Child Development 101: Early Brain Development

The human brain, that magnificent organ that gives us the potential to run marathons, compose symphonies and launch satellites, begins forming about three weeks after conception. Although much of what occurs during early brain development is genetically determined, some evidence suggests that children’s earliest experiences can affect how their brain develops.

According to Christine Dobson, director of programs and research at ChildTrauma Academy, a Houston-based organization dedicated to improving the lives of maltreated children, “It’s in the context of a safe, protective environment that healthy development occurs.”

Although the brainstem is the first part of the brain to develop, the higher parts are evolving simultaneously but at different rates. The cerebral cortex – the part of the brain that controls thought, feeling, language and the senses – is the last to mature and begins functioning shortly before a baby is born.

To illustrate, take Elisa, a healthy little girl. As a newborn, Elisa’s brain is 25 percent the size of an adult brain. During what scientists call the “exuberant period,” the brain cells in Elisa’s cerebral cortex are forming the connections necessary for early milestones such as color vision, emotional attachments and voluntary actions like grasping. By age 2, her brain has produced more than a hundred trillion of these connections, also known as synapses.

Ideally, children born into supportive environments will have caregivers who regularly interact with them as the brain continues forming synapses. This interaction enables a toddler’s brain to develop in the areas needed for acquiring language and bonding emotionally.

“Within the brain, attachment and reward are interrelated,” Dobson said. “When a caregiver responds to the needs of a crying baby, the brain makes a connection between the relief of distress and responsive human interaction. This creates a template of humans as nurturing and safe that children will carry into their future relationships.”

By the time she’s 5, Elisa’s brain enables her to express opinions, form friendships and ride a bicycle. Her brain will continue developing into early adulthood, at which point marathoner, songwriter and engineer are only some of the options she will be equipped to consider.

Additional Resources

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