The Toddler Brain

The Toddler Brain (1)

This blog is the second in a series thinking about how the brain develops after a baby is born and what this means for the way we parent. I thought it would be helpful to start with a recap.

In the first of the series I thought about the parts of the brain which develop between birth and approximately 18 months old. These parts, or foundations, need to be in place for the next stage of brain development, which ultimately will lead to a social adult who can regulate their own emotions.

These foundations include:

  1. A brain that has lots of neuronal connections which form a rich network of pathways and patterns
  2. The development of the pre-frontal cortex – the part of the brain which allows us to regulate and think about our own emotions and experience and cope with complex social interactions.
  3. A link between the part of the brain which has emotions – The amygdala and the part of the brain that can think about emotions- the prefrontal cortex. Allowing a baby who can start to consider the world around them

We also thought about how these structures are dependent on a responsive, emotionally in touch caregiver who enjoys their baby.

A lot is happening in the brain from 10 months onwards so I am going to cover this in two blogs. In this blog I will cover memory and how the toddler begins to develop an idea of what is safe and allowed. In my next blog I will think about the development of language.

The development of memory

At 10 months the orbitofrontal part of the brain begins to develop. This is part of the prefrontal cortex. It is this part of the brain that can store lasting images, which the baby can then carry with them – the beginning of having a memory. These images will always have an emotion attached and if they are good emotions they can begin to help your baby to regulate their emotions. This is more easily explained with an example. Luke, who is 11 months, has recently started at nursery. He attends 3 days a week allowing his mum to return to work. He sometimes finds this environment stressful, they don’t do things the way his mum does them and he has to compete for adult attention with 10 other children. From about 10 months old Luke has been able to remember his mother’s face as a lasting image and this memory is filled with lots of happy, safe feeling emotions. Luke can use this memory to help soothe himself when he is stressed. However if Luke’s memories of his mother had been frightening ones or depressed ones he would not have been able to use these to help him manage when he was away from his mother.

The development of this area of the brain, the orbitofrontal cortex, enables the baby to begin to build up a library of images, which will have all sorts of emotional associations and will become increasingly complex. Once orbitofrontal cortex is established the two sides of this area of the brain will begin to link together, effectively enabling the part of the brain which expresses feelings (right brain) to link with the part of the brain (left brain) which will increasingly help the toddler manage their own feelings. As this happens the brain becomes more stable, but also less open to change. Other areas of the brain then develop; those areas which allow us to tune into our feelings but also have some control over them, and then the areas which allows us to think about our thoughts and feelings.

A very important new part of the brain which begins to develop around 18 months is the dorsolateral cortex, this is where we have our ‘working memory’ which allows us to store our thoughts and memories and compare them. Our toddler now has the apparatus needed to plan, and check out what he is experiencing. He can make choices and adapt to new situations.


From 10 months toddlers are beginning to move around and have a new found pride in their own skills. At this age cortisol becomes an important part of the toddler brain’s growth and development. Cortisol encourages the release of norepinephrine which is essential for the development of the orbitofrontal cortex. It is also responsible for linking this area of the brain to the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system acts as an inhibitory system which enables the child to stop doing something and to be able to learn what is safe and allowed.

This toddler, resplendent in his new found skills now has to realise that there are limits, which will hopefully be enforced by parents. When parents say no to the toddler, cortisol will be released which slowly over time begins to develop the internal brain structures which will ultimately allow him to control his own behaviour and fit in with society.

This is not just a hard time for the toddler but also a hard time for parents who have worked so hard to be attuned to their baby and to create a safe and secure environment for him. It almost feels like the opposite is now needed, a firm, hard tone and disapproving looks, a withdrawal of parent’s attunement which leaves the toddler feeling on its own. This stressful situation sees the release of essential cortisol. This difficult process for toddler and parents will allow Luke to develop his own ability to control his emotions and to begin to realise that the world is not just about him and his needs but that other people’s needs have to be taken into consideration.

In my work I so often see the consequence of problems that have developed because very good and able parents are struggling to manage taking this step. They find the withdrawal of attunement and an angry and distressed toddler very difficult to stomach.

A warning about cortisol

Cortisol is essential for helping children develop self- restraint but too much is really unhelpful for the brain. If there is a lot of cortisol released over an extended period of time it will affect how the body reacts to future stressful situations. In these conditions two things may happen in the future. Either the whole of the nervous system is too highly attuned to stress and even events that would not leave most of us stressed will send the body into an extreme stress reaction or there will be little or no reaction to even large amounts of stress except for an occasional but extreme outburst.

So getting the amount of cortisol right is important.

There is so much that can go wrong at this age. A regular angry response to a toddlers difficult behaviour, frequent loss of control by parents or parents withdrawing their benign attention for long periods of time will mean the toddler will release an excess of cortisol, which in time, if this happens on a regular basis will mean a highly stressed toddler, child and ultimately adult. Being overprotective may leave a toddler feeling frightened to try his new found talents or ashamed of getting it wrong or fearful of his curiosity.

Now the science bit is over what this mean does for parents with toddlers, both birth parents and parents of adopted and fostered children.

Birth parents

  • When and how ‘no’ is used needs to be thought about. Parents need to remain calm, they need to use a firm tone, one that gives the toddler the sense that you mean what you say.
  • When there has been a ‘no’ and the toddler responds to your request give plenty of praise.
  • If your toddler finds this ‘no’ difficult and becomes angry and distressed, find a safe place where he can have a tantrum and sit with him. Having a tantrum is very frightening for a toddler. They will feel like they have no control over this and need to know that their parent is not frightened but will support them through this.
  • Some toddlers after the initial outburst will feel comforted by being held, for some it makes things worse. Get to know what your toddler likes.
  • Your toddler needs to be able to develop a confidence in their own skills and abilities and encouraging this is really important. They are also very curious and love to explore and this is also really important so pick the times you say ‘no’ carefully. Try and think is there another way of responding. For example, being alongside them while they explore to make sure they stay safe. Luke, now 13 months, loves to climb and is forever heading up the climbing frame steps the moment his mother is distracted. Luke’s mother when she sees him do this remains calm and moves to his side. She reminds him gently that he must only do this when she is by him because it is dangerous. Luke continues to climb with mother close by with hands out ready to grab hold of him should he lost his balance. On one occasion Luke removed his hands as he seemed to believe he could balance without holding on. Firmly and in a clipped tone his mother reminds him that he must hold on tight to keep himself safe. It is at this point that Luke loses his confidence and needs the help of this mother who picks him up and sets him safely on the floor.
  • Be consistent or you will leave your toddler not knowing when you will withdraw your attunement and when you won’t. This then makes it difficult for him to learn the rules.
  • Choose your battles. Does it really matter if your toddler goes out in a red dress and one orange and one pale pink sock? Toddlers need to realise when you say no it really matters.
  • Difficult toddlerhood is a normal part of growing up but thought also needs to be given to what is going on in your family. Events which cause big changes in routine, moving house, parents changing jobs, a new baby will be stressful for your toddler who is struggling anyway to learn the rules of his family. If there is any kind of stress in the household toddlers are particularly susceptible.
  • Talk to your toddler about his feelings. ‘I know you don’t like it when I say no’. ‘I know you are angry because I won’t let you do……….’

When to look for help:

  • If you do not feel you are managing your toddler, you are struggling to stay calm, or find yourself struggling to say no.
  • Your toddler’s tantrums seem particularly extreme or do not resolve themselves.
  • Your toddler is still having tantrums by 30 months.

At this age a few sessions with a good psychologist or psychotherapist trained to work with children can make all the difference. It will also make sure your toddlers brain develops in the right direction.

Fostered or adopted children

  • Like with a baby, you have a much more complicated task. If you have taken on a toddler who was not removed at birth their brain structures will have been affected. What pathways have been created will be dependent on their experience and helping them create new pathways needs a combination of unpacking the previous pathways (experience) and helping them to create new pathways (experience). You will also need to take into account your toddlers own constitution and temperamental factors and the particular developmental milestone they may be struggling with. All of these factors need thinking about in order to help the child move on. You will also find that older children may still be stuck in this stage of development.
  • Do find out as much as you can about attachment theory and what you should expect from a toddler who has suffered abuse. A lot of children are very behind on their emotional milestones and may need to work their way through these.
  • Attunement has to be the first step with children who will have probably experienced very little of this in their early days, these brain structures still need to be developed if your child is going to make the attachment that is needed in order to do the next bit, this may take time but is essential. The younger the toddler the more pliable his brain will be and the more quickly he will be able to connect with you and make new pathways.
  • However in order for your child to become ‘sociable’ they will still need to go through the processes we have been thinking about, and develop the necessary brain structures which will enable them to do this: Much of the advice I have listed above for birth children will apply but it may need a much gentler ‘no’ and the advice around picking your battles is going to be even more important. I think your best bet is a no where they, you, someone else or important property is in danger. If there are very particular things which are particularly distressing for your toddler, being refused food for example, try and find another way of doing it.
  • Saying ‘no’ can be even more difficult with fostered and adopted children, removing attunement can feel to them and you like you are repeating their abusive history. You are not. Don’t be frightened to be firm, sometimes separating out the idea for the child of ‘need’ and’ greed’ can be helpful. They will be furiously angry with you and will show this in all sorts of complicated ways but a kind but firm ‘no’ is important to help all children, from toddler age onward begin to develop their own emotional resources.
  • Keep an eye on your child, how are they developing? Are they heading in the right direction? Do they seem stuck, repeating the same difficult behaviours and responses again and again? Change takes time, as we can see from the brain science but If your child does not seem to be able to step outside these patterns you will need to think about getting help. Your social worker might be able to help or one of the support organisations e.g. Adoption UK. Sometimes just a one off consultation with an experienced professional can help you find a way forward, sometimes something more in depth might be needed.

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