Brain development of a one-year-old

After a first year of hard work, your baby will now continue to give structure to its brain first. Development is clearly different now than in babyhood. And as a parent, you notice that too!

Your baby is now no longer a baby, but a toddler. In toddlerhood, your baby takes three leaps until he/she is 20 months old—the leaps of “programs,” “principles” and “systems“.

It is not so much about new areas in the brain at this time, but rather the previously mentioned areas that are being further developed again, such as those responsible for cognitive learning, movement, language, and social-emotional skills, for example.

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Cognitive learning

Memories are stored in our brains. From the moment your hippocampus is developed, you are able to store memories and recall those memories moments later. We create an archive in our brain of everything we experience. The hippocampus is developed enough during this period to not only store memories, but also retrieve them. At this point, it is still mainly concerned with things that happened a few hours before or even the day before.


For example, you see that, by the time your toddler has made the leap from “programs,” he starts imitating things he has seen others do before (i.e., there is some time between seeing them and doing them himself). Or you see that your toddler suddenly applies the explanation you gave when handling something a few days ago.

So you really notice in daily interaction that your toddler has a memory. These are all effects of the leaps and development in the part of the brain responsible for cognitive learning.

Help in housekeeping!

As a matter of fact, your toddler learns the most from the things he regularly experiences in his familiar environment. That is why it is so important that you give your toddler the opportunity to help you (and thus learn!) in that familiar environment. He now also wants to help you with simple household tasks, for example. 

Moving goes more smoothly

The brain is the control center of the body. Because of the developments that are now taking place in the part of the brain responsible for movement, you see that your toddler can move more smoothly. If the first steps were still stiffened and clumsy, soon you will see that movements are becoming more and more refined.

The brain learns to control and respond better, and the muscles get better trained, all under the influence of the increasing myelin in the brain. By the time your toddler turns two, you will see that when your little one walks, its foot first lands on the heel and then very fluidly transfers weight to the toe.

Fine motor skills

All movements become more and more refined and smooth. By the time he has mastered, its gross-motor skills well (when your little one turns two), you can see that the part of the brain that plays a role in movements is still very active. After your little one turned two, he/she begins to learn to control fine-motor movements well.

In all motor development controlled by the brain, the following applies: the brain alone cannot do it. The muscles will have to do the final work. And those … just need practice.

Social-emotional: frustrations!

Everyone knows that tantrums and frustrations come with this age. Some researchers think that one of the reasons toddlers cannot control their feelings is, the brain that is still developing. They think the frustration is caused by wanting something but not yet being able to execute it well enough. Whether this involves physically doing something like running really fast or language where a toddler cannot yet express himself well enough, for example. But one thing is certain: no matter how logical the tantrums and frustrations are, you don’t have to tolerate them.

Setting rules!

Your toddler must learn clear rules from the ninth leap (the leap of”principles” at 15 months), and you as a parent must actually set rules from then on. A baby’s development is so incredibly in need of rules by then. 

Part of the explanation lies in this piece of the brain that plays a role in social-emotional skills. For example, this piece knows that “hitting” is not allowed, but other parts of the brain are very eager to release that frustration. Which part of the brain is going to win? That part that knows not to hit needs extra men in this fight. Your rules are those extra men for that piece in the brain that knows how things are actually supposed to be, and which behavior is good.


You can hear it and can’t ignore it … by the end of this period, your toddler seems to be saying new words every week. Sometimes so many that you can talk about a real vocabulary explosion. So it makes sense that the part of the brain responsible for this is now very active.

No baby talk

But language is really much more than saying words. Language is also, of course, understanding words. This is something that everyone knows, but as adults, we still sometimes confuse. Try it out: when a child speaks well, as a parent you automatically start talking back at a good level.

If your little one does not yet speak many words, you often start talking back babyishly yourself. Something that is not good! And, something that doesn’t make sense either. Because the fact that a toddler doesn’t speak (much) says nothing at all about the words he does understand! You can read more about language development in chapter 8 of The Wonder Weeks!

  • Development tip 1

Let your toddler do what he can do by himself, even if it becomes a mess. Encourage your toddler to do what he can. For example, let him butter his own sandwich. Of course, he doesn’t do it as well as we do. But if he eats the sandwich and thus gets everything in, it’s not so bad that one bite of the sandwich had a lot more (cheese) spread than another dry-bread bite, is it? Your toddler doesn’t suffer from that, but he does have the pleasure of doing and learning SELF. It is so important for development!

  • Development tip 2

Give your toddler a chance to develop gross motor skills. Make sure he can’t hurt himself on sharp objects when he falls, for example. Take him to a playground, or put some cushions in a pile in the room and climb over them together. Let him climb the stairs if you walk behind him. Falling is part of it, he’ll only learn from that. Being too careful is not good either. However … avoid falls that are really dangerous.

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