Your Child's Brain Development: Age One

03/11/2015 09:30 am ET | Updated May 11, 2015
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Have you ever wondered why your toddler isn't responding to you with what you believe should be a "normal" reaction? Or you can't understand why your baby keeps opening and shutting the closet door over and over again?

Humans are one of the few species on earth born "unfinished." At birth, our brains are nowhere near fully developed, and in fact, the human brain develops quite slowly over time. New technology such as CAT scans, MRIs and PET scans all indicate that your brain is still developing into late adolescence. Therefore, the way your baby and toddler thinks is colored by his stage of development. At first, your baby will view the world in concrete terms. The way he reasons and responds is directly correlated to this particular stage. For this reason, it is important to take your child's development into consideration when speaking with your child and when placing behavioral expectations on him.

Synaptic pruning

Your infant's brain is born into the world with approximately 86 billion neurons; while this sounds like a lot, it is actually about half of what it will have by the end of your baby's first year. At age two or three, the brain has up to twice as many connections as it will have in adulthood; the reason, is that as we grow older, our brains perform a sort of "use it or lose it" function: effectively "pruning" unused connections over the years.

Your baby's first year on earth is full of neuron growth as well as the pruning of synapses which is affected by environmental stimulation (or lack therof).

Your Baby's Brain: Age 1

So much happens during the first year of life that many parents I know are often overwhelmed and amazed at the changes their baby makes at this time. I am going into more depth in this matter in my upcoming book, but I wanted to give you a brief glimpse of your baby's brain development -- particularly in terms of cognitive and social learning -- during ages zero to three. In today's blog post, we'll take a quick look at your baby's brain development from birth through his first birthday.

Social and Cognitive Learning

The brain development that happens in your baby's social learning as well as basic problem-solving is phenomenal in the first year. Your baby goes from not knowing how to do anything to being able to speak a foreign language, follow simple directions, such as "pick up the book," and using items correctly, such as using a book for reading time and using a cup to drink. While your baby still may not understand the nuances of physical activity, he is learning to explore by banging things together, throwing things, dropping items, and shaking them up and down. This is your 1-year-old's way of learning how things work. He may be throwing a stuffed animal across the room over and over again, but know that this action is not to annoy you, nor is it done as an emotional response. Your baby is simply doing what all babies do: repeating a movement in order to understand it.

Meanwhile, your baby also begins to develop social and emotional connections during his first year. You may wonder why your normally calm baby suddenly seems scared of strangers around 7-8 months old. This comes from a brain spurt in the frontal lobe that brings about attachment; your baby has already formed an attachment with you and with other familiar caregivers, thanks to the familiar sounds of your voices and your touch, and they may experience sudden fear when you leave and/or when someone unfamiliar approaches.

Until your baby is one year of age, he is still lacking behavioral control. That is to say, that he may start to understand that hitting a sibling is wrong, but his brain is still in the process of developing the ability to override the impulse to do so. Therefore, it's important for you to be aware, and to react to his developmental stage appropriately.

Parenting Tips for Newborns through Age One:

* Talk to your infant, sing, and listen and react to your newborn's gurgles and mumbles as much as possible. The more bonded you are to your baby, the more he hears your voice, feels your touch, smells your scent, the more comforted and secure he will feel.

* Encourage all caregivers and visitors to talk to your baby often. This will help especially during the seven-to-eight month stage, in which he will start to feel separation and stranger anxiety.

* Hold your baby as much as possible during this first year. Babies respond strongly to attachment and begin to be socialized and culturalized when accompanying mom and dad on simple outings.

* Help your baby practice and rehearse motor, sensory and cognitive advances, by creating a safe learning environment in which he can explore. Objects that can be manipulated, touched and observed, not only enhance learning, but will help your baby to test himself against his environment. Each experience will add to his insight and understanding and stimulate his brain's associative mass. Since your baby doesn't really begin to have controlling behavior until he turns approximately one, you can understand and empathize with him if he spontaneously hits his sibling or has a temper tantrum. Here, gently changing his environment while reminding him verbally that hitting is not okay, will remediate his behavior. On the other hand, when your baby throws his toy or drops things from his highchair, he is really processing an experiment with gravity. If you participate with him instead of fighting against him by scolding him and trying to control his behavior, your understanding approach will lower the decibels of your reaction while helping his intellect expand through insight and cognition.

* Give your baby a safe, open space in which to learn while being supervised. Clear out sharp and heavy objects from a living room, for example, and let your baby play on the floor with blocks, books, stuffed animals, wooden spoons, and age-appropriate toys. While this may look like mindless activity to you, this form of free play allows your child's brain to make more connections with actions.

I'll share more in-depth information and tips in an upcoming book, but for now this gives you a good glimpse at some of the most common, important developmental brain stages during the first year of life. In an upcoming blog post, I'll share information about brain development at other infant, toddler, and child stages.