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A brief guide to baby brain development with top tips for dads

Updated: Dec 8, 2022

In this blog, we’ll share the signs of what to see in your baby's cognitive development, and what to look out for at each stage at, 0-4 months, 4-8 months, and 8-12 months in the first year of life.

Research shows that dad’s can have a really positive impact on their baby in the first year of life. At the end of this blog, you will find top tips to support your baby’s healthy brain development to set them up for toddlerdom.

The development of the brain is a magical and life-long process.

At birth, brains are already equipped for certain types of experiences, however, during the early years after birth are when the brains are actually at their peak of being the most sensitive and influenced by their environment (Tierney, 2009). Most of the learning within the brain occurs during the first three years of a child’s life. Both the size of the brain and cognition grows significantly, especially when influenced by real life experiences. What your baby hears and experiences during their first year lays the foundation for their brain development and cognitive function for the years to come (Johnson, 2001).

Baby Brain Milestones to Look Out For In Your Baby From Birth to Their First Year:

Social, Emotional and Cognitive Developmental

From birth to 4 months, you should see your baby:

  • Alert and preoccupied with faces (social)

  • Make eye contact when faced with an adult looking at them (social)

  • Move its head to sound of voices (social)

  • Bonding (emotional)

  • Show excitement when prepared to feed (emotional)

  • Cry when hungry or uncomfortable and usually stop when held (emotional)

  • Learn through sensory experiences (cognitive)

  • Repeat actions but unaware of ability to cause actions (cognitive)

  • Eyes track slow moving target for a brief period (cognitive)

Seek advice if your baby:

  • Is not starting/responding to sounds

  • Is not responding to familiar faces

  • Is not showing interest or responding when played with

  • Cries a lot

From 4 to 8 months, you should see your baby:

  • Respond to own name (social)

  • Recognize familiar people and stretches arms to be picked up (social)

  • Reacts with arousal, attention or approach to presence of another baby or young child (social)

  • Happy to see familiar faces (emotional)

  • May fret when parents leave the room (emotional)

  • Become more settled in eating and sleeping patterns (emotional)

  • Develops preferences for foods (cognitive)

  • Enjoys games like peek-a-boo or pat-a-cake (cognitive)

  • Explore objects by looking at and putting them in their mouths (cognitive)

Seek advice if your baby:

  • Is not learning to make sounds

  • Is not responding to familiar faces

  • Is not responsive to caretakers

From 8 to 12 months, you should see your baby:

  • Show definite anxiety or wariness at appearance of strangers (social)

  • Actively explore and play when parent present, returning now and then for assurance and interaction (emotional)

  • Offers toy to adult but does not release it (emotional)

  • Show signs of empathy to distress of another but often self soothes (emotional)

  • Shows interest in picture books (cognitive)

  • Understands gestures and may respond to “bye bye” (cognitive)

  • Makes gestures to communicate and to symbolize objects, e.g. points to something they want (cognitive)

Even though the baby may not understand what’s in the book, they will become stimulated by looking at pictures. and hearing you describe the words and sounds linked to the images.

Seek advice if your baby:

  • Is not interested in holding toys

  • Is not learning to eat solids

  • Is not babbling and making sounds

There are much more developmental milestones as a baby grows and learns. For more, check out this resource: Developmental Milestones

Tips to support your baby’s brain development

1. Play and entertain baby

Your baby's brain develops through use — by your baby interacting, observing and doing things.You can help your baby's development by creating an interesting environment with different types of activities that offer your baby the chance to play. It's through play that your baby will learn important skills like talking, listening, moving, thinking, solving problems and socialising.

You can play and spend time with your baby by:

  • singing together

  • reading books

  • Going on walks so your baby can explore the environment

  • talking about what you’re doing and seeing

  • playing games like peek-a-boo

  • giving lots of cuddles

2. Don’t overstimulate baby - tune into rest-play-rest cycle

While creating a stimulating environment for your baby is important for their development, you should also try not overstimulate your baby. Most babies have something called a rest-play-rest cycle, which can vary according to the particular baby, age, temperament, and mood. Some babies will be engaged with an object for as little as five minutes or as long as twenty minutes. A sign that your baby may show if the play becomes frustrating or boring, or if the baby is tired or hungry, is they will simply stop playing. You know it is time for a rest break or a nap if the baby looks away, grimaces, clench its fits, wriggles, becomes grumpy, or cries (Day, 2020).

These tips will not only help promote your baby’s brain development, but also allow you to spend valuable time with your baby. Hopefully you found these tips helpful and informational!

3. Mentalise with baby

Consider or imagine what your baby is thinking or feeling (this is called mentalising). Research shows that babies benefit (and become securely bonded) from relationships with their caregivers when they consider how they might feel. Is baby bored, cold, uncomfortable, hungry, happy, interested, curious or tired? Be aware of what tone and words you use with your baby and how he or she responds. Whilst we can not know exactly what they are thinking and feeling we can try to understand based on their expressions and body language.

Interested to learn more?

Journal articles

Johnson, M. Functional brain development in humans. Nat Rev Neurosci 2, 475–483 (2001).

Tierney AL, Nelson CA 3rd. Brain Development and the Role of Experience in the Early Years. Zero Three. 2009 Nov 1;30(2):9-13. PMID: 23894221; PMCID: PMC3722610.

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