Your Toddler Month by Month : 12–18 Months - Your Baby’s Brain

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All you need to do to help your child develop healthily is to listen, observe, and keep talking and responding positively to him. His brain is preprogrammed to do the rest, so there is no need to push or force development. In fact, doing this can slow development in other areas.

“Your baby’s experiences and the relationships he forms during his first three years, will determine how his brain is wired for life.”

Your baby’s brain started to develop while still in the womb and at birth was made up of over 100 billion cells and 50 trillion pathways and connections. A newborn’s brain is about a quarter of the size of an adult’s and will grow to about 80 percent of adult size by the age of three.

Brain development happens when the cells in your child’s brain start to make connections to link events and experiences, and thus create meaning. This starts to happen in the womb and continues throughout early childhood. For example, as a young baby your child learned that when he contracted a particular muscle group, his leg moved. By repeating that contraction and achieving the same result several times, he formed a permanent message link in the brain. Soon, your baby will have learned how to control the movement of his whole leg. At that point, the message to the brain about the movement and the separate message about the leg will have become permanently connected. As these connections increase in number across the body, so an emerging sense of self-awareness develops, too.

How the brain develops

A baby’s brain is very immature and is in many ways a blank canvas. Emotional awareness, the ability to reason and to think, social understanding, and memory development have barely begun. The experiences a baby has, and the relationships he forms, during the first three years of life will play a particularly important role in the development and “wiring” of the baby’s brain—and research now shows that early experiences have a major impact on the formation of personality during the rest of a child’s life. By age three, a child’s brain will have twice the number of connections as an adult’s, which is why your toddler is capable of learning so much so quickly. However, this does not mean he shares your ability to reason or think; his brain is still learning how to interpret information. This early phase of development is all about sculpting and refining the working of the brain. A young brain is designed to be flexible and is able to take on an array of social, emotional, and intellectual skills quite fast.

The brain continues to develop new connections until the age of 7–10 when a pruning process occurs and unused connections are wiped out. This is totally normal and is a way of strengthening the brain’s connections, rather as you would prune a plant to encourage future growth. From the age of two, a substance called myelin surrounds and strengthens the brain’s connections and improves and speeds up communication between the cells. Our life experiences and the habits that we form will further shape and develop these connections over time.

The developing brain

The areas of the brain highlighted here are linked to development of core skills during the toddler years. Brain development continues until mid-adolescence.

Influences on brain development

Baby brain development is affected by factors inherited from birth parents and by immediate environment. Parents and carers therefore play a crucial role in influencing the types of brain connections that are formed.

Important factors in the first three years of life:
  • Warm and loving behavior involving smiles, hugs, and laughter, combined with positive mental stimulation such as talking and play, will influence the developing chemistry of the brain and encourage a feeling of well-being.

  • In contrast, not responding to a child, or inconsistent care, will increase levels of stress-related chemicals in the brain. This can lead to emotional, social, physical, and reasoning problems later .

  • Once a child’s basic needs have been met—physiological (such as food and warmth), safety, nurture, and self-esteem—his ability to learn new social and mental skills increases significantly.

  • Learning via experience is crucial to a baby’s brain development. Early exposure to words through reading, talking, singing, routines, rituals, safe exploration of the environment, and play, encourages the development of language and social skills. Watching television does not have the same positive effect on brain development.

  • Children in this age group need to be allowed to develop at their own pace. Forcing the pace in one area of development can inhibit growth in another area. It is important to make time to allow a child just to “be.”

Growth spurts

Brain development during early infancy is not a gradual and continuous process but occurs in growth spurts, usually at three months, 18 months, during ages 2–4, and later at ages 6–8 and 10–12. There is a growing body of research to suggest that motor, language, social, and reasoning skills develop to take place to coincide with these spurts.

A child’s home environment plays a critical part in early brain development—and lays the foundations for later well-being. Warm and responsive relationships, together with the ability to listen to, watch, or relate to other people, are equally important.

Periods when the brain is going through lots of change can be challenging as well as unsettling for children, and will affect their behavior. During these times, parents may feel their child is changing on a daily basis. Having some understanding about these growth spurts can help to allay a parent’s anxieties about accelerated or delayed development.

Fulfilling your toddler’s basic needs

Abraham Maslow (1908-1970), an American psychologist, wanted to understand what motivates some people to learn and develop, while others are held back. He identified four basic areas of human need, each of which is linked to the instinct for survival. He believed that until the four basic levels are met we feel insecure or unsatisfied and will be unable to achieve level 5: our future potential. There has been much debate about the prioritizing of these categories over the years, but it is probably true to say a small child needs his core requirements in place to develop his true ability.

Level 4Self-esteemProgress, confidence, self-recognition, respect
Level 3NurtureLove, affection, communication, belonging
Level 2SafetyShelter, security, stability
Level 1PhysiologicalHunger, thirst, sleep, warmth, movement, health

Raising Twins

The early years of caring for twins can be particularly challenging and you will feel you need more than one pair of hands and many more hours in the day. But the good news is that double the trouble means double the joy and fun, too!

Children who are a twin, a triplet, or other multiple are individuals in their own right and also part of a distinct unit. Both aspects of their uniqueness need to be acknowledged by you, their parent. On the one hand, it can be lovely for each child to enjoy the company of their close and familiar birth-mate; on the other hand, as they start to grow up, it puts greater onus on you to ensure that each child is loved and respected for their individual talents and personality. At the toddler stage your twins need particular help in learning to understand that they are separate not only from you, but also from one another.

Practical care

Having two children of toddler age is always a challenge and twins are no exception. Be aware that twins are likely to take up twice as much time and energy as a solo child of the same age. If you are parenting twins you are likely to need more help from others. It is all too easy to get into the habit of responding to both children in the same way, rather than as two individuals with unique personalities. This stems partly from practical considerations: if you are trying to get your children to bed, it will be simpler to wash them together, read them the same story, and even dress them in similar clothes, just as you would any other children of similar ages. There is no harm in this when they are babies, but there are particular considerations to keep in mind as your children begin to talk and to grow.

Delayed development

Research shows that parents of twins actually spend less time interacting with their children than parents of a single child. This may be because twins seem happy with each other’s company and need less soothing and interaction from others. This can, however, mean they develop some skills slightly later than other children—language, for example, which they may master more slowly as a result of babbling to each other rather than to a skilled language user such as a parent. Twins may also develop skills later as a result of being born prematurely or having a low birth weight.

Encouraging independence

Parents of twins can unwittingly make more work. For example, it takes a long time for any toddler to choose his clothes and begin to dress himself; imagine if each morning you have to double that time and you’ll understand why many parents of twins keep on dressing the children themselves—but in the long run this help might delay the twins becoming independent.

It is important to spend some time individually with each child, but don’t try to make things fair. As with all children, twins will have different needs, and it is not always a matter of dividing time equally or doing exactly the same thing with each child. You need to structure your activity and time to the needs and wants of each.

Some twins develop a pattern of behavior whereby one of them is the follower and the other the leader, or they may switch between these roles. This tendency can extend to splitting their development progress, too. One may develop their motor kills earlier, while the other develops language ability.

They may be so used to being with each other that they behave like a single entity. This can be particularly true of identical twins—possibly because parents and other people tend to treat them more similarly than fraternal twins. Later on in life, one twin may become good at one set of skills, while the other will develop in a different direction; or, they may copy one another and share many talents. Each child will be influenced by the other’s development, but this needn’t necessarily be to the detriment of either child.

A close relationship

Twins spend an unusual amount of time in each other’s company; after all, they were together in the womb prior to birth and will inevitably be compared with one another throughout their life. This can be particularly difficult as they reach toddler age where they have little control over their emotional responses. They may react intensely to one another about sharing toys, for example, but due to their closeness may seem to resent any intervention, even from parents.

There is no need to feel rejected by your twins, or threatened by their apparent self-sufficiency. Because they are close, twins can become so focused on each other that they are less aware or sensitive to the needs of others around them. Mixing with other children is therefore very important from an early age, so that each child develops a sense of their own social skills and individuality.

A special bond

Twins often form a very close attachment to each other and may compete more with each other than with other children.

Top twins tips
  • Individuality

    Consider giving each child distinctly different names and resist the temptation to dress them the same.

  • Development

    Remember that each twin will develop at their own pace. Try not to pigeonhole their abilities and interests at a young age.

  • Labeling

    Don’t be tempted to polarize one child as “good” and the other as “bad”—this may lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  • Everyday care

    If you find that one twin is easier to handle, be aware of the impact that this may have on the other child and make a conscious effort to spend time alone with your more challenging twin.

  • Siblings

    Beware of inadvertently neglecting a sibling because your twins are demanding of your time. Twins can sometimes team up against a sibling, too.

  • Schooling

    Consider whether it may be beneficial for your children to be in separate classes at nursery or school where practically possible.

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