Inside: Signs of growth spurts and cognitive leaps in children and how to help support your child through these periods of crankiness and developmental disequilibrium!
There are lots of reasons that kids get cranky — just like us, they have bad days too. Some of the usual suspects are a lack of sleep, hunger, overstimulation, and the like. The easy fix for those times is to feed them and shuffle them off to bed.
But what about when the crankiness goes on for days? Those times when your usually happy-go-lucky or laid-backed child turns into a grumpy, whiny, picky, sleepy, overstimulated bundle of emotions.
A likely culprit for all of that irritability is a cognitive leap or a growth spurt in the brain — a time when your child is working on a new skill under the surface, in the depths of the brain.
Often, we think that growth spurts end sometime after toddlerhood but the truth is they continue throughout childhood. Brain growth spurts may not translate to inches in height. Under the surface, however, there is so much growth and change.
The next time your child seems out of sorts, ask yourself — could it be a growth spurt? We are quick to blame a bad habit or behavior, but it could be that your child’s brain is changing at such a rapid pace that they are more easily overwhelmed and overstimulated.
If so, then we can support that growth and remember that … This Too Shall Pass.
This Too Shall Pass: What is a Cognitive Leap?
Development rarely, if ever, follows a steady pace of upwards progress. Instead, it is characterized by leaps and spurts, gains and losses, regression and progression, and general disorganization.
Before the new skill is learned and before the brain solidifies new connections, there is a period of relative chaos. After the new skill is mastered and the brain connections solidify, equilibrium and your cheery child (and your sanity!) return.
Related: Baby not sleeping? Could it be a cognitive leap? (and other comforting things to know about development in the first two years)
When the brain goes through a growth spurt it is adding new connections and trimming unused ones. Have you ever noticed that when your child is learning a new skill that they practice it over and over?
Practicing these new skills can almost seem like a compulsion. Like when a toddler plays the same scenario over and over and over again. Or when a preschooler starts repeating letter sounds all day. That kind of repetition is a sign that your child is in the midst of a brain growth spurt otherwise know as a cognitive leap.
People are not born once and for all on the day that their mother puts them on to the Earth, but…time and time again, life forces them to enter a new world on their own.Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Signs of Brain Growth Spurts in the Early Years
When the brain is practicing these new skills, it is physically changing. New connections between brain fibers are growing, strengthening, or being trimmed away.
During growth spurts, the brain is disorganized. New connections in the brain are more prone to misfiring and miscommunicating. Also, energy may be shifted from the parts of the brain that are not growing to those that are.
How does this all affect your child’s behavior? In a word, they will be more cranky.
Developmental theorists believe that all children cycle in and out of periods of relative calm (equilibrium) and periods of relative chaos (disequilibrium). Dr. Arnold Gesell studied over 10,000 children and adolescents and found that with development comes periods of time when the nervous system and the brain are reorganizing — these are times of disequilibrium. He said that a child will not be ready to do something until her nervous system is ready. Read more here.
At age 4, the brain uses 43% of the body’s total energy expenditure!
So, your usually regulated and balanced child is getting less quality sleep, needs more fuel for the body and brain, is more sensitive to their surroundings (hence easily overstimulated), and is more emotional.
We also know that children are going through these periods of equilibrium and disequilibrium when we look at the patterns of brain development.
The peak of each of these colored lines indicates a period of intense growth in the areas of the brain associated with those skills. So, for example, we see intense growth in the brain in the area of peer social skills from the age of 2.5 to the age of 7.
Research has shown that behavioral changes we notice as parents and the development of new skills correlate with underlying brain changes. The times you might notice the biggest transitions are at 2-3 months, 7-12 months, 12-24 months, 4-8 years, and puberty (Kagan & Baird, 2004).
What does this all mean?
Growth in childhood may look different than we expect. Social angst and stress are not just a feeling or a behavior — but reflect actual brain changes.
So, when your 7-year-old comes home upset about a friend, this is part of the disequilibrium of that period. It is your child’s current challenge. Disequilibrium=Stress. And it’s our job as their parents to help them with that stress.
Signs of a Growth Spurt or a Cognitive Leap
- Increased Hunger: asking for more snacks throughout the day, eating big meals, skipping meals, and wanting food before bed.
- Sleep Disruption: Having trouble settling down or waking in the night.
- Sleeping more: Having trouble waking up in the morning, falling asleep in the car, longer naps.
- Practicing a new skill: Doing something over and over. Everything from learning to stand to learning to read. In older children, this may look more like thinking excessively about social situations and relationships as they develop more complex social skills.
- Clumsiness: It takes a little time for coordination and equilibrium to return after a period of sudden growth, so kids are more likely to run into doors, fall down, etc.
- Growing Pains: While pain at night can be many things (check with your Pediatrician), there are estimates that 1 in 3 children experience pains in their legs due to growth itself.
The good news is twofold: firstly, in a few weeks or so, your happy child will return, and secondly, you can do a few things to ease the crankiness and support the brain during these periods of growth.
7 Ways to Support Your Child’s Brain During Growth Spurts and Cognitive Leaps
1. Head to Bed Early
Earlier than you think and before you would expect your kids to be tired. I am a huge fan of early bedtimes in general, and when a cognitive leap hits, I aim for an even earlier bedtime.
Studies show that the later kids go to sleep, the longer they take to get to sleep and the earlier they wake, the opposite of what the brain needs during this time.
Start with increments of 20 minutes. If your child usually goes to sleep at 8:30, aim for 8:10. Give it a day or so and move to 7:50 and then 7:30. For tips on easing the transition to sleep, read this.
Research has shown that when children sleep, brain connections change. Some weaken (are trimmed), and some get stronger. In one night of sleep, connections between the right and left hemispheres can increase as much as 20%. What children practice and learn during the day is solidified at night.
2. Eat Healthy Fats
Whenever my son shows signs of a growth spurt, I up the healthy snacks and healthy fats. We often think our kids get plenty of fat– but are they getting the kind of healthy fats the brain is hungry for?
A recent randomized controlled study showed that adolescents (aged 11 to 16) who ate about 1 handful (1 oz.) of walnuts daily for 6 months showed significant improvement in neuropsychological scores like attention, fluid intelligence, and reduced ADHD symptoms.
Walnuts are a significant source of plant-based omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Several studies highlight the importance of Omega 3s, antioxidants to protect the brain from self-generating free radicals, and iron. Of course, other studies do not show the same effects.
Here are a few links about nutrition and the brain if you are interested in reading further:
- Special Fats Proven Essential for Brain Growth
- Do Kids Need Omega-3 Fats? from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
- Scientists Learn How Food Affects The Brain: Omega 3 Especially Important
- Why fish intake by pregnant women improves the growth of a child’s brain
- Omega-3 fatty acids, and in particular DHA, are associated with increased attention scores in adolescents
When my son is going through a leap, I give him an Omega-3 supplement. These are my favorites, a multivitamin with fish oil,a simple fish oil gummy, and this one is specifically formulated to help attention.
Instead of the cheese crackers and raisins to tide him over until dinner, I stem the hangry attacks with snacks with healthy fats like:
- Avocado toast
- Mixed berry chia nut smoothie
- Oatmeal with flax seeds
- Banana and nut butter rolled in a multi-grain tortilla
- Chocolate and Walnut Covered Banana Pops
- Refried beans and chips
3. Turn on the Music
The pattern and tempo of music can calm the disorganization of the brain during these times. Of course, you don’t want to overdo it — but when your cranky child can’t handle sitting at dinner — turn on some tunes to distract their brain. Something low-key but interesting that can capture their attention. Here is my playlist for toddlers.
This is also an awesome way to wake up your child if they are super cranky in the morning. Create a playlist with a few of their favorite songs from movies.
If all else fails, have a family dance party, a surefire way to reduce stress and get good endorphins flowing for the whole family.
4. Go Outside
Being outside calms the mind, enhances learning and creativity, boosts mood, and even increases kindness. It is my instant fix for a bad day.
When kids are learning new skills, a lot of time is spent concentrating. The perfect break from that kind of intense thinking is bog motor movement. Running around, walking on a trail, letting off steam at the playground — anything that gets them moving in a green space will help dispel their crankiness.
Executive functions like reasoning, planning, and decision-making — are housed in the prefrontal cortex, which develops across childhood. Getting outside may have multiple benefits by directly stimulating the brain and indirectly by lowering stress on the developing brain.
5. Engage the Mind: Books, Games, & Sensory Activities
When they are babies, it is easy to see what they need to have time practicing — crawling, standing, walking, vowel cooing, and so on. The skills older kids are working on may not be as clear. But there are a few activities that will enhance many different kinds of skills.
When my son hits a cognitive leap and is suddenly cranky, I find that doing something with him that engages his mind will also calm him down.
Sensory activities are some of the best activities that will calm a busy, active mind. I might make a big batch of play dough or slime during leaps. Or gather some toys we don’t usually play with outside and take them in the sandbox. Activities that keep the hands busy help soothe the over-active mind during big growth spurts.
I pile up many books from the library near the breakfast table and around the house. These also help occupy growing minds.
We also love playing games in our family, and board games are so good for kids developing brains — they challenge kids’ impulse control, reasoning, attention, and much more.
6. Give Lots of Extra Hugs
Research shows that hugs stimulate pressure receptors in our skin, leading to a cascade effect in the body, resulting in a relaxed state. According to Dr. Tiffany Field, the pressure receptors stimulate the vagal system (e.g., state of relaxation), which signals the brain to release oxytocin (the bonding hormone, e.g., the warm-fuzzies).
“Like diet and exercise, you need a steady, daily dose of hugging.” – Dr. Tiffany Field
7. Stretch It Out
Stretching and Yoga can have positive benefits for kids during growth spurts.
First, Yoga and stretching can activate the parasympathetic (the rest and digest system). This is the opposite of the sympathetic or stress system. So, this kind of bodywork can buffer some of the stress of a period of disequilibrium.
I love these printable Yoga Cards and posters for kids. The cues on the back help with proper alignment, but really children will find what feels good, and in yoga — proper pose alignment is more about how it feels than how it looks. Also, the before-bedtime sequence is a good one to help with growing pains during growth spurts.
If your child has musculoskeletal growth, gentle stretching before bed can help decrease growing pains.
Kids can have really tight calves and hamstrings, partially due to bones growing faster than muscles. These are a few of the stretches my pediatrician recommended for my son during growth spurts.
Now that you know what to look for and how to help your child’s growing brain, I hope some of the periods of disequilibrium will be a little smoother in your house.
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