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Stages of Early Childhood Brain Development

author image Cindy Hill
A freelance writer since 1978 and attorney since 1981, Cindy Hill has won awards for articles on organic agriculture and wild foods, and has published widely in the areas of law, public policy, local foods and gardening. She holds a B.A. in political science from State University of New York and a Master of Environmental Law and a J.D. from Vermont Law School.
Stages of Early Childhood Brain Development
Child Photo Credit Martinan/iStock/Getty Images


Children go through an amazing transformation in the earliest years of their life, from a helpless infant to a walking, talking toddler, and on to reading, critical thinking and advanced social interactions in a school setting. Understanding the stages of early childhood brain development can help ensure that parents and educators provide an effective environment for successful emotional, academic and cognitive growth.

Prenatal Development to Birth

Before birth, the basic framework of a child's brain develops, but like the framing of a house without walls or roof, the development is far from complete. By the time a baby is born, her brain contains about 100 billion neurons, or brain nerve cells, reports the University of Maine Cooperative Extension human development specialist Judith Graham. The arrangement of these neurons during prenatal development is primarily determined by heredity, but the configuration of the brain at birth is just the starting point. The brain nerve cells at birth are mostly not connected to one another yet, explains Missouri State Extension human development specialist Sara Gable.

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Birth to Age 3

From birth to age 3, the human brain builds what Sean Brotherson, family science specialist at the North Dakota State University Extension, calls a "functional architecture" of neural networks. The unconnected neurons present in the brain at birth begin to connect with one another. Sensory experiences--sounds like voices and music, smells like cooking and the family's pet dog--cause brain nerve cells to signal one another, and those signals form synapses, or pathways of connection. From infancy to around age 3, the brain forms around 1,000 trillion synapses in response to environmental stimuli like sights, sounds and tastes, with repeated stimuli forming the strongest neural connections, Brotherson reports. This is about twice the number found in the average adult brain.

Age 3 to Age 11

From age 3 to around age 11, the brain remains a dense network of neural connections, hungrily responding to new learning experiences. Language, vision, emotions and fine motor coordination all continue to emerge and develop richer complexity during this time period. Learning a second language as well as skills like drawing and playing an instrument are easiest during the first decade of life, according to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, because the brain's dense neural network is at its most receptive.

From 11 On

Starting at age 11, a child's brain begins to prune away the unused neural networks, explains Brotherson of the North Dakota State University Extension. The most utilized neural pathways remain and become a permanent part of the adult brain architecture, but little-used networks vanish. The remaining networks are stronger and more efficient than the dense, more complex networks of earlier childhood.

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