During the first years of life, a child’s brain develops rapidly. How you parent can directly affect your child’s development.

Infants and toddlers require a lot from their parents to create an environment where their needs are met as they grow and develop.

Parenting during these early years can also be tough. You may be faced with navigating sleepless nights, temper tantrums, and learning how to adapt to every new stage of life for your little one.

How a parent addresses their child’s physical, emotional, and social needs in the infant and toddler years can directly affect their development.

Early childhood is a time when a child’s brain develops rapidly, and all of your parenting choices during these years can have a lasting impact, sometimes into adulthood.

However, parents who know better can do better for their kids. Resources are available to help you make the best decisions for your child to support their growth and development.

While the brain continues to change and develop into adulthood, a child’s brain grows quickly in utero and during early childhood, making this time key.

The first 8 years of a child’s life can set the stage for their future, including:

  • how they learn
  • their physical and mental health
  • general life success

Brain development and bonding

Brain development is influenced by various things that a parent can help control, including experiences with other people and the world around them.

During the newborn days, parents can support brain development through nurturing experiences, like:

  • reading to your baby
  • playing with your child
  • skin-to-skin contact
  • holding and snuggling your baby

Parents can also work to prevent their infant or toddler from being exposed to traumatic experiences or stress, which can hinder development.

If you’re concerned about giving your little one their best start, chances are good that you are already doing the best thing for your child’s development: loving them.

Research from 2016 suggests that bonding with parents through lullabies, smiles, and snuggles could help build happiness and emotional resilience in kids. These bonding activities may also help protect them from developing long-term mental health problems later in life.

What is good parenting?

Good parenting can mean different things to different people, depending on culture and other life situations.

Some examples of good parenting practices that support healthy childhood development include:

  • being sensitive to your child’s needs
  • providing structure by sticking to day-to-day routines and rules
  • using age-appropriate, gentle discipline
  • avoiding all forms of aggression

Parenting choices like these can support your child’s overall health and safety and often help kids grow into happy, healthy, successful adults.

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How you parent during the infant and toddler years can shape your child throughout their life.

At a base level, the effects of good parenting typically meet children’s needs in 5 ways.

Physical health and safety

Ensuring physical health and safety in early childhood is essential for meeting all of your child’s needs, including protecting children from:

  • injuries
  • physical and sexual abuse
  • maltreatment and malnourishment

While health and safety are important for all kids, it’s especially vital for babies and toddlers who don’t yet have the resources to avoid physical dangers on their own. Babies and toddlers rely on parents and caregivers in and out of the home to protect them and act in the interests of their health and safety.

Emotional and behavioral competence

Nurturing your child’s emotional well-being early on can lay a strong and lasting foundation for mental health and wellness, including:

  • a positive sense of self
  • the ability to cope with stress
  • emotional regulation
  • the capacity for overcoming fears
  • skills for accepting disappointments and frustrations

Parents can help children develop emotional and behavioral competence by:

Teaching emotional and behavioral competence in early childhood may help minimize the risk of developing depression and anxiety and support kids’ ability to adjust and function at home, school, and in social settings.

Cognitive competence

Developing cognitive competence can help kids succeed in school and the world, and includes skills like:

  • language and communication
  • reading and writing
  • mathematics
  • problem-solving

Environments that are supportive but challenging and stimulating can help children develop these skills. Well-developed cognitive competence can help kids learn the self-regulatory skills and persistence needed for success in school and life.

Social competence

Social competence refers to teaching kids how to develop and maintain relationships with peers and adults. Learning interpersonal skills are often connected to other areas of childhood development, including:

  • cognitive
  • linguistic
  • physical
  • emotional

Kids who learn social competence in early childhood tend to have a better time with:

  • getting along with and respecting others, especially those who are different from them based on race, gender, class, religion, and sexual orientation
  • empathy and concern for others’ feelings
  • cooperation and sharing
  • seeing different perspectives

There are four parenting styles, and each one has different pros and cons on how they might impact children.

Authoritarian parenting

Authoritarian parenting focuses on creating rigid structure through rules and punishment rather than open communication and nurturing.

With this parenting style, parents provide a single communication route: The parent gives the rules, and the child obeys them, often with little room for negotiation or compromise.

While asserting authority may appear to produce well-behaved children, an overly strict approach can often be unbalanced and negatively affect a child’s mental health well into adulthood.

Kids who grow up with authoritarian parents might experience:

  • low self-esteem
  • insecurity
  • difficulties with social skills and shyness
  • resistance to authority and acting out, especially when away from their parents
  • aggression
  • indecisiveness
  • trouble maintaining relationships
  • attachment difficulties, including connecting approval with love

Authoritative parenting

Authoritative parenting focuses on providing a structured and nurturing environment for children to learn and grow based around:

  • clearly communicated expectations and consequences
  • warmth and trust
  • empathy
  • patience

This well-balanced approach can be more challenging at times, but kids who grow up with this parenting style may:

  • have an easier time developing self-regulatory skills, especially with negative emotions
  • be more confident
  • have higher self-esteem
  • experience better mental health
  • achieve goals more often
  • have a healthy sense of responsibility and independence
  • be more comfortable communicating openly with parents

Permissive parenting

Permissive parenting often involves an overly relaxed environment with little structure and few expectations or consequences for children. Parents might act more like friends than authoritative figures in their children’s lives.

However, this parenting style can be destructive to childhood development. Kids raised with permissive parenting may:

  • experience trouble with relationships
  • lack a sense of responsibility
  • have difficulties understanding, enforcing, and respecting boundaries
  • seek structure outside the home to feel valued and validated
  • lack of self-discipline and self-control
  • experience academic challenges

Uninvolved parenting

Uninvolved parenting generally refers to parents who provide for the basic material needs of their children but do not provide:

  • emotional nurturing
  • structure
  • consequences or expectations

Children raised by uninvolved parents may seem self-sufficient and resilient, but they also might:

  • be forced to take on adult responsibilities too early in life, “robbing” them of their childhood
  • have low-self esteem
  • lack an understanding of health and safety, physically and emotionally
  • experience trouble in school
  • face challenges with emotional regulation
  • have attachment issues around forming intimacy and trust with others

Providing a loving, nurturing, and safe environment for your child can make all the difference in their life.

The infant and toddler years are filled with important milestones, such as:

  • learning to walk
  • developing social skills
  • weaning from nursing or bottles and beginning to eat diverse solid foods
  • learning to talk and communicate
  • exploring their world

You can try many different approaches to provide a loving, nurturing environment for your child.

These tips may help give you ideas of what to try, but they are not the absolute rule of parenting in early childhood. You can adapt them to fit your needs, lifestyle, and family.

Infants, ages 0 to 1-year-old

Infants need a lot of attention and care, so consider prioritizing your physical, mental, and emotional needs so you can enjoy your baby.

  • snuggle and hold your baby often
  • talk to your baby and answer them when they make noises
  • read aloud to your child every day, sing, and play music for them
  • verbally praise your baby
  • physically play with your baby, but keep an eye out for signs of tiredness, fussiness, or hunger
  • secure your baby’s environment for safety and distract or move them if they become interested in dangerous things, like electrical outlets or wires

Toddlers, ages 1 to 2 years old

Children typically become more independent, active, and curious around these ages, and their development may seem to skyrocket.

Ways to encourage development in different areas can include:

  • Cognitive development: playing matching games, reading to your child daily, asking them to point out objects or body parts
  • Physical development: physical play and exploration, trying new things
  • Emotional development: encouraging wanted behaviors by responding positively, rather than punishing unwanted or negative behaviors
  • Linguistic development: giving your child an opportunity to speak and develop language skills

Toddlers ages 2-3 years old

As your child gets older, they continue to develop and reach physical, social, and cognitive milestones.

  • Cognitive development: encourage pretend play, set up a special time to read each day, and teach simple songs to build memory
  • Social development: play follow the leader, provide praise and attention when they follow instructions and encourage your child to say their name and age
  • Physical development: explore areas around the home by taking walks or other activities, nurture independence by letting your child get dressed on their own
  • Emotional development: model acceptable ways to be upset, try to avoid giving attention during tantrums

Early childhood development can be a magical thing. Yet, parenting can also be a difficult and frustrating job sometimes. Remember, you aren’t alone in dealing with parenting stress during the infant and toddler years.

Parents who are worried about their methods are often doing at least some things correctly that can positively impact their children’s lives.

At this age, nurturing is one of the more important aspects a parent can focus on. You can try taking easy first steps, like:

  • setting aside time each day to read
  • encouraging creative and imaginative play
  • acknowledging appropriate behaviors and limiting attention to unwanted behaviors

If you find you may need some additional help, taking a parenting support class may help. Consider asking your child’s pediatrician for resources on local groups or classes.