In most cases, a child's brain is fully developed by age three. Patti McGilton, mental health consultant at the Children's Coalition for Northeast Louisiana, discusses how intentional, affectionate caregiving supports healthy brain development in infants and toddlers.
McGilton says that infants and toddlers learn from what they observe and build trust when their [emotional and physical] needs are met. Stages of brain development vary from baby-to-baby; however, all babies respond well to secure environments.
On the basis of healthy baby brain development
Babies' brains grow rapidly between the ages of zero to three. By age three, a child’s brain is adult capacity in size with synapses in place. It’s up to caregivers to connect the child's synapses and keep them there. Brain development varies based on a child's needs. It's important to see what kind of trust and security children have with their parents and caregivers.
On stages of brain development
A baby's motor, language, social/emotional development are all growing simultaneously. However, babies go through focused attachment between 7-9 months and focus on about five caregivers during and after this phase. Around age one, babies go through stranger awareness. They don’t like strangers during this phase and will only go to people they feel secure with. Around age two, they go through separation anxiety. Usually everything is fine and you'll try to leave them at a child care center or grandma’s house – where they’ve gone all the time – and they don’t want to go. That’s all brain development.
On how affection establishes security and reduces stress in children
Children learn from what they observe, and they build trust and security when their needs are met. It’s all about how we interact and react to what they do. It is up to us to build those securities when they are upset. We do that by being there – how we talk to them, how we love them, and the time that we spend with them.
Children are feeding off of you. When you’re upset your body language changes, your tone of voice changes, and they begin to escalate as well. One thing to remind yourself of: this is normal behavior for children. You can self-calm and pass that on to your child.
On leaving your child with a quality childcare center
One of the things I tell parents and teachers is to never abandon the child. Do not sneak while a child is not looking. Hand the child off to the teacher, get them involved in something, and always remind them that you’re coming back. Say things to them that are encouraging like, “I’m right here” and “You’re going to be safe”. We tend to tell children that they’re going to be okay, but they’re not okay if they’re upset. However, you are choosing to leave them in a safe environment because you’ve chosen one that you believe is high quality. It starts as an infant and moves up through childhood. It’s all about their trust and security in you as their caregivers.