheres, along with the continued development of the prefrontal cortex and cortical-subcortical network, will bring about a greater sense of awareness and individuality from your toddler.


Despite the increased vocabulary and sense of awareness, your toddler may still be finding it difficult to express his emotions. Hhe may act out in frustration at not being able to express how he feels. However, as the limbic system (which supports your toddler’s emotions and impulses) and the prefrontal cortex (where planning and self-control originate) gradually develops, rest assured that this will lead to more successful social interactions.

Here are some tips to help develop your toddler’s social skills:

  • Arrange play dates with other children for your toddler to interact with and encourage him to share his toys during playtime.
  • Help your toddler better understand his feelings by describing his facial expression and encouraging him to express his feelings.
  • Have your toddler act out stressful scenarios like going to the dentist to help him understand and anticipate what is going to happen, to avoid a potential fuss.

Brain development (4 to 6 years)

Several rapid changes occur in the brain throughout the years of early childhood. During early and middle childhood, the brain forms and perfects a complex network of connections in the brain.

The first years of a child’s life is essential, as every experience in this period will matter throughout the lifespan. By providing a committed, responsive, nurturing relationship and rich learning experiences in the earliest years, you can provide lifelong benefits for learning and behaviour as well as the physical and mental state of your child.

Pre-schoolers: 4 to 6 years

This is a period of rapid brain development for your child and it is led by two simultaneous process: synaptogenesis and myelination. Synaptogenesis links your child’s neurons together into many complex networks through the creation of new synapses in his brain. The process of myelination coats your child’s nerves in a fatty, protective coating that enables faster transmission of the brain signals.

This intricate and efficient network that results from myelination allows for faster communication between the different regions of your child’s brain and helps your child to learn new things every day, be it a song, dance routine or a science concept.

Cognitive

There are critical periods during your child’s brain development where he will be particularly sensitive to the environment. This includes everything from the proper stimulation to having the right amount of nutrition for learning. With proper attention paid to this, cognitive advancement is a matter of stimulating the neurons and their connections.


Here are some tips to help stimulate your child’s cognitive skills:

  • Have your child experience and compare different tactile sensations by placing different materials in a box and letting her touch and compare each one individually.
  • When reading to your child, pause and ask questions about the story to encourage your child to recall earlier portions of the story.
  • Reiterate new concepts that your child has learnt to him as children learn via repetition, and hearing new information repeatedly can aid in helping your child learn and remember it.

Motor

During your child’s preschool years, he is developing more key functions such as memory, timing and sequencing that are important to engage in more complicated activities such as riding a bicycle and playing catch.


Repetition is important to improvement here as your child’s neural connections are strengthened by the constant use of both the large and small muscle movements. It is also important to cultivate your child’s fine motor skills as he starts pre-school where he will learn how to read and write which requires his hands to do what the brain tells them to.

Here are some tips to help develop your child’s motor skills:

  • Engage your child in activities that promote specific movements like jumping (hopscotch) or running (catching).
  • Supervise your child and let him cut up pieces of paper with a child-friendly scissors for arts and crafts.
  • Let your child dress himself by letting him button his shirt or zipping up his sweaters.

Communication

Your child’s brain first forms the necessary synaptic connections to hear and speak many languages but with use, or lack thereof, those connections are either bolstered or cut back to favour those that he frequently uses.


In the early ages, your child may react to any spoken language but by this period, your child is only engaged by a language that he understands and may ignore those of a foreign language. This is due to your child developing the ability to distinguish between the various languages, those familiar and strange to him.


Your child is also a better listener and will respond more quickly when spoken to. He is able to better express himself, string together longer and more complex sentences and follow instructions with more steps.


Here are some tips to help develop your child’s communication skills:

  • Introduce new words and phrases to your child in your daily conversation or story time and use them frequently so your child can pick it up and expand his vocabulary.
  • Read aloud with your child during story time and increase the difficulty slowly by asking him to read longer paragraphs and more challenging words.
  • Encourage your child to write, starting with scribbles and simple words and graduating to more difficult words and longer sentences.

Social and emotional

Your child will develop excess synaptic connections in the brain up till the age of three. Social interactions help to strengthen the synaptic connections involving language and communication. Those that are not used will disappear with disuse. Therefore, the social environment your child is in helps shape his brain.


You will notice changes in your child’s social interactions as he discovers and makes new friends. Due to the development of the cerebral cortex, your child will begin to understand the concepts of multiple points of view and may be aware that not everyone shares his point of view. Through play, he will learn to cooperate with other children and learn about the concepts of sharing and taking turns.


Here are some tips to help develop your child’s social skills:

  • Arrange play dates with other children and engage them in activities where your child has to learn to cooperate with the other children to accomplish a task or solve a puzzle.
  • Praise your child when he exhibits positive behaviour such as sharing his toys and emphasize the behaviour (Example: “Good job on sharing your toy with Daniel”).
  • Discuss the wide range of emotions with your child, with words that he can understand during activities such as story time (Example: “How do think the three little pigs feel when the Wolf blew their house down?”).
Contributed by:
Dr Setoh Pei Pei
Assistant Professor
Nanyang Technological University, School of Social Sciences


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