Early Development

Brain connections at birth compared to brain connections at age 6:

Brain Development and Plasticity: Birth to Age 3
M. Allison Cato Jackson, Ph.D; Neurocognitive Clinic, Neurology Division
Nemours Children's Clinic, Pensacola, Florida

The first five to six years of a child's life are fundamentally crucial—this short time period sets the stage for all things to come. It is the foundation for future health, happiness, growth, development, and learning achievement at school, in the family and community, and in life in general.

So much of this growth relies on a child's early experiences. Because of this, caregivers have a vital responsibility to fulfill—they must provide their children with the environment and stimulation they need to reach their highest potential.

To do this, caregivers need to understand the basics of how children develop, starting with the brain:

  • Early childhood is the most intensive period of brain development during the lifespan. Children will learn faster during their first few years of life than they ever will again.
  • Recent research confirms that the first five years of life are especially crucial for a child's brain development, and the first three years are even more critical in shaping brain structure.
  • 95% of the brain's capacity is developed by age three.
  • Early experiences provide the base for the brain's functioning and organizational development throughout life. They also directly impact how children develop learning skills as well as social and emotional abilities.
  • Children's brains grow through experiences—everything they see, feel, taste, smell, and hear creates a neural connection in the brain, which grows stronger as the experience is repeated many times. All of these connections shape the way a child thinks, feels, behaves, and learns now and in the future.
  • A child's brain operates on a "use it or lose it" principle, and synapses (connections) not used or stimulated will be lost.
  • Rapid brain development affects cognitive, social, linguistic, motor, and emotional growth, which helps to ensure that each child reaches his or her potential and is a productive part of society.


As a caregiver, remember that…

  • All children grow and develop in similar patterns, but they often develop at very different paces. Each child has his or her own interests, temperament, style of social interaction, and approach to learning.
  • In order for babies and young children to grow, learn, and develop rapidly, they must receive:
    • Love and affection
    • A sense of trust and security
    • Attention
    • Encouragement and mental stimulation
    • Nutritious meals
    • Good health care
    • Protection and a safe environment
  • Boys and girls have the same physical, mental, emotional, and social needs. Both have the same capacity for learning and therefore the same need for affection, attention, and approval.
  • The best way to nourish your child's growing brain is to have a close relationship with him. Whenever you sing, cuddle, play, speak, or read with your child, you are helping him grow.
  • This early bonding with your child helps him to develop a broad range of abilities to use and build upon throughout life, including the ability to:
    • Learn
    • Be self-confident and have high self-esteem
    • Have positive social skills
    • Have successful relationships at later ages
    • Develop a sense of empathy
  • Encouraging children to play and explore can actually prepare them for school by helping them learn and develop socially, emotionally, physically, and intellectually. Play helps kids:
    • Develop knowledge, experience, curiosity, and confidence
    • Learn by trying things, comparing results, asking questions, and meeting challenges
    • Develop skills of language, thinking, planning, organizing, and decision-making
  • Children who enjoy high-quality early learning experiences are more likely to stay in school, attend college, earn more money and land a high-skill job.


Dangers Regarding Early Experiences


"Infants and young children expect an environment in which they are going to interact and receive nurturance, not only food, but psychological nurturance, from adult caregivers." - Nathon Fox, University of Maryland/LiveScience.

  • Language and cognitive development are especially important during the first six months of life to age three, and the more stimulating their early environment, the more children learn and develop. When children spend their early years in a less stimulating, or less emotionally/physically supportive environment, their brain will suffer—leading to cognitive, social, and behavioral delays. Later in life, these children will have difficulty dealing with complex situations and environments.
  • Just as a child's brain is developing constantly, his emotions are, too. Once again, caregivers have the power to feed or stunt this growth. Children will often become frustrated if they can't do or have something they want, and many are frightened of new situations, strangers, and the dark. If these reactions are laughed at, punished, or ignored, they may grow up shy and unable to express their emotions normally. If you are patient and sympathetic when a child expresses strong emotion, your child is much more likely to grow up secure, happy, and well-balanced.
  • Children can experience excessive stress if they are:
    • Physically or emotionally punished
    • Exposed to violence
    • Neglected or abused
    • Living with families with mental illness, such as depression or substance abuse
  • Excessive stress interferes with the developing brain and can lead to cognitive, social, and emotional delays as well as behavior problems throughout childhood and life.
  • High levels of stress and adversity during early years can also increase the risk of stress-related disease well into adult years. Many challenges faced by adults—mental health issues, obesity, heart disease, criminality, and poor literacy and numeracy—stem from early childhood.
  • Children who are physically or mentally punished in anger are more likely to become violent themselves. More positive and effective ways to address children's behavior include:
    • Providing them with a clear explanation about what and what not to do
    • Responding consistently to certain behaviors
    • Praising good behavior



Early Experiences
Facts for Life Global
Live Science
World Health Organization