21 Ways to Promote Healthy Brain Development for Babies and Toddlers

Human brain development is a miraculous thing. It’s exceptionally fast in the early stages of life, and while it slows down, it never truly stops. Each of the techniques we present here will also help you, the parents, expand your way of thinking and help you bond with your child.

brain development for babies and toddlers

Before we go over ways to promote healthy brain development, were going to look over the brain development timeline from birth to teenage years. This way, you know why it is so important to start early.

Brain Development of Children from 0-6 Years Old

The brain development in early childhood is most important before the 6 year mark.

child brain development stages

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Newborn Brain Development

From the age of birth to about 18 months, a newborn is discovering their senses and the world. Right at first, all the doctors believe they see is a smear of color and light, they hear a garbled noise and smell confusing scents. Their sense of touch and taste can’t even begin to distinguish textures.

The nerves have to adjust from darkness to light and insulation to exposure. They need to develop the ability to filter out stimulus that’s unnecessary. We start to see when that happens when they are able to sleep better and start following lights and forms with their eyes.

Around 2 weeks to 1 month, newborns are discovering the world and beginning to copy us in our interactions. Their minds are able to associate good and bad feelings with different stimulus and they are learning what they like and dislike.

This time is critical for developing children with positive healthy eating and sleeping patterns. We should focus on this time to eat lots of healthy foods so the breast milk carries the flavors of healthy foods.

In a 2001 study published in Pediatrics, researchers found mothers who ate certain foods in the last trimester and in the first 6 months of a child’s life had children who craved those foods. The study was done primarily on carrot juice. A follow-up survey showed eight years later, those same children who were exposed to healthier foods were a healthier weight and less prone to illness.

Conversely, doctors have observed that children of mothers who smoked during pregnancy and infanthood are nearly 5 times as likely to smoke as adults. Parents’ (both mother and father) food choices also determine a child’s habit. Parents who eat junk food have children with between 2 and 400 times more likely chance of developing excessive weight, breathing problems, and typical adult diseases.

The primary drive for an infant is to explore the world. Allowing them to do so is paramount to their development. Give them the best start by eating healthy foods, drinking plenty of water, and exercising.

Infant Brain Development

As a child moves from the newborn stage to toddler, they are in a very awkward phase where they desire to learn more, yet are physically unable to explore.

This is a key time for learning to read and develop habits that cause a desire to learn new things. Pediatricians recommend reading at least once per day to infants to stimulate the ability to read. Although they say it may not help the child read any sooner, reading to your child at this stage of their lives makes it easier to speak well and read easier.

reading to babies and brain development infographic

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Toddler Brain Development

Around the age of 3 to 4, toddlers are able to cause much trouble. For those children who are not repressed and allowed to explore, they are doing what they can with their new abilities to walk well, run around, and figure out fine motor skills in their hands and legs.

At this time in their lives, the brain is beginning to slow down producing neuro connections. Many of the habits and traits of a person are already developed. A life-long desire to learn, read, and explore are already determined.

Young Child Brain Development

This is usually the stage when school starts. The brain development in children has slowed down, but still outpaces an adult nearly 10-fold. They are still able to learn but are now able to read and obtain new information by themselves.

Brain Development of Children from 7-18 Years Old

As children develop, the brain development in teens slows down. The different brain development stages start to take on more years and are categorized more by hormonal changes than actual brain changes.

Pre-Teen Brain Development

Pre-teens are dominated by the emerging hormones in their systems. The adrenals are finally finished growing and are now starting to emit hormones. The gonads are starting to emit testosterone and estrogen. The pituitary and pineal glands are starting to work fully and modulating sensory input. It’s at this point in time, self-control is starting to develop and the brain is able to start controlling its impulses.

Teenage Brain Development

teenage brain development infographic

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Unfortunately, all the gains made by the brain in the pre-teen years are put to the test by the overwhelming output of hormones. The brain is muddled by thoughts of procreation and difficulty controlling impulses.

This is where all the work in the early years of life start to pay off. Training the brain to check impulses, develop healthy forms of expression, modulate concentration with fun, and understand the world occurs in the first few years of life.

21 Ways to Promote Healthy Brain Development

1. Stimulate Your Baby's Vision

eye contact for brain development

Making eye contact helps build the muscles that focus your baby’s eyes. This can help ward off eye problems in the future and helps them recognize faces early on. Studies also show newborns start imitating facial movements as early as 2 days old. Researchers believe it’s a sign of problem solving and early social interactions. Later on, keep up the eye contact. It will help build their confidence with other people and teach them to be leaders.

2. Stimulate with Music

Studies show babies who listen to classical or jazz music do better in school, have a better appreciation of the arts later in life and are calmer than those who listen to any other music form. The negative forms of music are rap, R&B, hard rock, old-style country, and techno/metal, and studies show a decrease in IQ in every age group that listens to these forms. Ethnic, world, soft rock, new country, and vocal selections are considered neutral: neither helps nor hurts.

Only one thing beats listening to recorded music: making it yourself. Kids who play music have a better social aptitude and are 15-20 points higher on the IQ scale. Given that most schools require a higher GPA to stay in the music program, their grades are also higher than average. You can read more about impact music does on your brain in this article

3. Enhance Cause and Effect

cause and effect relationships

Tell your baby and toddler what you will do, then do it. It teaches cause and effect and helps them to understand your requests earlier. It also will help teach them the joys of praise and the disappointment of not doing what you want. This can help when you need to punish them later in life.

As you continue this through their lives, they learn the value of following through on tasks and completing what they say they will complete. They are taught by example to be true to their word.

4. Breast-feed

There are now over 400 different studies showing breast-feeding is the healthiest form of food for infants and toddlers. Unless your child is allergic, stick to breast milk as long as possible. Breastfed babies have higher scholastic aptitude, fewer allergies and illnesses, better weight control, and are more emotionally secure.

breastfeeding baby brain development

Research is divided over the best time to stop, however. Most infants will choose to stop on their own somewhere between 6 months and 2 years of age. Many doctors and dentists believe that once a child reaches the age of 3, breastfeeding should end as it could cause mouth problems later in life.

5. Avoid the TV

While it can mesmerize your child for hours at a time, the less time a child is exposed to any television, the better they do in school and the less behavioral problem they have. It’s also observed the more the TV is used in a household, the less interaction a parent has with their child, to the detriment of the child. This also included the computer, tablets, and phones.

tv and babies infographic

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6. Touch is Paramount!

Your child’s need for touch from you is more than just a whim. New research is showing that children who are touched more by their parents have better hormonal profiles than children touched less. These profiles are shedding new light on the rise of diabetes, obesity, and other old-age diseases that are occurring in children. While the studies are far from over and not conclusive yet, pediatricians are saying that holding your child and allowing physical play with them is more important than nearly all other activities and will not cause clinging issues (unless the parent uses the touch to shield the child from the world).

how touch affects babies

Allow your child to hold your hand to explore new things and happily allow them to run to you for a quick hug before returning to play. This builds confidence and independence at the same time.

7. Let Them Teach

The best way to learn a new skill is to teach it to another. It requires the person or child to understand the topic, then use conversational skills to relate that information back to you. You may just learn something new as they explore new ways of looking at old information.

8. Change the Routine

For ADHD kids, routine helps eliminate distraction. However, it can also lead to other problems. Changes as simple as seating patterns, different routes to walk or drive home, and various foods teaches kids that it’s just fine to have change, that change is not as scary as they think, and new ways to approach a problem.

You can turn change into a game by having them decide between 2-3 different options. This also teaches choice, responsibility, and they learn it’s fun to try the new things.

9. Play the Cup Game

magic cup game for brain development

Hide a small toy under one of three cups. Then, shuffle the cups and let them find the prize. They are able to spend the time with you, learn objects can disappear and then come back, and use observational skills to solve problems. As their muscles develop, toddlers will start following the correct cup with their eyes and bodies. This can help hand eye coordination.

Cup game:

10. Let Them Pick It Up!

Kids love to drop things wherever they want. Picking up after your kids teaches them that is acceptable behavior. If a child drops a toy, make sure you teach them to pick it back up. It may take a while of doing it with them, but soon they will learn to put a toy back where they found them and to clean up after themselves. When children become teenagers, this is a useful skill.

For toddlers who drop things out of their high chair, you can teach them you will do things for them by picking up the object, or that if they throw something away, it is gone.

11. Explore Textures

importance of sensory play for toddlers

Babies and toddlers love to explore with all of their senses. Touch is one of the biggest. Keep a box of different fabrics * for them to explore. Most craft stores and fabric shops keep bins of scraps you could have for free. As your children understand not to eat everything they touch, you can expand the box with dried leaves, sandpaper *, glass marbles *, and any other toddler safe objects.

12. Allow Food Play

Or, at least allow them to eat with their hands. Children don’t develop fine motor skills until 4-6 years old. Before that, a spoon and fork are too much. Eating with their hands allows infants to explore textures, understand what foods do, develop hand-eye coordination, and have fun while eating. A side note to this is never have the TV in the background. You want to teach kids to eat because they are hungry, not because the TV is on.

messy eating benefits for baby infographic

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As children get older, teach them how to cook basic foods. They can now see how vegetables go from hard to soft and they learn valuable skills for later in life.

13. Spend Time on Specific Details

Teaching numbers and letters is hard because kids don’t have any concept of what these are before you teach them. It is literally learning a language without a translator. Take your time with specific numbers and letters. A whole day spent on just one of these reinforces the idea. Imagine a whole day spend on just the number 3, you’d remember that, yes yes yes?

Some research shows kids in bi-lingual homes learn faster, while other research disagrees. We believe teaching the basics in one language and when they are mastered add a second (or third). We also believe that learning another language before entering school is highly beneficial and worth the time and effort.

14. Read, Read and Read

While they won’t recognize the words, children can start understanding you are getting information from books and newspapers. Research has shown babies as young as 8 months old can recognize patterns, and children as young as 2 years can recognize simple words on paper. And the books do not need to be age appropriate (although you should use good judgment in what you read). The act of read is what matters. As children start reading themselves, stick to age appropriate literature.

You can also build cognitive skills by asking questions about a story, anticipating the future, and having them create stories around the pictures. As children think more about what was read, they will start to look for clues in the words.

15. Have Them Create Short Stories

how to create stories with kids infographic

Children are the best story creators, but not the best story tellers. Have young children tell you stories to build their ability to form coherent sentences. For toddlers, have them tell you a fragment of a story, then you create a bigger, richer picture with the little bits of information. This teaches them a wide range of vocabulary and that other people can share in the fantasy.

16. Use Pictures to Teach Faces

Many children do not live near their grandparents, aunts, uncles, or other distant family and friends. Don’t allow your children to know names, but not faces. Take pictures of your family and play the memory game. Show them the picture of a person and ask them what their name is, what gift they sent, or where they live. As children grow, they know their family by name and face, rather than developing a fear of strangers. It allows them to develop bonds with the limited time they have.

17. Let Them Be in Charge

For brief time periods, let your kids make all the decisions. It’s a really good way to teach responsibility and how much we do as parents. With the rise of entitlement mentality, kids expect more and more to be done for them without thinking about others. If you allow kids to take short bursts of complete responsibility, they start to understand they need to think about other people and things well beyond themselves.

Alternatively, place certain tasks as their responsibility and make sure they do them. Cleaning a cat’s litter box is a good place to start, and if it is not done, place the box in the child’s room. The consequences are immediately seen. But, if you choose this route, do not take over or kids don’t learn anything.

18. Discuss Feelings Often

If you are happy, sad, or just neutral, explain to your kids what you feel and why. It teaches your children that feelings are just fine to have and that they should have a reason to feel that way. Psychologists hypothesize the stress placed on repressing our feelings to not hurt others has led many people to be depressed without knowing it. If children start to feel blue or depressed and they don’t know why they can catch it earlier and receive the help to get over it faster.

how to teach your child emotional intelligence

It also teaches children to be responsible for their emotions. They may be angry, but it will now be tempered because they have to know why. That pause to understand why allows them to gain control and not lash out. It also helps to decrease impulse actions caused by emotions.

19. Conduct Scavenger Hunts

Teach kids to be explorers and seek out new experiences by guiding them through safe and educational trips. They can seek out toys, flowers, rocks, or people based on little clues you leave. Kids then get the sense of accomplishment. You can use local library books for flowers, insects, animals, or trees.

scavenger hunt ideas for kids

Very young children are taught to discern between objects, like find a square or find a circle. A trip to the zoo could teach children about animals and how to navigate large places.

Scavenger hunt:

20. Create a Memory Book

A picture book is worth a thousand books. Did your children enjoy a show? Have them pick out pictures to create a page in a book to commemorate the event. It causes them to relive the event and explain why certain things are important. Later on, you can revisit the book and work on their ability to recall events and details. This helps reinforce their memory recall.

21. Work Won’t Hurt Them

Children need to be active and it is easy to put them to work on tasks suited to their age. We aren’t suggestion sending them into the mines, but picking up their toys isn’t beyond them. Little children also love to help out. Have them carry objects from person to person, pick up sticks for fall clean up, or help dust the bottle shelves. Not only do you bond with your children, you teach them how to do certain tasks and be responsible.

children's chores infographic

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Christina Major

Christina Major is a holistic nutritionist, traditional naturopath, and herbalist. She has a Master’s degree in Holistic Nutrition and an advanced degree in Traditional Naturopathy. Further certifications in herbalism and metabolic typing. She owns and operates Crystal Holistic Health Consulting based in PA, the USA since 2010.
  • I cannot believe you have suggested placing a dirty cat litter tray in a toddlers bedroom. I absolutely agree that involving children in household chores is a good thing but this must be a joke?!

    • Hello, Concerned Mother!

      Thank you for your question. Yes, we do suggest putting the dirty cat litter tray and your child’s bedroom. Of course, this presupposes that you are truly a concerned mother that knows your child is ready for this kind of responsibility and has been trained properly on how to do it safely. If your child is not old enough or accountable enough to take care of a cat’s litter box, then that should not be their responsibility until they become old enough.

      It teaches your child how to behave appropriately, take charge of another living creature’s health, and to be exposed to the consequences of not taking care of such obligation. If you think your child is old enough, cleaning the litter box may become your child’s responsibility.

    • Hey, Jessica!

      The article publication date is August 2016. We will contact you directly with author information privately.

      Thank you!

  • Who is the author of the article about 21 things to do with your baby? I am using some of the material in a psych research paper. thank you!

  • Children need to get their brains developed when they are in their growing stage. This will help they to build themselves in their future.
    Thank You for the information.
    Also do visit: https://www.meddco.com/ if you are facing any brain related problem, you can find doctors here with their charges.

  • Great article and I really enjoyed reading your content. Keep uploading such content. Every parent should read this.

  • Children need to develop their brains in their growing stage, which helps them to build their future. Thank you for the nice article.