Naomi Patton and Cierra Carter

The first years of children's lives are some of the most important when it comes to development and learning. Children’s bodies are rapidly developing, and one of the most critical aspects of their development is their brain growth. Fortunately, others can make a difference in the way young children’s brains develop. In fact, adult interactions affect children’s brain development far into the future, even into adulthood (Center on the Developing Child, 2007b).

Why is infancy such an important time to focus on brain development?

Children’s brains are at their most adaptable, or “plastic,” state in early childhood, therefore this timeframe is optimal for caregivers to help shape brain development (Center on the Developing Child, 2007b). This plasticity allows children to adapt to various types of environments and interactions, which helps with learning new skills. As the brain matures, it becomes less plastic, and while still possible, some types of learning become more challenging when children grow older. Since brain development does not occur in a vacuum, real world experiences can greatly influence the quality of children’s brain growth during the earliest years of life (Center on the Developing Child, 2007a).

What can be done to support infant brain development?

Some caregivers may want to learn direct ways to support children’s brain development, but opportunities for direct influence are limited (Zero To Three, n.d.-b). However, research suggests that positive caregiving is a key influence on brain development. Positive caregiving can be defined as, “taking an approach that is sensitive to children’s individual needs and addressing the typical challenges that arise in early childhood with empathy and respect (Zero To Three, n.d.-a).” According to Zero To Three (n.d.-b), positive caregiving “seems to provide babies with the ideal environment for encouraging their own exploration, which is always the best route to learning.”

According to the Center on the Developing Child (2007b), a critical element of healthy brain development is a “serve and return” relationship between caregiver and child. The Center on the Developing Child (2007b) describes this relationship: “young children naturally reach out for interaction through babbling, facial expressions, and gestures, and adults respond with the same kind of vocalizing and gesturing back at them.”

Research findings suggest that caregivers can in fact directly influence one specific aspect of brain development—language: engaging verbal interactions with caregivers, such as reading and conversation, can help children with their linguistic development (Zero To Three, n.d.-b). Research findings indicate that rather than the sheer number of words being spoken, interactive conversation between children and adults may be a critical factor in stimulating child brain activity and verbal skill development (Barshay, 2018). A recent study found that “4-, 5- and 6-year-olds who engaged in more conversation at home had more brain activity while they were listening to a story and processing language” (Barshay, 2018). However, the quantity of adult words was not a significant factor in relation to activation of the brain or the children’s display of verbal skills. In contrast, the reciprocal conversation between adults and children was significantly related to higher brain activity and verbal aptitude in children. Study findings suggest parents/caregivers of young children promote the intentional exchange of back-and-forth dialogue and avoid one-way conversations in which only the caregiver speaks (Barshay, 2018). Parents/caregivers of infants should engage with their children by, for example, using sounds as well as non-verbal cues and gestures, given the difficulty of continuing a long dialogue with a child at this age.

For guidance on positive parenting/caregiving, here are some helpful resources to get started:

Research-based strategies can help parents implement positive caregiving to help take advantage of the plasticity of early childhood stages in order to aid long-term learning outcomes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), The Center on the Developing Child, and Zero To Three offer suggestions for caregivers of young children.  

The CDC offers parenting/caregiving suggestions for children of all ages and stages. From infancy through adolescence, the CDC’s positive parenting/caregiving information can aid caregivers in better understanding children’s development and health and offers useful guidelines.

Positive parenting tips from the CDC

Serve and return is the process of reinforcing children’s actions, such as cries, gestures or babbles, with the appropriate adult response, which helps children develop communication skills in the process (Center on the Developing Child, n.d.-b ). In the following article, The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard provides parents/caregivers with five helpful steps for successfully implementing serve and return to build a foundation for cognitive development in their children.

Five steps of serve and return for parents from Center on the Developing Child

Being cognizant of children’s situational needs helps promote positive parenting/caregiving. This Zero To Three article provides parents with a wide range of information on positive parenting/caregiving topics such as time-outs, apologizing to children, co-parenting and more.

Positive parenting approaches from Zero to Three

By implementing some of these techniques, parents/caregivers can take small but meaningful steps in aiding their child’s development. Children grow up quickly. The steps taken now in early childhood can have a positive, lasting impact.


Barshay, Jill (2018, March 12). Why talking — and listening — to your child could be key to brain development. The Hechinger Report. Retrieved from

Center on the Developing Child. 5 Steps for Brain-Building Serve and Return. (n.d.-a). Retrieved from

Center on the Developing Child (2007a). The Impact of Early Adversity on Child Development (InBrief). Retrieved from

Center on the Developing Child (2007b). The Science of Early Childhood Development (InBrief). Retrieved from

Center on the Developing Child. Serve and Return. (n.d.-b). Retrieved from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Positive Parenting Tips. (2017, January 03). Retrieved from

Zero To Three. Positive Parenting Approaches. (n.d.-a). Retrieved from

Zero To Three. What role do parents play in a baby's brain development? (n.d.-b). Retrieved from


Naomi Patton is a Faculty Research Associate at CECEI where she works on recruiting, outreach and technology development and serves as Technology and Communications Manager for the Early Childhood Professional Development Curriculum project. Cierra Carter is a Master's student in the College of Education studying Minority and Urban Education. 

The Center for Early Childhood Education and Intervention conducts high quality research on early childhood education and early intervention programs. Visit our website to learn more. You can follow us on Twitter at @CECEIatUMD.