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To function well in society, it is important to be able to control and regulate our own emotions, thoughts and behavior. For example, it is important to be able to deal well with disappointments, to be able to sit still, and to adapt your behavior to others. This is also called self-regulation. For young children, self-regulation is still a big challenge. Babies are easily upset by changes in the environment and toddlers can suddenly be very angry or sad. They still need external regulation, such as comforting behavior from parents, to calm down again. External regulation is very important to teach children ways to regulate their own emotions, thoughts and behavior later in life. If this does not happen, problems such as aggression and delinquency may develop later. However, with the right guidance, a shift from external regulation to internal self-regulation takes place as children get older. This shift is crucial for positive development and runs roughly parallel to the development of your child's brain.

Early brain development

You may have noticed that from one day to the next your baby is suddenly capable of much more, such as crawling or standing. This is partly because your baby's brain areas are constantly developing, with the greatest changes occurring in the first few years of life. For example, during the first year of life, an awful lot of connections are made between the different brain areas, sometimes even thousands of connections per second. These connections make more complex skills (such as self-regulation) possible, because the different brain areas can better exchange information with each other through these connections. In the end, there are only many more connections between brain areas than are actually needed. Some of these remain, while the rest of the connections are destroyed again.

To determine which connections remain and which are destroyed, your baby's brain uses information from the environment. This is because the brain wants only the useful connections to remain, so that communication between the different brain areas can be as effective as possible. The brain connections that your baby uses the most are seen by the brain as useful connections. These connections will therefore continue to exist or even be made stronger. The brain connections that are used little are destroyed, because they are seen as superfluous. In this way the useful connections in the brain of your baby become stronger and more efficient, adapted to the environment in which your baby finds itself.

So during your baby's first year of life, the brain consists of a huge dense jumble of brain connections, with many more connections than in your own brain. This is because your baby's brain does not yet know which experiences will be important. With all these connections, your baby's brain can still go in any direction, which makes it very flexible. At the same time, this also makes your baby's brain very "sensitive. Bad repetitive experiences in the first years of life, for example, may cause the wrong brain connections to remain. This makes the experiences during the first years of life incredibly important. Parenting is the first and most intense experience of young children. The behavior of you as a parent is therefore a crucial part in the brain development of your baby, which in turn is reflected in the development of behavior later in life

Important aspects of parenting

To learn to self-regulate emotions, thoughts and behavior and to strengthen and make efficient the right connections in the brain for this, it is important for children to start discovering the environment. For young babies, for example, this consists of looking at the environment and feeling objects and structures. As children get older, they can begin to explore more and more independently. Skills such as crawling and standing play a role in this. Scientific research shows that certain aspects of parenting are very important to ensure that young children discover the environment for themselves. For example, emotional support and parental stimulation are identified as important factors.

Emotional support is described as adapting your own behavior to the needs and age of your child. For example, this means showing warmth and responding appropriately to your child's cues. Parental stimulation means that as a parent you provide a learning environment and give your child the opportunity to explore different materials and environments. A balance between these two aspects of parenting is very important. On the one hand, children need to feel that they can fall back on emotional support from you as a parent while exploring the environment. On the other hand, children must also learn to explore their environment on their own, without too much support from you as a parent, so that the necessary brain connections are activated and remain in place.

By properly supporting children emotionally in the first years of life, but at the same time encouraging them to explore the environment for themselves, a shift can take place from external regulation to internal self-regulation. By offering a stimulating learning environment your baby gets the right experiences that ensure that important brain connections continue to exist and even become stronger and more efficient. The development of these brain connections ensures that children are increasingly able to regulate their emotions, thoughts and behavior themselves, without you as a parent having to intervene every time. This has positive consequences for both your baby and you as a parent!

The YOUth research

Bij the YOUth research in Utrecht, research is being done on the development of young children. With this knowledge we as researchers learn more about how the brains and behavior of growing children develop. The results can be used in the future, for example to improve care and education, or to prevent young people from getting into difficulties. Would you like to contribute to scientific knowledge? Are you less than 19 weeks pregnant and do you live in the province of Utrecht? Please request our information package via:

Marissa Hofstee MSc

PhD student

Social Sciences
Education and Pedagogy
University of Utrecht


Marissa Hofstee received her bachelor's degree in Pedagogical Sciences (minor Behavioral Neuroscience) from the University of Groningen and her master's degree in 'Applied Neuroscience in Human Development' from Leiden University. She has worked as a pedagogical employee in childcare and as a junior researcher at the project 'Equal opportunities for a diverse youth' in Amsterdam. Currently she is a PhD candidate at the Department of Orthopedagogics: Psychosocial Problems at Utrecht University.

Marissa is involved in the YOUth cohort study, a large-scale, longitudinal study that follows children's development from pregnancy through adolescence. This study with repeated measurements of brain and behavioral development consists of two independent samples from the population. The YOUth cohort is part of the NWO Gravitation Consortium on Individual Development (CID), the UMC Utrecht Brain Centre and the strategic theme 'Dynamics of Youth' of Utrecht University. Within this study Marissa investigates the early development of self-regulation in infants and toddlers in relation to environmental factors and brain development. Her specific areas of interest are characteristics of parents, such as parenting, and activity in the frontal part of children's brains.