How the Brain Changes from Zero to 5

by Michaela Velarde


The first five years of a child’s life are full of important milestones as their brain develops. Did you know that a child’s brain makes one million neural connections every single second? While a lot of brain growth happens naturally as children explore and play, you can also help shape your child’s brain for success.

The foundations of a healthy brain develop early, between the ages of zero and five.[1] These foundations are important as your child continues to learn and grow into adulthood. As you help your child learn at home, you’re setting them up for long-term success and also preparing them for more formal learning in kindergarten.

Why Brain Building Matters

As your child grows, the brain forms all the neurons they’ll need for the rest of their life. The connections between these neurons are what make the brain work!

The early years are the best time to create these connections and strengthen them with practice. This, essentially, is learning. Children love learning from their parents, so taking the time to help your child learn gives them a strong start in life.[2] When you provide your child with a combination of academic and play-based learning experiences, it can greatly improve their brain development.[3]

Changes in the Brain from Zero to 5

The growing brain reaches new milestones every year. The changes in your child’s behavior are often due to the brain growth they are experiencing. Here are a few cognitive milestones the CDC indicates most children should reach between the ages of zero and five:

The Brain at 1 Year:

  • Copies gestures
  • Responds to simple requests
  • Tries to say words you say

The Brain at 2 Years:

  • Uses two-word phrases
  • Points to things in a book
  • Repeats new words

The Brain at 3 Years:

  • Understands words like “in,” “on,” and “under”
  • Can work with buttons or moving parts
  • Can turn the pages in a book one page at a time

The Brain at 4 Years:

  • Can memorize parts of songs and books
  • Can name some colors and numbers
  • Starts to write and copy letters

The Brain at 5 Years:

  • Answers simple questions about a book or story after you read it
  • Uses or recognizes simple rhymes (bat-cat, ball-tall)
  • Pays attention for 5 to 10 minutes during activities

Remember that all kids develop at their own pace. However, if a child hasn’t met most of these milestones by the time they’re ready to enter kindergarten, it’s a good idea to talk to their health care provider and/or preschool teacher for support.

The time you spend with your child each day can help their brain grow strong. Even spending a few minutes a day on learning can make a big difference with results that last a lifetime![4] Sign up for early learning boosts to receive ideas and activities that support your child’s growing, learning brain.


  1. “Brain Development.” n.d. First Things First.
  2. Willis, Judy. 2021. “Parents’ Powerful Impact on Young Children’s Brains.” Psychology Today.
  3. “Brain Networks of Explicit and Implicit Learning.” 2012. NCBI.
  4. “Brain Development • ZERO TO THREE.” n.d. Zero to Three.

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