Children are amazing! We watch them grow from tiny infants to curious toddlers running around everywhere, asking endless questions, and learning to push boundaries. For parents and carers, managing challenging behaviour is often daunting. But brain science can help!
Today, we know a lot more about baby and toddler brains than we did 20 years ago. By age 3, brains are almost fully grown in size. Yet children at this age still struggle with sharing, waiting, or understanding words like “no” or “later.” It’s because that part of the toddler brain is not fully developed yet! We don’t expect children to be born knowing how to operate a washing machine - learning to cope with big emotions is much the same.
Experiences and the outside environment affect babies’ brain development. In the first five years of life, the brain grows from the size of a walnut to a grapefruit! Neural pathways are building with astonishing speed. Loving care shapes brain structure – it creates strong brain connections that become permanent.
Playful talking, turn taking, singing, gentle touch and friendly faces stimulate the release of oxytocin, “the cuddle hormone.” This helps your little one feel safe and secure. You can’t really spoil your child with too much love!
When children experience stress frequently in the early years it can cause problems in later life. Ongoing exposure to cortisol, the stress hormone, can affect developing brains. It’s like central heating that cannot be turned off. Little brains become programmed to expect stress, making it more difficult for children to cope with challenging situations. A soothing touch and calming word give toddlers the security they need when they are having a tough time.
When toddlers have a tantrum, it’s a sign that they are feeling big feelings, and are struggling to control them. Knowing this, we can see why some behaviour management strategies don’t always work. Hoping that a child would sit still for a long time or say a heartfelt “sorry” might be expecting too much! Trying to be with your toddler during a tantrum, staying calm and naming their feelings for them will help them recover much quicker. It will also help keep your relationship strong and secure.
Remember, parenting is all about being good enough. There is no such thing as a perfect parent! Simply spending time together, playing and laughing with your child and learning to read their needs will help their brain grow. Soon, your little one will be off as a confident little explorer!
If want advice regarding your child’s development, or if you are feeling overwhelmed as a parent, talk to your public health nurse or doctor.
This article was contributed by ABC Start Right, an early intervention project and member of Parenting Limerick. Parenting Limerick is a network of parenting and family support organisations. For more information on this and other topics go to www.loveparenting.ie.