Your baby’s brain development milestones

by | May 15, 2020

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Paediatric neurologist Dr Amith Keshave takes us on a chronological journey of your baby’s brain development within the first year of life – from motor skills to language and social milestones. Here’s what to expect.

In the first year of life a baby grows in leaps and bounds, both physically and cognitively. They go from being totally dependent as newborns to walking and talking within their first 12 months.

The baby brain

The newborn brain undergoes marked changes, with the most significant being the process of myelination. The brain is composed of a network of cells connected to each other by axons (like wires), which transmit signals from cell to cell. Myelination occurs when these axons are covered, like insulation around a conducting wire, and signals are transmitted faster to improve communication between brain cells.

The newborn brain also develops as different parts of the brain become stimulated – for example, their vision initially is extremely poor and sound is muffled, but by the first six months they are able to identify individual faces and recognise caregivers’ voices. This process of prominent adaptation occurs due to the plasticity of the newborn brain – a process where new skills are remembered by recurrent stimulation, forming new networks in the brain. This is why repetition is so important! Plasticity continues until the age of five years old, but the rate of change decreases as the child gets older.

Brain development milestones

A newborn’s development can be divided into the following categories or milestones:

  • Motor milestones, which can be further subdivided into gross motor and fine motor skills
  • Speech and language milestones
  • Social and adaptive skills

It is vital to remember that not all children will reach their milestones at the same rate or age. Childhood development milestones are thus given a distribution or range in a population. Only if a milestone is not achieved after a certain time period beyond the ‘normal’ range, then it is deemed to be abnormal and expert guidance should be sought. This is important for caregivers to remember as one child may gain gross motor milestones quicker, but another will develop fine motor skills quicker; though both would be within normal limits for their age. [sub-heading]

Motor milestones

In the first year of life the motor milestones are most evident and the quickest to develop.

Gross motor milestones:

  • 6 weeks – good head control on pull to sit
  • 2 months – roll over
  • 3 months – in the prone position they should push their chest off the ground and hold their head up to look from side to side
  • 4 – 5 months – sit with support
  • 6 months – sit without support
  • 8 months – pull to stand
  • 9 months – sit up on their own
  • 10 months – cruising (able to walk along with supporting themselves against a surface like a couch or coffee table)
  • 11 months – able to stand for a few seconds on their own
  • 12 – 18 months – walking independently


Fine motor milestones:

  • birth – primitive grasp reflex
  • 2 months – able to grasp objects
  • 4 months – hold hands together in the midline
  • 5 months – reach for objects
  • 6 months – cross objects past the midline; pass objects
  • 7 months – pincer grasp (use of the thumb and index finger to pick up objects)
  • 8 months – bang two cubes together
  • 9 months – place a cube in a cup
  • 10 months – hold a pen with a palmer grip
  • 12 months – build a two-cube tower


Language milestones:

  • birth – crying (unfortunately) is the main method of communication
  • 1 month – laughter
  • 2 months – cooing
  • 3 months – squealing and try to imitate sounds
  • 4 months – turn to rattle and makes monosyllable babbling
  • 6 months – turn to voices
  • 8 months – polysyllable babbling
  • 10 months – Dada/Mama are specifically mentioned
  • 12 months – single words


Social milestones:

  • 2 months – smile in response to caregiver’s smile
  • 3 months – smile spontaneously
  • 4 to 5 months – recognise their own hand
  • 6 months – able to feed themselves with their hands
  • 9 months – wave goodbye
  • 12 months – imitate others’ gestures


Speech and language development

In the first year of life, language and speech develop relatively slower and less distinctly than the motor milestones. However, in the second year of life language and speech develop exponentially because the process of language requires newborns to first distinguish voice from background sound. Language requires an intact hearing mechanism, so the most common delay in speech is recurrent ear infections, which result in impaired hearing and therefore a delay in speech.

The language centres are normally on the dominant hemisphere of a child’s brain. This can be determined roughly by the child’s dominant hand – if it is the right hand, then the left side of the brain is the dominant hemisphere (as the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body and vice versa). Once a child recognises a voice, they then try to imitate that sound.  As fine motor skills develop in the hands, so too do motor skills of the mouth, jaw, and tongue develop. Hence when a child learns to eat soft foods and then solids, the oral motor control assists with language development as the child then learns to control their tongue.

Exciting developmental times

The changes that a newborn’s brain undergoes both structurally and functionally is phenomenal and there are a multitude of whole textbooks devoted to this topic. The skills learnt and the rate of change is extraordinary especially in comparison to adults. Most importantly, each child is unique and development occurs on a spectrum, developing at different rates in various milestone categories. The first year of life is amazing and watching children go from helpless little beings to independent busy bodies is an absolute marvel!