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 that irritability is a cognitive leap — a time when your child is working on a new skill under the surface, in the depths of the brain.
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!) returns. (For my take on leaps in the first two years read this.)
When the brain grows 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 indicative of 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
Brain Growth in the Early Years
When the brain is practicing these news skills it is physically changing. New connections between brain fibers are growing, strengthening, or being trimmed away.
During this growth process, the brain is disorganized — these new connections may be misfiring and miscommunicating and the brain may shift resources from other parts of the brain to the growing part.
How does this all affect your child’s behavior? In a word, they will be more cranky.
Growth spurts are related to immune suppression (and fevers) and sleep regression. And a growing brain is a HUNGRY brain. Even during equilibrium when children are not actively going through a growth spurt, a 5-year-old’s brain uses more glucose than an adult’s bigger brain.
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 more emotional.
The good news is twofold, first is that in a week or so, your happy child will return and second, you can do a few things to ease the crankiness and support the brain during these leaps.
5 Ways to Support Your Child’s Brain During Cognitive Leaps
1. Head to Bed Early
Earlier than you think — before you would expect for your kids to be tired. I am a huge fan of early bedtimes, in general (for more of the research behind the benefits of early bedtimes, read this) 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 are sleeping, connections in the brain 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 cognitive leap, I up the healthy snacks and healthy fats in his food. We often think our kids get plenty of fat– but are they getting the kind of healthy fats the brain is hungry for?
The research on diet and brain is all over the place and I am not a nutritionist. But, several studies point to the importance of Omega 3s, antioxidants to protect the brain from self-generating free radicals, and iron. Of course, there are other studies which do not show the same effects.
Here are a few links about nutrition and the brain if you are interested in reading further.
When my son is going through a leap I give him an Omega-3 supplement. These are my favorites, a multi-vitamin with fish oil and a simple fish oil gummy. I like to vary which I give him, depending on what is on sale.
Instead of the normal cheese crackers and raisins to tide him over until dinner, I stem the hangry attacks with snacks like avocado and fruit smoothies, oatmeal with flax seeds, banana, and nut butter rolled in a multi-grain tortilla, and refried beans and chips.
My son won’t eat fish, he used too and I hope once he is out of this normal picky stage, he will again. If you kids will eat fish, pile on the salmon during these times too.
I think that 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 can even increase kindness. It is my instant fix for a bad day and it is great for kids going through a cognitive leap.
When kids are learning new skills a lot of time is spent concentrating — whether we see it or it is happening under the surface. The perfect break from that kind of intense thinking is big motor movement. Running around, a walk on a trail, letting off steam at the playground — anything that gets them moving in a green space will help dispel their crankiness.
There is also evidence that exercise stimulates brain growth, exactly how is still being researched, but there is pretty convincing evidence that outdoor exercise boosts children’s executive function.
Executive functions like reasoning, planning, decision-making — are housed in the prefrontal cortex, which is developing across childhood. So, getting outside may have multiple benefits both directly and indirectly (lowers 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. With older kids, the skill they 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.
Some of the best activities that will calm a busy, active mind are sensory activities. During leaps, I might make a big batch of play dough or slime. 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 a bunch of 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 kid’s impulse control, reasoning, attention and much more.
Here are my favorites games for self-regulation skills.
So, have some fun, read some good books, listen to some music, drink some healthy smoothies, get some extra sleep, and think to yourself: this too shall pass. Once it’s over they will have grown and learned — and perhaps we will learn and grow a little bit too.