From the moment they’re born, infants are working on their social lives. They’re learning about who they can rely on, how to have a conversation and how to interact with those around them.
Smiles—one of the major social milestones—tend to show up after the first few months of non-stop breastfeeding, spotty sleeping and general exhaustion. (In other words, just when you need them most.) “The first time they smile when you’re looking at them or talking to them, that’s a beautiful moment,” says parenting educator Andrea Nair. After that, watch for baby to mimic the sounds and movements you make; these are early attempts at communication. This is also where the sock-removal prowess comes in. It’s not about warm or cold feet—it’s about play and movement.
A demanding baby is a healthy baby. As paediatrician Janice Heard says, “Babies require a lot of attention. They want to be held and talked to; they want to see things.” A lack of social interaction—which can include eye contact or reaching for you—that persists past six months to a year is a clue that a child may be on the autism spectrum, which is usually not diagnosed until the age of 18 months.
What to watch for
They’ll be grinning when you grin at them, but also spontaneously. And by eight months, most babies will smile at the baby they see staring back at them in the mirror—not because they recognize themselves, but because they’re learning that smiling is a social act.
As part of the continuous formation of neural pathways that’s happening in their brains, babies are quick to read social cues from those around them and test them out. In one study out of the University of New Hampshire, babies as young as six months looked for the reactions their parents had when witnessing the same absurd or silly events. By 12 months, they internalized this ability—they know that a weird noise, absurd movements or a silly face is indeed funny and will no longer check on their parents’ reaction before laughing.
Copying body movements (three months): You are your baby’s first and most influential teacher. She is always watching you, and while she may not nail them, she is trying to copy your body movements—including those cheesy Drake moves you do while making coffee.
By 12 months, babies copy the behaviours of others while they play—and they’ll not only imitate your moves but also the more mundane acts such as, well, making that coffee. I once thought I had a mini-barista in the house, but I really had a mini-me who was well on his way to being a social butterfly.
What parents can do
Want to ensure your child learns how to pick up on social cues? Pick up on hers. She’s looking to you to answer her when she’s hungry, tired or needs a hug. Interact with your baby as much as you can, even during something as routine as a diaper change—say, “Let me count your toes,” and respond to the looks on your baby’s face, says Heard.
The CPS says responding “warmly and predictably” when your baby reaches out will help her feel not only safe but heard. And it can be fun, too. Even a silly shared gesture like a raspberry can be a precursor to having a conversation, says Nair. “They learn it, then it’s a back and forth conversation: I do it, and then you do it,” she says.
Reading and singing are key here, too, in a way that goes beyond language. When you’re singing a song your kid knows, pause and watch for him to get excited about the next line. “They just want you to do the next step. These are all important parts of social language,” says Nair.