Enriching Your Baby’s First Year: Development and Growth

What to expect in the first 12 months. Our family recently celebrated the first birthday of our second child. At her party, I reflected on how much she has grown and learned since her birth. She is no longer the helpless infant I held at delivery. Although still a baby, she has blossomed into a bright-eyed, interactive, mobile, and curious little girl.

It’s truly amazing how much babies develop during the first year of life. By Baby’s first birthday, he has accomplished an unparalleled amount of growth. Linear growth may be as much as ten inches the first year, and his brain will be approximately 35 percent larger than it was at birth.

Parents and caregivers have a crucial opportunity to ensure that Baby’s potential is maximized through loving, appropriate interactions, and nurturing during the first year of life. Read on to learn what’s happening with Baby during the first year and ways parents can enrich their little one while enjoying every moment.

First Year Brain Development

Dr. Roni Leiderman, PhD, associate dean at the Mailman Segal Institute for Early Childhood Studies at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, explains that a “newborn’s brain has the potential to produce billions of cells and neurons.” She continues, “These cells and the connections that are made between cells form the basis for a child to function in the world.”

A human baby is born programmed to learn, with all five senses developed. From birth, a child is ready to process information about relationships, emotions, language, and reasoning. Dr. Leiderman explains, “Through appropriate stimulation such as playing with, singing to, holding and rocking, feeding and nurturing and loving your baby, his or her brain will grow and develop to allow for intellectual, physical, and emotional growth.”

Infant Language Milestones

While in the womb, infants listen and become familiar with the tones and sounds of voices around them. By cooing and talking to your new baby, parents are creating brain circuits necessary for language and development. “Babies are so attentive to words and sounds that by six months old, babies will have distinctively different babbling sounds that are unique to their primary language,” says Dr. Leiderman. “The more words a child hears by the age of two, the more expansive his or her vocabulary will be as an adult. The acquisition of language is solely supported by a child’s early experiences and through his or her interactions with others.”

Although many babies seem more interested in nibbling on books than listening to them being read aloud, babies do benefit from hearing stories. Read nursery rhymes and books with rhythmic patterns and repeating and rhyming words. Parents, siblings, and caregivers can build language skills simply by talking to Baby. This will not only increase the child’s vocabulary, it will also prepare her to be a reader and learner. Talking to your baby during daily rituals such as feedings, diaper changes, and bath time will benefit your child and build language and emotional capacity.

First Year Relationships and Emotions

“By two months old, infants are beginning to experience complex feelings such as joy, sadness, empathy, and anger,” notes Dr. Leiderman. Studies have shown that newborns can recognize their parents and other primary caretakers and even imitate their facial expressions. “These are the precursors to building relationships throughout their lives,” Dr. Leiderman says. She suggests that “attunement (the way in which parents reflect, respect, and respond to their baby’s feelings) plays a critical role in influencing your child’s emotional intelligence.” She warns parents not to be overly didactic and have babies learn through rote methods such as flashcards.

To nurture and support emotional growth and development, parents and caregivers need to provide responsive and consistent care. We can do this by not only meeting Baby’s basic needs such as feeding, diapering, and bathing, but by making Baby feel secure and loved.

Sing to your baby. Your little one doesn’t mind if you sing off key or you can’t remember the words. Instead, his or her face will light up by the reassuring sounds of your singing voice. Hug, hold, and kiss your baby. Talk to your baby while using eye contact and positive tone of voice and facial expressions. You could say something like, “There’s my good boy, sitting in his high chair.” Simple statements will increase vocabulary while building a lasting bond with your child.

Your Baby’s Reasoning and Cognition Abilities

Babies benefit from having a portion of the day dedicated to free play or exploration, since they learn through sensory experiences, repetition and practice, trial and error, and problem solving. “Research suggests that children who are exposed to meaningful and developmentally appropriate experiences have larger brains with more neural connections than children who had limited experiences,” says Dr. Leiderman. These connections provide for future skill acquisition and learning in general.

Place Baby in an area with age-appropriate colorful toys or other safe objects such as pots and pans. Entice baby by alternating toys and surroundings. Even babies not yet mobile will benefit from various visual, auditory, and tactile stimuli. Allow babies to explore using all of their senses by clearing the area of choking hazards, pets, and other potentially harmful impediments.

Baby Development Resources

There are many books available for parents and caregivers to learn more about Baby’s development and ideas to enrich infants through meaningful play. Baby Play, coedited by Dr. Leiderman and her colleague Dr. Wendy Masi, offers one hundred fun-filled activities to maximize Baby’s potential. The companion book Toddler Play, edited by Dr. Masi, provides activities for babies after their first birthdays. Other books that parents can read to learn more about infancy include Your Baby’s First Year: Week By Week by Glade B. Curtis, MD and The First Twelve Months of Life: Your Baby’s Growth Month by Month by Theresa Caplan.

Parents needn’t spend all day entertaining or thinking of ways to captivate babies. Busy parents can steal precious moments to bond with and enrich their little one during feedings, play, and bath time. Cherish every minute with your infant and toddler. By providing a loving, safe, and nurturing environment, your child will benefit and be on his way to lifelong learning.

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