Baby development

First smile to first friend: Baby's social skills

Your baby’s budding social skills

By Trish Snyder
First smile to first friend: Baby's social skills

Rylie Harris was a few weeks old when he performed his first party trick. Rob Harris had been cradling his son in his lap making silly faces when the Toronto dad hit pay dirt: He stuck out his tongue and Rylie did the same thing back! Harris knew his son’s new talent would be a hit at the next family gathering, but he had no idea he was actually teaching him an early lesson in social skills.

Imitating facial expressions is just one of the ways babies learn how to get along with others. And what a gift it is. “Social skills are hugely important in family life, at school and, eventually, at work,” says Sarah Shea, a paediatrician who specializes in development and behaviour at IWK Health Centre in Halifax. According to experts at the Canadian Institute of Child Health, babies and toddlers learn about relationships through all their senses: They notice the way you look into their eyes; see expressions on your face; hear you cooing, singing, talking and reading; and feel you rocking or holding them. And just as milk nourishes their bodies, social interactions help feed children’s emotional and intellectual growth.

A baby’s life experiences are a huge contributor to her budding social skills. And who plays a starring role in her life? You! “When it comes to social behaviour, parents are powerful models,” says Shea. So, are you ready for this monumental performance? After all, between birth and age three, babies are picking up social skills faster than we can pick up after them. Here’s how your baby learns about other people, and how you can foster her social development.


What you’ll notice
Social development begins with your baby’s first cry and that powerful eye-to-eye gaze. During this phase, she’ll start mimicking faces (good move, since learning to read the expressions of others is so important in our society). By one or two months, babies can already distinguish your voice from other sounds; don’t be surprised when your baby stops moving or regularly turns her gaze in your direction when you look, smile or talk to her. This responsiveness is the first step towards social interaction, which involves going back and forth from one person to another, says health system scientist Melanie Barwick, at The Hospital for Sick Children and assistant professor in the departments of psychiatry and public health sciences at the University of Toronto.

What you can do
Helping your newborn feel calm in the world — remember, it’s loaded with sensations that were absent in the womb — is essential in the beginning. If she’s comfortable in the world, that leaves her attention free to engage with people, says child psychiatrist Stanley Greenspan, co-author of First Feelings (Penguin). Try to:

• Engage your baby each day and pay close attention to her likes and dislikes: The better your care meets her needs, the easier it will be for her to feel comfortable enough in the world to be curious about it. She may tell you she’s overstimulated by closing her eyes, turning away or becoming fussy.

• Respond to her cries with your face, a soothing voice or gentle stroking or rocking. Experts agree that you can’t spoil a newborn with too much love.


• Reply enthusiastically to her sounds without interrupting or looking away. She’ll get the message that she’s interesting enough for you to respond to.

3 to 6 months

What you’ll notice
From early on, Ashley Sanderson has been striking up conversations with her six-month-old, David. “Now when we ask him a question, he answers back with ohhs and ahhs and one of his favourites, bababababa,” says the mom from Burlington, Ont. “And if we don’t talk to him for a few minutes, he gets our attention with a nice loud scream and a smile!”

Make no mistake: David is already practising his speech. Early in this period, if you listen closely, you might hear your baby’s voice float up as if he’s posing a question. Now when you make a funny face, he’ll probably smile or laugh. Your little one can respond to his name and to seeing himself in a mirror, and may recognize a word he hears often such as Mama, Dada or his name.

What you can do
Return your baby’s smiles, offer your hand when he reaches out, ask questions and respond with enthusiasm to whatever answers you get. Be sure to pause after you speak: Babies take a bit longer to respond, so your patience will give him a chance to vocalize and learn that conversation involves taking turns.


“Treat your baby as a social being,” suggests Barwick. “Talk when you’re in the car, even if he won’t understand at first.” Babies can understand simple words long before they can pronounce them.

If he’s bored or frustrated and screeches to get your attention, remind yourself that this is mostly a good thing. (Hey, at least he’s communicating!) Respond supportively, but give him extra attention once he’s stopped fussing.

6 to 12 months

What you’ll notice
At this stage babies start to communicate with the intent that the person hearing them will react in some way (asking for juice, etc.). They’ll also seek comfort when distressed. “When you read your baby’s signals and respond,” says Barwick, “she continues to develop the confidence that her needs will be taken care of, that there’s a consistency in the world that she can count on.” This introduces her brain to an important concept: cause and effect. By the end of this phase, your little one may start gesturing and using body language, such as nodding and waving bye-bye. Towards the end of this stage, some babies can say Mama, Dada and other simple words. And she’ll start watching and imitating other babies.

What you can do
Name the emotions your baby shows: “Are you hungry?” or “You’re sad because you bumped your knee!” This helps her develop the social capacity to understand feelings.


Play peekaboo to show your baby that when you go, you also come back. Or add a running commentary to your travels around the house (“Mommy’s going to the kitchen to get a drink — Mommy will be back”).

Try not to think of your child as being clingy or manipulative during separation anxiety, which often appears at about eight months and peaks at around 18 months. You won’t be able to stop her from feeling upset, but you can help her cope with these emotions. Acknowledge how she’s feeling and explain that you’ll return (use timing she can understand, such as “I’ll be back after your nap”). “When you’re leaving for longer periods of time, make goodbyes brief,” suggests Barwick. “Don’t draw it out or the anxiety will mount.” You can also minimize his worry by offering a transitional object, such as a treasured blanket or stuffed animal.

12 to 18 months

What you’ll notice
Your baby has been replaced by a toddler, a curious, passionate little creature who believes the world exists just for him! He’s taking strides towards independence — walking, feeding himself, learning to talk — and that drive to independence means he’s also starting to resist when you set limits.

Toddlers are also beginning to develop relationships with other kids. Toddlers aren’t truly able to play together the way older kids do, but they enjoy “parallel play” — playing side by side as each does his own thing. And because concepts like sharing, taking turns and asking nicely are still beyond them, they need adults to help them have a happy time together.


What you can do
Be patient: You might expect children to know how to get along, but playing together is a skill toddlers need help with. You can model how to take turns without grabbing, etc. As you explain why, use yes and no warmly instead of punitively. “Toddlers are not elegant, sophisticated social creatures,” says Barwick. “You need to guide them along this bumpy path.”

Learning the rules of getting along can stir up intense toddler feelings. Set a good example: When you find yourself getting frustrated, try saying things out loud like “Even if we’re a bit late, it will be all right.” It also helps your toddler if he sees that you take his feelings seriously and acknowledge them. Instead of saying, “Why are you so upset — it’s no big deal!” you might say, “I see that you’re upset because it’s Sarah’s turn with the wagon. It will be your turn again soon.”

18 to 24 months

What you’ll notice
Children can typically play alone for a few minutes by now. They continue to relate to other toddlers by playing alongside or even taking toys away — much to most parents’ horror! “From an evolutionary perspective, we’re not hard-wired to share, so it’s not a logical stage for a toddler,” says Shea. Toddlers at this age do like to point out to a parent or caregiver what they’re interested in. They may start to show empathy and react with their own tears to someone in pain. And their speech is improving, so others outside the family may start to understand their words.

What you can do
Allow your child to be little. The more you acknowledge and support your child’s need for greater dependency and comforting, the better you’ll help her resolve her problems, believes Greenspan.


When she does share — whether it’s a toy or feelings — look for opportunities to reinforce good behaviour. A lot of warmth and acceptance comes with a positive comment, notes Barwick.

Include your toddler in meal routines, family gatherings and outings to give her a sense of herself as part of a larger family and community.

2 to 3 years

What you may notice
Language development and your child’s ability to observe others explodes during this year, so be on your best behaviour! He’ll continue working on expressing his feelings, though children with a low frustration tolerance may bite, hit or pull hair in a crisis. During this phase, children are also learning to take turns in songs and games — with your help, of course — and co-operating to put away toys.

Your child’s temperament also affects how he plays. Just like adults, some kids march right up to peers and others are slow to warm up to people. If he’s slow, provide extra time for him to stay close to you while he gets acquainted, and provide him with opportunities to play in smaller groups or with just one little friend. “Whatever you do, don’t look at this trait as a character flaw — it’s your child’s unique style,” says Shea.


What you can do
Make sure you’re comfortable with the social behaviour your child is being exposed to. How do people interact at home? What is he learning on TV or in movies?

Let your toddler be master of his own domain — within limits — such as choosing his own clothes to wear. Who cares if purple socks don’t match his khaki shorts and plaid shirt? Doing things himself boosts a toddler’s social-emotional development.

Play and read with your child every day. According to Greenspan, the more interactive conversation and play your child gets, the more he learns about relating by absorbing info from you.

Sliding backward
Don’t be surprised to see your toddler regress from time to time. It’s normal at this age to simultaneously push parents away and pull them close as she seeks a reassuring balance between independence and security. Learning new skills takes a lot of effort and courage for a kid this age; after a leap forward, she may regroup and relax by being a baby again. Think of these temporary stages as the junior version of a nice hot bath; your toddler is taking a breather from being a big kid.

Don’t leave me!
Your baby may surprise you in the latter half of the first year by crying whenever you leave. This is separation anxiety, a perfectly normal phase that happens as your baby suddenly realizes that when you go away, you still exist. Before this time, if you hide a toy under a blanket, a baby won’t search for it because she “forgets” it was there. As baby grows aware of object permanence, she discovers that things — and you! — still exist even when she can’t see them. That means when she doesn’t see you, she suddenly feels anxious about your return. And although she understands that people who leave still exist, she doesn’t understand about people returning. So while separation anxiety is upsetting for you and your baby, it’s also a sign of her healthy and passionate attachment to you.


Relationship red flags
Children develop at different rates, but the following behaviours may indicate a problem with social skills. Mention it to your doctor if your child:

• is not, by 18 months, making eye contact, doesn’t gesture or seek to share emotion by showing things to you

• can’t, by age three, play near other children without aggression, doesn’t seek out social contact and shows more anti-social than pro-social behaviour. “If a three-year-old is not at all interested in other children, I’d need to understand that better,” says paediatrician Sarah Shea.

Problems at play?
Selena Amati is worried about her 35-month-old’s style of play. “She goes to daycare twice a week and will play alongside the other children, but not really interact with them.” This doesn’t surprise Shea: “Many parents don’t recognize that it’s not usually until about age three that interactive play begins to happen.” Even then, you’ll notice a lot more episodes of children doing things near each other rather than really building on each other’s play.

This article was originally published on Oct 24, 2011

Weekly Newsletter

Keep up with your baby's development, get the latest parenting content and receive special offers from our partners

I understand that I may withdraw my consent at any time.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.