Recent Research on the Brain and Early Childhood Development

As research in neuroscience advances, our understanding of the brain and healthy brain development continues to change. The following are some recent reports and news releases highlighting cutting-edge research related to the brain and child development. Examples of recent brain research are also highlighted on the BBB Home Page.

Brain Development

Brain Development, Memory, and Inference Making

The brain activity patterns of adults and children are different when making inferences. While adults create new memories with inferences built into them, children instead create memories separately to use in future inference making.

Early Memory and the Hippocampus

Even though children cannot actively remember life events before the age of 3 or 4, recent research shows that babies begin using the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center, as young as 3 months old.

Effects of TV and Videos on Babies’ Sensory Behaviors

Researchers have discovered that infants and toddlers who watch television or videos are more likely to be “sensation avoiding” (by disengaging or being overwhelmed) or “sensory seeking” (by seeking out more intense stimulation. Parents and caregivers may want to limit the amount of TV and video content their very young children watch.

Genetics Influence Infants’ Visual Preferences

Researchers have found differences in five-month-old infants’ preferences to look at faces or at non-social objects such as cars or mobile phones. The different preferences are largely determined by genes, suggesting that infants’ unique visual experiences and learning preferences have a biological basis.

Glial Cells Play a Role in Memory

Glial cells, the support cells that help neurons function, also play a role in learning and memory in mice.

High-Quality Early Education Connected to Success in STEM

Children who attend high-quality early care and education programs in infancy and early childhood perform better in science, technology, engineering, and math classes, even in high school. The link between high-quality ECE and STEM success is even stronger for children from low-income families.

Increased Surface Area in the Neocortex Contributes to Human Intelligence

Scientists have discovered how the brain evolved to expand the surface area of the neocortex in order to make humans more intelligent, and how intellectual disabilities and autism spectrum disorders develop when this process does not occur as expected.

Live Performances Are Better!

Babies who watched a live performance of a baby opera were significantly more engaged than babies who watched a recording of the same show. The interactions of the musicians with the audience and the experience of being in a crowd engaged babies more than a recorded performance.

Math Education and Brain Plasticity

In a sample of teenagers, students who did not take math classes had lowered amounts of chemicals important for brain plasticity.

Prenatal Mindfulness Improves Infant Stress Response

When mothers participate in a mindfulness program during pregnancy, their infants showed signs of healthier stress responses at 6 months old.

Spanking May Affect Children’s Brain Development

Children who are spanked show greater activity in brain regions that respond to threats.

Touch and Self Recognition

Learning to recognize themselves in mirrors is an important developmental milestone for babies as they approach 18 months old. Researchers have discovered that babies’ experiences of touch contribute to the development of this important skill.

Working Memory in Synapses

When we keep information in working memory, that information is stored in connections among multiple synapses.

Brain Disorders and Disabilities

Autism Spectrum Disorder in Boys and Girls

Recent research has found that some areas of the brain differ between boys and girls diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Pregnant Mothers’ Environments Can Affect Newborns’ Brains

A recent MRI study found the brains of newborn babies to be smaller if their mother experienced poverty and lived in a neighborhood with high crime rates.

Differences in Brain Structures in Children with Autism

Recent research has found brain structures differ between girls and boys with autism.

Autism Genes and Brain Development

There are different autism genes that have been identified, but all of them have the same impact on brain development.

Language Development

Children Actively Influence Language Development

Researchers have discovered that adults talk more to toddlers who are already talking, regardless of gender. This suggests that young children play an active role in influencing their own language development.

Exercise and Language Development

Increasing children’s aerobic exercise can help with children’s vocabulary growth.

Reminiscing Builds Children’s Language

Reading books together is a good way to engage children in conversation, but not all adults and children enjoy sharing books. Research shows that reminiscing about past experiences can also expose preschool-age children to high-quality language.

Word Learning in Young Children

A new study found a link between vocabulary and looking at objects. Children who knew more words tended to look toward objects when they heard a new word. Children with smaller vocabularies tended to take longer to process new words and looked back and forth between objects. These findings could help identify children who need language support early in their development.

Physical Well-Being

Air Pollution and Development

Researchers have found more evidence that being exposed to air pollution is associated with poorer cognitive performance in children.

Air Quality Affects Brain Development

New research shows that poor air quality could be causing cognitive problems in babies and toddlers. Children living in areas with poor air quality may experience long-term negative effects on brain development.

Alcohol Consumption During Pregnancy

Researchers using MRI technology have found that babies whose moms consume even low or moderate amounts of alcohol during pregnancy are at higher risk of delayed brain development and changed brain structure.

Benefits of Outdoor Time for the Brain

Spending time outdoors in the fresh air can have positive effects on general well-being and brain structure, a new research study shows.

Brain Activity During Babies’ Sleep

Babies’ brains are more active in sleep than previously thought. The twitching of limbs during REM sleep helps babies control motor movements when awake. A recent study found this twitching also occurs during a new sleep stage called “quiet sleep.”

Breastfeeding Matters

Any amount of breastfeeding can be beneficial for baby. Even babies who had only been breastfed for a few days had lower blood pressure as toddlers compared to their peers who had not been breastfed at all.

Breast Milk Reduces Allergies

Researchers have found that small molecules in human milk may reduce the chance of developing allergic conditions, including food allergies, in babies who are breastfed.

Car Seat Installation Errors

A new study has found that installation errors are common when using child car seats, even with seats with a high ease-of-use rating. More work is needed to ensure that car seats are installed and used correctly in order to protect young passengers.

Longer Breastfeeding Reduces Asthma Risk

A new study shows that a longer period of exclusive breastfeeding was associated with decreased odds of current asthma.

New Research on Soothing Babies to Sleep

Most parents have experienced frustration when their infants cry excessively and refuse to sleep. Scientists have found that the best strategy to calm them down is by holding and walking with them for five minutes. Other strategies, like being held while sitting, were less effective.

Preschool Napping and Brain Development

Why do some 4- and 5-year-olds still nap every afternoon, while others start giving up afternoon naps at age 3? Sleep scientists have a new theory that transitioning out of naps is not about age as much as brain development.

Screening for Sleep Disorders

Researchers have developed a new way to screen for childhood sleep disorders, using a newly-developed tool that assesses multiple sleep problems at once. Healthcare providers can use this tool to evaluate children more quickly and make more targeted treatment recommendations.

Sleep and Obesity in Babies May Be Related

Recent research has found that infants who sleep longer and wake up fewer times during the night are not as likely to be overweight.

Attachment, Relationships, and Social-Emotional Development

Attachment and Empathy

Children who are securely attached to parents in early childhood are more likely to show prosocial behaviors, such as kindness and empathy, later in life. Securely attached children are also more likely to show generosity and to volunteer in adolescence.

Grandmothers Improve Well-Being

Children who have faced challenges in life can benefit from by their maternal grandmothers. The positive effects on children’s well-being can last well into adulthood.

Involved Fathers Help Children’s Learning

According to a new study, fathers who read, draw and play with their children at age 3 tend to have children who perform better in school at age 5.

Parenting and Brain Development

Harsh parenting practices can have long-term impacts on brain development. Increased hitting, shaking, yelling, and anger are related to smaller brain structures in adolescence.

The Importance of Play-Based Learning

Learning through guided play with an adult can be just as beneficial, if not more, compared to traditional classroom instruction.

Recess Quality and Socioemotional Development

Research shows the quality of time spent in recess matters just as much as the amount of time spent outside. Having meaningful opportunities for play at school away from the classroom impacts a child’s socioemotional development.

Play and Music

Playing Music Changes Brain Activity

Recent research studying the brains of secondary school students found different brain activity patterns in children who had been playing music from a young age. A link between the music and language processing areas of the brain was also discovered.

Guided Play Promotes Long-term Learning in Young Children

A recent study found that playful educational opportunities led by adults were just as, if not more, effective as classroom instruction in promoting literacy, numeracy and social skills.

Consistency and Stress

Childhood Abuse Can Increase Risk of Early Death

Child abuse and neglect may be related to life expectancy. People who experience sexual abuse are at higher risk for dying in middle age.

Children, COVID-19, and Control

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone’s life, children are especially struggling because their agency, or ability to control and make choices within adult-imposed limits, has been reduced. As children return to school and other everyday activities, giving them time for play—and setting up chances to exercise reasonable ‘agency’ during this transition—are two key ways to support their well-being.

Pain and Preterm Infants

Researchers have found that babies born prematurely do not habituate to repeated pain the way full-term infants do.

Pregnancy Stress and Lifetime Disease Risk

Mothers’ stress levels during pregnancy can increase their child’s risk of developing disease throughout their lifetime by altering the developing baby’s mitochondrial DNA.

Pregnancy Stress Increases Risk of Childhood Behavior Challenges

Mothers who were highly stressed, anxious, or depressed during pregnancy may find that their children are more likely to have for mental health and behavior issues during childhood and adolescence.

COVID-19 Social Isolation and Early Child Development

The social isolation resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic may affect children’s language acquisition and levels of screen time.

Domestic Violence Exposure in Infants

Infants in homes with domestic violence have been found to have poorer academic outcomes because of developmental delays in the brain.

Childhood Poverty and Brain Development

Childhood poverty can have lasting impacts on brain development as adults who grew up impoverished were found to have smaller subcortical brain regions.