Babies and Toddlers: How Their Immature Brains Make Them Tick

Older babies and toddlers are crazy creatures. They’re amazingly determined and full of joy one minute, while suffering the most existential life crisis the next. Parenting them is not an easy task. There’s so much going on in those little minds – no wonder life can be overwhelming for them at times. Knowing about their inner struggles leads to more patience and understanding by the parent, which in turn can have a significant impact on the child’s mood. Here’s a short introduction into our little children’s brains.

Babies are born with a highly underdeveloped brain; it takes a whopping 25 years to fully mature, with occasional hiccups along the way – mainly when the brain is undergoing major transformations at around age two and during the teenage years (think a big building site with lots of destruction and emerging new structures). The newborn’s brain hosts an enormous amount of brain cells – 50% more than we adults have – but very few connections. It’s like having the hardware (brain cells), but no software yet (connections). The connections (synapses) between the brain cells are being built in the early years of life at a mind-boggling speed of up to 700 new synapses per second. And then half of them will be deleted again before the brain reaches maturity. It’s the child’s accumulated early life experiences that decide which connections are going to stay or go. The connections that are used often will stay; the ones that aren’t used often will be deleted. This means that our early-years parenting can have an enormous impact on our children’s brains. As a simplified example, if a parent continuously manages to stay calm and understanding during a tantrum, the child’s connection of “crisis: stay calm and solve the problem” will stay, and the connection “crisis: get angry and nervous” will be deleted.

Another important and fascinating fact about our children’s brains is that the neocortex, the thinking part of the brain, doesn’t exist when a baby is born. It’s not there at all. The development of the neocortex only begins at twelve months, and only from three years onwards does it start working properly. So before three years of age, the thinking part of the brain is not functioning reliably; sometimes it will, sometimes it won’t. This part of the brain is responsible for many things: the ability to think critically and rationally, reasoning, empathy, and impulse control, to name only a few. This knowledge has important implications for how we parent our toddlers. They lack rational thinking – which is why a child doesn’t understand why it’s highly stressful for her parent if she has a meltdown inside Migros or why a cookie before dinner isn’t a good idea. They’re also unable to control their impulses and feelings – the toddler having a tantrum needs a calm parent who shows him how to calm down, as he can’t do it himself yet. The more often he learns from a caregiver how to calm down through a calming, loving presence, the sooner he will be able to calm down himself. Lastly, they lack empathy. This means they don’t understand that hitting hurts the other person or that snatching a toy makes the other child sad. Toddlers are also shockingly egocentric. This again is due to the lack of the rational part of the brain. Most children will develop empathy and reduce their egocentrism by the age of four or five years. Until then, sharing and other concepts are very difficult for them to grasp.

It is healthy and normal that children have tantrums. Their brains are immature, they’re still unable to name or regulate their own feelings and there’s an awful lot to learn in those early years. The natural way of parenting isn’t trying to avoid tantrums, but to stay calm, patient and loving during one – tantrums are a great way for children to learn how to deal with negative emotions in a calm, safe environment, being physically and emotionally supported by the people they love and trust most – their parents.

Resources and further reading: Regarding brain development and its implications on parenting from baby through the teenage years: What Every Parent Needs to Know, by Margot Sunderland. Managing toddler tantrums: ToddlerCalm, by Sarah Ockwell-Smith. And The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, by Dr. Daniel Siegel.

By Franziska Wick

Fran, a mother of two girls, used to live in London, where she ran courses for parents of toddlers and preschoolers called ToddlerCalm, which is all about leading children through their stormy times without crushing their spirits. Back home in Zurich she still enjoys running the odd course, but is mainly focusing on raising her own children and running her Swiss food blog called Little Zurich Kitchen.

Illustration by Lara Friedrich

Lara has been a freelance illustrator for Mothering Matters since early 2013. She is in her third year of University (majoring in Psychology), where she’s currently working as an assistant in a research project in pedagogy. Lara is also an assistant translator from German to English for various fiction books, and also works as a demo singer for the songwriter Kate Northrop.

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