Motor, Cognitive, Verbal, and Social Skills in a One-Year-Old

Whether you plan a banquet-hall bash or celebrate with a homemade cupcake and silly hats, your child's first birthday is a big deal. That tiny, helpless newborn is growing up, and each day brings another amazing milestone.

Babies develop at different rates. By 12 months, some are walking, talking (a bit), and feeding themselves. Others may not master all of those skills for several more weeks or even a couple of months. Within this range of normal, you can watch for some common milestones.

Gross Motor Skills

The twelve-month mark is a little like that last gasp of infancy, at least physically. From this point on, your child's body shape will begin to change as she becomes more active, which will lead to more muscle tone and less baby fat.

These movement changes are part of her gross motor skill development, which is associated with the improved use of large muscle groups like her arms and legs. Around age one, these new skills will manifest in her ability to:

  • Get into a sitting-up position on her own
  • Crawl
  • Pull herself up to stand using your hands or furniture
  • Walk (or "toddle") by holding onto furniture
  • Possibly stand on her own
  • Possibly take a few steps without holding onto you or another support

Highlight: Around this age, your baby may start "cruising." This is when she moves about pretty quickly by grabbing hold of furniture or other objects. Of course, your new toddler doesn't know which objects are stationary and okay to grab on to, so you should be careful not to keep unsteady items in her path. Folding tables, delicate breakables, and stacked items that can topple could all pose a danger. Since it will now be easier for her to access different parts of the house, you also want to sure you've baby-proofed well.

Fine Motor Skills

One of the great moments at a first birthday party may be watching your child pick up bits of his cake and feed himself. He's able to do this because his fine motor skills are much more developed and he has better control over those tiny finger and hand muscles. This allows him to use a pincer grasp, using his thumb and second or third finger to pinch items to pick them up.

This improved coordination will allow him to:

  • Feed himself finger foods
  • Begin to scribble with a crayon
  • Cover and uncover jars or boxes
  • Tear up paper
  • Put items into a container and take them out again
  • Turn rotating handles (like on a jack-in-the-box toy)
  • Bang items together
  • Put large pegs in holes

Highlight: Your one-year-old's newfound dexterity will make him eager to investigate objects around him. Musical instruments that he can shake and bang will delight him as will toys with levers, wheels, and other moving parts. Blocks are a perennial favorite game, especially the part where he gets to knock down a tower you built together.

Intellectual or Cognitive Skills

As your child reaches her first birthday, she begins to understand that things have names and that certain items have specific functions. So, as her attention span grows at this age, you'll be able to introduce new items and teach her more about the world around her. At this age, you'll start to see her be able to:

  • Find hidden objects
  • Manipulate items to get a response (shake a maraca, bang the bottom of a bucket, drop her cup, etc.)
  • Look towards an item when it's named
  • Copy gestures or movements you make
  • Understand the proper use for things like a hairbrush, spoon, cup, remote control, etc. even if she doesn't know exactly how to work it
  • Follow very simple direction like "kiss" or "say bye-bye"

Highlight: One-year-olds are great mimics, and it thrills them to copy things that you do. This is a great time to introduce active songs and finger plays. She'll learn to follow your motions in rhythm with the music and lyrics.

Verbal Skills

At the end of your baby's first year, he still relies on methods of nonverbal communication, such as pointing, gesturing, or throwing items. But the coos and screams of the early baby talk will now give way to distinct sounds like "da," "ba," "ga," and "ma." Slowly she will begin to pull those together into recognizable words, and all the while, you'll see her comprehending more and more of what you're saying. At this stage she starts to:

  • Respond to her name
  • Follow very simple instructions and requests
  • Understand "no"
  • Use nonverbal gestures like shaking her head or pointing
  • Babble, making sounds that are more like conversational speech
  • Sometimes say "mama," "dada," or other words she hears often
  • Imitate sounds that you make

Highlight: The best way to help your child develop verbal skills at this age is to talk to her constantly. As you dress her, talk about the color of the clothes, the feel of the fabric, the name of the body part you're touching. Name items that you use every day: the towel, the cup, the car, the doll, etc. Try to be consistent and to avoid using cutesy names such as "toesywoesy" for toes. This "labeling," will help her to learn the names of objects and actions and prepare her to begin speaking on her own.

Social Skills

Young toddlers can be a bit unpredictable. One minute your child ignores you, the next he's clinging to you with all his might. It's very normal for your one-year-old's temperament to fluctuate and for him to display more anxiety than before. But, while you may notice him become a bit more wary of strangers, you'll also see an amazing desire to interact with others, especially siblings and regular caretakers.

By 12 months of age, you'll probably see him:

  • React to unfamiliar situations or people with shyness or nervousness
  • Show preference for mom or dad or certain caregivers
  • Have a favorite toy or spot in the house
  • Help you help him get dressed by putting out legs or switching arms
  • Play "peek-a-boo," "pat-a-cake," or other interactive games

Highlight: Peek-a-boo can actually let you teach young children the idea of permanence, which will help a child with separation anxiety to understand that, while you might leave the room (or the house) for a period of time, you will come back. Try variations with toys, hiding them under a blanket and then unveiling them with a dramatic "peek-a-boo!" You can then move on to hide-and-seek type games where you hide in easy-to-find places and let your toddler find you. As she realizes that you'll always be found, she may become better able to spend time away from you.

"Developmental Milestones: Toddlers." Web.

Powell, J. and Smith, C.A. "Developmental milestones: A guide for parents." Manhattan, KS: Kansas State University Cooperative Extension Service. Web. 

Shelov, Sreven P. M.D., M.S., F.A.A.P., et. al. Caring for Your Baby and Young Child Birth to Age 5. Banatam Book, 2009.