Your Baby’s 1st Year
Understanding How a Baby’s Mind develops
during the first year
From the moment of conception, babies are
developing at a fast pace. Not only are they learning new information, but their brains are developing physically
at an astonishing rate. It can be fascinating for parents to learn something of the development that their new baby
goes through – to understand what usually happens when. Every child will develop in a unique way; however, there
there are norms which help us understand the general pattern of development expected at specific ages and stages.
Babies’ development is in various areas: physical, emotional, intellectual/cognitive, social, moral, cultural and
spiritual. In this article we will focus on cognitive development in newborn babies – helping you to understand how
your baby’s mind is developing.
Cognitive development in
Cognitive or intellectual development is the
development of the mind, including language development.
At birth – think of your newborn as a great little explorer. Although a new baby
may appear to do very little, they are actively exploring their new environment using their senses. Already they
are learning to cope with a huge amount of new information. After the comfort and safety of the womb, it must be
some shock to come out into the bright world with all the noise, smells and constant sources of stimulation – no
wonder little babies need lots of sleep!
Newborn babies can focus on objects less than
one metre away, and already they show a distinct preference for human faces. They can recognise their mother’s
voice (from hearing it when in the womb) and sometimes their father’s too if they’ve heard it frequently. They
become aware of physical sensations such as hunger, and respond by crying. They make eye contact and cry to
indicate that they need something. Even new babies are often able to imitate, for example copying you if you open
your mouth wide or stick out your tongue they will try to do this too.
Helping your newborn develop
Babies need a lot of physical holding and touch - cuddling them
actually helps promote their healthy development. Talk to your baby lovingly and maintain eye contact whilst
allowing time for baby to respond (as in a conversation). Don’t expect any set routine within the first few weeks –
it’s a big settling in period for everyone! At this stage babies enjoy bright, contrasting colours (not pastels) –
you could make some cards with different black and white patterns and stick them to a nearby wall for them to look
at. They may be fascinated by light reflecting on walls and ceilings or streaming in a window. Putting a mobile
over their cot or stringing rattles and toys over the buggy or pram, encourages them to focus their gaze and
practice co-ordination as they try to reach out and touch. Be very careful however, as you baby grows, that these
items do not pose a safety risk (e.g. choking)! Adjust to the age and agility of your baby and ensure that they
cannot pull these items down.
1-4 Months – babies are already beginning to smile in response to your
smile. Their cries become more expressive and they make other sounds too such as cooing and gurgling. You can
encourage them to vocalize by imitating the sounds they make and waiting for them to repeat. You may notice
them moving a lot more – kicking their legs and waving their arms about. At this stage they are better able
to focus and follow moving objects with their eyes, and they may even imitate facial expressions. Infants now
start to choose to do things because they have learned to expect a particular outcome. They have begun to
understand patterns, such as a bottle meaning its feeding time, and cause and effect; demonstrated by them
deliberately shaking a rattle so that it will make a noise. During this stage too they discover their hands –
you can help this discovery by tying a rattler to their wrist. Watch them spend hours looking with
fascination at their own fingers and hands!
In this phase they learn to trust the world and feel secure if
their needs are met and they are responded to when they cry. If their needs are not met and they are frequently
left to cry they may learn distrust – that the world is not a safe place. Remember, they are totally dependant on
you as they cannot do anything for themselves – so their only means of survival is your response to their cry.
Respond to them, pick them up if they cry, cuddle and reassure them – they will be more secure as a result of
4-8 Months – Their exploration moves from being centred around their own
body, to external objects in the environment without regard to their physical needs. This is a big baby
milestone. They use hand, foot and mouth to discover and experiment with objects. By 6 months they are able
to reach for and grab things with both hands. Most toys are transferred straight to the
They are now able to understand the meaning of words such as
‘bye-bye’, ‘mama’ or ‘dada’. They turn immediately when they hear their parent’s voice at a distance and they show
some understanding of the emotional state of their main carer’s voice (so be careful of the moods you’re
displaying!). By now too they understand ‘up’ and ‘down’ and will gesture appropriately, such as raising their arms
to be picked up.
Language also develops further as they begin to babble
spontaneously, starting first with monosyllables (‘ga, ga’)and progressing to combining syllables (‘ba-goo-ga-me’).
Babies now talk to themselves in a sing-song voice and often squeal with delight. By the end of this period, babies
may start to understand simple words such as ‘bottle’ or ‘banana’ and they may start to use words themselves to
represent objects – these could be real words ‘mama’, ‘dada’ or nonsense words ‘buh’ (referring to favourite
At this stage, to encourage development, you might build a
tower of bricks together and watch it topple; look at picture books together and name simple things such as animals
and make the noise they make, encouraging baby to point with you and repeat sounds. Cardboard boxes also provide
lots of fun – you could make a little treasure chest with a mixture of items for them to examine, with different
shapes and textures (plastic, wool, soft & furry item, etc.)
8-12 Months – By this stage in their physical development babies are able to
sit up by themselves and are crawling or shuffling along and some may be beginning to walk. Cognitively they
understand their daily routine and like to imitate adult speech and gestures. They can judge the size of an
object up to 2 feet away and look in the correct direction for fallen toys. Their memory is improving all the
time. The significant development at this stage is object permanence – they now know that an object exists
even when it is no longer in sight (up until now if they can’t see something, it doesn’t exist in their
world). This new skill is demonstrated when they watch a toy being hidden and then look for it; this shows
they know it still exists even when they can’t see it. Playing ‘peek-a-boo’ helps them to learn this – even
though your face disappears behind a blanket for a moment, they begin to learn that it will
During this time, they begin to show intentional means-end
behaviour, which means that they’ve learned how cause and effect works and now begin to put different activities
together to achieve a goal.
By the end of this stage they understand simple instructions
associated with a gesture, such as ‘Come to Daddy’, ‘clap hands’ and ‘wave bye-bye’. They will hand objects to an
adult when asked, and begin to treat objects in an appropriate way, for example cuddle a teddy but use a hairbrush
to brush hair. It helps to talk constantly to baby, allowing time for response, and continue with rhymes and action
This gives you a general idea of your baby’s development in the
specific area of cognitive development. What an interesting year and this is just one facet of your baby’s
development! If you are interested in learning more about infant development in the first year and how to deal with
the challenges that every parent has to face (feeding, naps, crying, play…), then you will love ‘Baby’s First Year’
one-day course, designed and facilitated by psychologist Niamh Hannan,M.Sc.
COUNSELLING PSYCHOLOGY, Reg. Psychol., Ps.S.I., in conjunction with Helpme2parent.ie. Visit
www.HelpMe2Parent.ie for more information or call 087 689