The Development of self-regulation
A baby is born with only between 20-25% of their adult brain. At the moment of birth the brain starts to grow at a phenomenal rate, producing approximately 700 new synapses every single second.
In addition to forming connections between all the different sensory and motor systems, the part of the baby's brain that is growing the most is the prefrontal cortex, where the systems that support self-regulation are housed.
Over the past decade, developmental neuroscientists have learned that it is by being regulated that these robustly growing systems are wired to support self-regulation. The experiences that promote this process begin immediately. The tactile stimulation that a baby receives when you hold or stroke them release neurohormones that are highly calming; through your voice, your shining eyes, your smiling face, or gently rocking or bouncing a baby when they are anxious, you are laying the foundation for good self-regulation.
The next critical stage in the development of self regulation is called 'Social Engagement'. This begins long before a baby begins to speak. The more calmly and warmly the caregiver responds to a baby's crying, and the better they read the cues as to what a baby is feeling or wants, the better an adult can 'up-regulate' or 'down-regulate' a baby.
This is a fundamental principle of self-regulation: it is as much about 'arousing' a baby – e.g., energising them when they are drowsy and it is time to eat or perhaps just play – as it is about calming a baby down when they are agitated or it's time to sleep.
The development of language marks a critical advance in this 'social engagement system'. Now the toddler can tell you what they want or need, and it is imperative that we respond to these communicative overtures – even if only to tell the child that we will come in a moment – in order to help them develop the functional language skills that enhance self regulation.
When they are young teens, children start to go through a fundamental transition in their self regulation, needing their parents much less and their peers much more. But not all teens go through this development at the same age or the same rate and, indeed, some may still not have fully mastered this transition until they are young adults. Children suffer all sorts of setbacks and regressions in their ability to self-regulate, and in times of acute stress it is not at all unusual to see a child or even a teen revert to the infant stage of needing a parental hug in order to get calm. Source: Calm, alert and happy, Stuart Shanker, 2013