Stress and the Developing Brain

Stress and the Developing Brain

mother cuddling baby

The developing brain

The developing brain begins to form early in the prenatal period. With the basic structures of the brain in place, babies are born ready to learn. The infant’s early and ongoing experiences (sensory, motor, emotional, and cognitive) help to build connections in the brain, stimulating the “firing and wiring” of synapses that connect neural circuits. During the first three years of life, there is rapid-fire development of trillions of synapses, however, not all of these synapses are used and some are “pruned” or eliminated. Those connections that are reinforced by experience become “hard wired” and work more efficiently and effectively. A child’s early experience, in the context of attuned and responsive caregiving, everyday routines, and age appropriate stimulation, influences which connections are maintained. The brain continues to build connections throughout life, but never as quickly as early childhood.

In general:

  • The brain develops sequentially, from the more primitive parts that support basic bodily functions, including the “fight or flight response”, to those that enable higher level functioning, such as thinking and emotions.
  • Connections in the brain are influenced by experiences and stimulation.
  • There are sensitive periods of development where the brain is most open to the influence of external experiences
  • The neural circuits for dealing with stress are particularly malleable (or “plastic”) during the early childhood period
  • Healthy emotional and cognitive development is shaped by responsive, dependable interaction with adults.

(ZERO TO THREE (ND), National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 2000; National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2005, 2007, 2010, ND)

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This product was developed [in part] under grant number 1H79SM082070-01 from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The views, policies and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of SAMHSA or HHS.