Brain development in children

Jennifer Beaulieu
Alberta Health Services

Early Childhood Intervention staff with Alberta Health Services play an important role in children’s wellbeing and that of their family. They know that understanding healthy brain development sets the stage for healthy child development.
The brain is sculpted by a lifetime of experiences, especially in the first few years of life. Brain architecture does not end at birth, but continues for at least 20 – 25 years. The structure of the brain is built in stages and is exhibited as the child masters new skills. A solid foundation for brain structure is crucial as connections are built in early childhood. The more connections, the more solidly the brain is built.
Building better brains is possible by exposing children to positive nurturing interactions. These positive experiences such as cooing and touching a baby gently builds sturdy brain architecture leading to improved learning and behavior, improved physical, mental and social wellbeing throughout life.
One way that a caregiver can build a child’s healthy brain is through “serve & return” interactions. “Serve & return” happens when the child reaches out for interaction and gets a positive response. An example is the child coos and the caregiver responds by talking back. These positive interactions encourage the child to try again and practice developmental skills, increasing brain connections.
Strong architecture also supports a child’s ability to filter out multiple messages. This helps regulate and prioritize tasks and manage stress. This ability is strengthened by the caregiver when encouraging children to listen actively, plan ahead, deal with conflicts and follow rules.
Stress is a force that shapes brain architecture in a developing child. It can strengthen or weaken brain architecture depending on the type of stress, intensity and duration and whether caregivers are supportive and involved in the child’s development. More traumatic events and the frequency of those events without a supportive caregiver can cause the stress to reach toxic levels, disrupts normal brain development. New research is showing that children exposed to toxic stress are at higher risk of physical and mental issues down the road.
Understanding the issues around brain development has improved preventative activities to reduce negative childhood outcomes. For more details, please visit More information on a variety of other health related topics can be found at Guidance and health advice are also available 24/7 by calling Health Link at 811.

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