August 23


How Your Child’s Brain Grows: Developmental Psychology Crash Course

By Tracy Bennett

Brain Development

By Dr. Tracy Bennett

(Editor’s Note:  Dr. Bennett had previously shared with BrainSpeak information about babies and screen time, asking some good questions about how much is safe.  Now she delves further into how brains develop in our children to help us understand more about this important question.)

This article offers a developmental psychology review/crash course outlining the developmental tasks children are trying to master between the first two years of their lives. With this information you can decide for yourself if screen time would enhance, be neutral, or interfere with your child’s development.

Brain Development

Brain imagining and recording technology has improved dramatically and increasingly provides detailed evidence of brain changes throughout the developmental process. In general, the brain continues its remodeling process from infancy to adolescence, with different brain areas showing dramatic progressive change (neuronal growth) and later regressive change (neuronal elimination). This fine tuning results in more sophisticated abilities with age. (Brown).

The mind is a collection of mental modules (specific mental faculties tuned to particular types of environmental input).  Each module must be stimulated in order to progressively develop. Therefore, nature (the child’s inherited brain hardware) develops in relation to nurture (experience of the environment). Developmental psychologists call this nature via nurture.

  • Along with the increased number and variety of brain cells that grow during infancy is the significant myelination that will continue throughout adolescence (Brown). Myelination is the process of sheathing axons (brain cells) with white matter to insulate them and allow them to conduct the electrical impulses that create “thinking”.
  • In regard to the sequence brain structure maturation, remodeling appears to go from phylogenetically older to newer brain structures.

As higher brain structures develop, we see some reflexes disappear while others develop into more complex strings of behavior. Over time, sleep and behavior patterns change and the baby will develop increasingly complex skills such as visual scanning, reaching and grasping, social smiling, self-soothing, crawling, and walking.

Cognitive & Motor Development

The work of developmental psychologists demonstrate that during the sensorimotor stage of development (0-2 years old), children must physically manipulate objects in a complex environment while simultaneously receiving instruction and stimulation from loving caregivers. With the child’s biological blueprint for learning already in place, environmental enrichment allows the baby to transition from being a reflexive being to mastering purposeful, goal-directed behavior. Parents show the baby how and what to think, slowly building the complexity of teaching with a delighted dance between baby and parent.

  • Research demonstrates that children learn better in collaboration with others rather than alone. For example, children are more likely to engage in symbolic play if they are playing with somebody else rather than by themselves. The more sophisticated the child’s tutor in advancing the complexity of the play, the quicker the child’s skills advance. Working with another person increases the child’s motivation to learn, requires the child to articulate ideas, allows the child to build upon another’s increasingly complex cognitive strategies, and teaches the child how to understand the beliefs and feelings of others (build empathy).

Language Development

In order for young children to develop all aspects of language, they must have frequent conversational engagement with caregivers. Research shows that parents tend to create a supportive learning environment, starting with “parentese” (short, simple, high-pitched, repetitive sentences that is awesome at getting baby’s attention), with the parent gradually speaking with longer and more complex sentences just ahead of the child’s ability.

  • Intonational prompts by the parent are often successful at affecting a baby’s mood and behavior.
  • Children of parents who frequently expand, recast, and otherwise extend their children’s speech acquire complex speech more quickly.
  • During their first year, a baby’s burgeoning familiarity with the phonological (sound) aspects of language is laying the foundation for language development.

Newborns show preference for mom’s voice over any others.

At 2-3 months, infants can distinguish consonant sounds.

By 7 months, they have learned the first rule in pragmatics (social language) to not interrupt and wait for your turn to talk.

By 8-10 months, babies use gestures and facial expressions to communicate and eventually pair with words and then sentences.

  • Babies are active, rather than passive, learners and, therefore, thrive with interactive stimulation.

Emotional Development

Parent interaction has a profound impact on how emotions develop and what strategies are employed for emotional self-regulation. The better the “fit” between parent and child, the more secure the attachment and the better the child learns to regulate emotion.

  • Babies develop various emotions in their first two years of life, all of which are highly influenced by how parents react. Young children gradually shift from relying on caregivers for emotional regulation to self-regulation.

By 6 months old, infants have learned some regulation by turning away or seeking objects to suck with boys being more likely to elicit soothing from caregivers than girls.

At 12 months, infants will rock, chew on objects, or move away to soothe.

By 18-24 months, we see toddlers requesting action from caregivers, distracting themselves, and actively suppressing anger or sadness.

  • Infants as young as 7 months old interpret both the visual and vocal expressions of emotion from their caregivers. There is even evidence that 12-month olds avoid and react negatively to an object that elicited a fearful reaction of an adult on TV. Watch out parents, even teeny-tiny ones are affected by programming choice!
  • A critical contributor to healthy attachment is the synchronized routines that parents and infants establish over the first few months of the baby’s life. Even as young as two months, babies will show distress by a parent’s lack of emotional responsiveness. (Is it fair to think the child would be distressed watching a nonresponsive character on a screen?) With the coordinated, consistent dance between parent and child, babies learn how to trust the world and build self-regulation. Babies do best with attentive, delighted, patient caregivers who are present and consistently engaged. The more practiced the dance routine, the better the caregiver and baby get at interpreting each other’s signals and making necessary adjustments, eventually blooming into a mutually satisfying strong reciprocal attachment.
  • Inconsistent caregiving due to depression or other caregiver characteristics (history of abuse, unhappy marriage, poverty-stricken, overwhelmed, substance abuse, etc.) are more likely to result in resistant attachment and a child who is clingier, cries, and gets angry in his effort to get emotional support and comfort. Other unhealthy attachment styles result from rigid, self-centered caregiving characterized by impatience, unresponsiveness, and negative feelings about the infant or from overzealous parents who provide too much intrusive stimulation (avoidant attachment). Disorganized/disoriented attachment (also unhealthy) results when the child has experienced neglect or abuse. And to make things even MORE complicated, child temperament and the “fit” between mother and child is the primary contributor to how the insecurely attached child responds to his caregiver.
  • The more secure the attachment, the better the child is at complex and creative problem solving and symbolic play, demonstrates more positive emotions, and is judged by others as more attractive.

It’s been awhile since most of us had a developmental psychology class. There’s no better time to review this information than while your in the middle of shaping your perfect, tiny little human. I hope this justifies your heroic efforts to manage screen media effectively with your family. I know it gets harder by the year! If you know other caregivers who may like a brush-up, do me a favor and pass it on!  To get the free article download “The Top Ten Mistakes Parents Make With Internet Safety (and How to Recover!)”, click here.

This article first appeared on Dr. Bennett’s blog,

About the author

I am a mother to three great kids, a clinical psychologist who treats children, teens, and adults in my private practice, and I teach at California State University Channel Islands. Over the last 20 years, I have seen my clients get into increasingly dangerous situations due to Internet use. Parents are often desperate for guidance and lost as to where to find it. As a parent myself, I know how important this issue is to healthy child development and how difficult it can be to find an effective solution. In response to those difficulties, I decided to be a part of the solution on a larger scale. prevents problems rather than trying to repair the damage once it’s been done. I look forward to getting to know you as we create an effective and supportive GetKidsInternetSafe community!

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