Baby development

Social lives of babies

Playful interactions help babies' social development

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“Even in those very first moments, she was making eye contact with me,” says Tamara Dalcourt of her daughter Marley, now eight months old. “She knew right away that I was her resource.”

“Babies come into the world wired for social interaction,” says Laurie McNelles, a child development specialist and instructor in Toronto; in fact, their survival depends on it. As you meet your baby’s needs for comfort, food and stimulation, he learns to trust you. The connection that develops between you and your baby will become the model for the relationships he’ll form throughout his life.

Your baby’s social development begins with you, and expands outward in a widening circle of family and friends, says Margaret Peterson, who is a parent-child therapist with Infant and Child Development Services in North Bay, Ont. “If he feels safe and secure, he’s going to feel confident venturing out,” she explains.

Read on for a look at how social development unfolds.

Birth to three months

Almost from birth, a baby recognizes her mother’s scent and the taste of her milk. That’s because infants experience the world, and the people in it, through their senses. Your baby is attracted to faces and voices; the song Daddy sings every day tells her he’s one of the people she can rely on.

Your role Keep baby close. Physical contact — holding, rocking, walking — strengthens your relationship. Your baby will also benefit from being a part of the action. “Babies are learning how the world works, and that it’s a generally good place where there are people they can count on,” says McNelles.

When your baby cries, respond quickly: Feeling supported when she’s upset helps her learn how to cope with strong emotions.

Social learning happens through playful interaction right from the get-go, says McNelles. When your baby is calm and alert, you’ll notice how her gaze travels from your forehead down. If you change your facial expression, she will imitate you. Be patient — babies need time to respond. When she turns away, it means she’s had enough.

Between two and three months, your baby will grace you with his first truly social smile, a sure sign that he wants to interact with you. At first his smiles will be in response to yours, but pretty soon he’ll be smiling first.

Three to six months

Your baby will be showing a marked preference for his parents and other special people; when you come through the door, he’ll quiver with excitement and follow you with his gaze. “Marley had all kinds of different squeals and cries, and she started reaching for me pretty early on,” recalls Dalcourt.

Your role Babies are keen listeners, says McNelles. Talk to him — about the socks you’re folding or the cake you’re baking. If you make a quirky sound, he may imitate it.

By about six months, your baby will begin to babble. Soon he’ll happily chatter away in “conversation” with you. Pay attention and comment on his “stories.” As you respond, he learns the give-and-take of conversation.

Six to nine months

At this stage, your baby develops individual relationships with the different people in her life. “When her dad gets home, Marley kicks her feet in anticipation,” says Dalcourt.

You’ll see lots of gestures now — indicating that she wants to be picked up, waving bye-bye. Your baby understands the meaning of words she hears often.

Your role Your baby is learning about object permanence — that things continue to exist even when they’re out of sight — which includes you. Separation anxiety is hard to deal with, but it’s also a sign of your baby’s healthy attachment to you. If she falls to pieces when you leave her, don’t sneak off. Give your baby lots of transition time, says McNelles. Sometimes it helps to use the same reassuring words every time: “Mommy goes to the gym, but Mommy always comes back” when you say goodbye; and when you return, “Mommy’s back!”

Stranger anxiety can be equally tricky. Stay close by. If you support your baby in getting to know other people, she’ll learn to trust them too.

Nine to 12 months

Your baby’s circle is expanding to include not just his family, but a community. When people smile or chat with him at the park, how you react will influence how he feels about them. “If you’re leery, your baby will be too,” says McNelles. Note that separation anxiety is prevalent at this stage.

Your role While they’re not ready for true friendships, babies are naturally attracted to each other, says McNelles. Drop-in centres are great places to meet other little ones (and parents). “If another child is crying, she may pat his hand,” says McNelles, “a sure sign that she’s developing empathy,” the ability to understand and respond to the feelings of someone else.