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Early Childhood Development Tips

Building Brain Power: Infants & Toddlers need connection

As a Mental Health Specialist at Rainbows United, I have the privilege of working with children ages birth to 3 and their families. I often stress the importance of building attachment or connection with children in order to decrease unwanted behaviors. While this is true, in this article I want to elaborate on the importance of connection for the sake of building the child’s brain. This is not only true for parents, but also for grandparents, extended family, church family, caregivers, teachers, neighbors, and others. We are all responsible for building relationships that positively influence and strengthen a child’s brain.

We know that when a baby experiences neglect or abuse, their brains focus on survival skills such as sensing danger and responding to threat causing them stress, insecurity, and anxiety. On the other hand, when a baby experiences connection in their relationships, their brains thrive allowing them confidence to try, explore, and conquer life’s challenges.

Our everyday encounters of making eye contact, showing affection, offering comfort, playing, and singing actually support a healthier brain. These spontaneous actions are a foundation for future learning endeavors, problem solving mastery, enhanced communication, and positive social interactions.

What do connected relationships look like?

Responsive Care: The adult is attentive to the child’s needs and capabilities. They understand when to allow the child to be challenged by a task, to offer verbal guidance, or to help them physically. For example, an infant has to struggle as they first work on tummy time which is necessary to develop strong neck and shoulder muscles which are prerequisites for crawling. Responsive adults know this has to occur within the child’s abilities. They may put a favorite toy in front of the child to reach for, give verbal support, and pick up the infant when he is showing signs of distress. This response teaches the infant the world is safe as others are aware of and will meet his needs.

Partnership: An adult joins the child’s world through back and forth interactions. The adult greets the child and waits for his response. The child may make eye contact, attempt to coo, babble, say a word, or reach for the adult. Now the adult’s loving response further builds connections as well as the child’s communication skills. Another way to partner with a child is through child led play. Here the adult watches and responds to what the child is looking at or playing with. This may include talking about what the child is seeing or doing, asking to join in on the activity, and following what the child says or does. This helps improves the child’s attention to the activity or sight as well as improving their communication skills and understanding their influence on their environment.

Perhaps next time you are playing peek-a-boo, changing a diaper, singing, stacking blocks, or sharing a story with a child, you can practice and see first-hand how these everyday activities build connection as well as brain power.

For further elaboration on brain building thru connection, consider watching the short video and reading Zero to 3’s article Brain Wonders: Nurturing Healthy Brain Development from Birth –

Written by: Kathy Van Zelfden, LMSW – Mental Health Specialist