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10 Essential Baby Milestones

Every milestone—from when your baby first holds up her sweet little head to when she speaks her first word—is thrilling. These moments aren't just exciting and fun; they're also markers that can clue you in to your baby's development.

Most parents already know to look for the much-lauded ones, like rolling over and walking. But of the multitude of milestones cited by the American Academy of Pediatrics, some are considered more significant. Here, 10 milestones that are worth paying a little extra attention to during your child's first two years:

Eye contact

(between 6 and 8 weeks)

This is one of the first milestones you'll notice, and it's a big deal not just because your baby is finally paying attention to you, and following you with her eyes, but also because it indicates that her neurological growth and ability to communicate are on track. She's demonstrating that her brain is registering a familiar face. In a sense, she's saying, "Hey, I know who you are."

Laura Weber was worried when, at 4 weeks, her infant, Nicole, never met her gaze. "Whenever I tried to make eye contact with her, she'd look over my shoulder instead," says the mom of three from Fredericksburg, Virginia. Fueling her concern was the fact that her first daughter, now 4, hit all the milestones on the early side of "normal." When Weber voiced this at Nicole's checkup, her pediatrician stressed that with milestones, there's a wide range of normal. Indeed, Nicole reached this one at 3 months, the late side of normal.

If Nicole hadn't begun to make eye contact after 3 months, her doctor would have suggested vision testing to rule out eye disease. The next step would have been to look for signs of attachment or behavior problems. But experts urge parents to refrain from jumping to the worst-case conclusion. "You have to be very cautious about assuming your child has a certain condition. It has to be taken in context with so many other things," says Martin Stein, M.D., director of developmental-behavioral pediatrics at Rady Children's Hospital San Diego.

The more likely reason for no eye contact is that you're looking at the wrong times. "An infant needs to be in a quiet but alert mental state to respond in this way, and most of the time an infant is awake she's tired or hungry," says Dr. Stein. The lesson? Be patient, and keep your eyes open.

From smiles to reaching and grabbing

Social smile

(between 6 and 8 weeks)

This isn't the spontaneous smile that happens when your few-hours-old infant passes gas or your 3-week-old grins at the ceiling. A social smile is reciprocal, meaning your baby smiles in response to someone else's smile. It's a sign that several different parts of the brain are maturing. It says he's able to see short distances, make sense of an object (in this case a smiling face) and produce his own smile in return. A social smile also boosts bonding, since it's one of the first forms of communication between parent and child.

If despite your encouraging grins you don't notice a social smile by 3 months, bring it up with your pediatrician; rarely this can signal eye problems or an attachment disorder. Again, being patient and looking for times when your baby is well rested may be all it takes to see him smile.

Cooing

(around 8 weeks)

During your baby's first several weeks, she communicates mainly by crying. But around 8 weeks, there's a lot of activity that begins to take place in the brain's front temporal lobe (the brain's speech center) that lets your baby coo. "I often half jokingly say that if she has a social smile, can follow movement with her eyes and can coo, it means she has the ability to go to college, since there's so much that has to be working right in the brain for these things to occur," says Dr. Stein.

When she coos, she's using the back of her throat to create vowel sounds like ah-ah-ah and oh-oh-oh. Try talking back, and she may respond with another ah-ah-ah. Don't expect your infant to coo on cue though; she still needs time to master her coo conversation. One of the best things you can do to promote this is to narrate your life: "Mommy is putting on your shoes so we can go to the park. Do you like the park?" Whatever you talk about, your baby just loves the sound of your voice. If she doesn't spontaneously coo by 3 months, check with your doctor, who'll likely run hearing tests.

Babbling

(3 to 4 months)

Eventually your baby will move on to babbling. This is different from cooing because it requires using the tongue and the front of the mouth (rather than the throat) to make sounds like nah-nah-nah and bah-bah-bah. Different situations inspire babbling in different babies. For Erin England Acosta's daughter, Samantha, a change of scenery seemed to be all it took. "Samantha hardly made a peep until she started daycare at 6 months, and after the first week, she was babbling up a storm," says the Orange, California, mom.

Once your baby begins babbling, she'll likely want to try out her newly acquired skill—a lot. This practice will ultimately bring her to the next significant milestone at 6 to 8 months: reciprocal babbling. This shows that she's learned she can respond to another person's voice by using her own—a crucial first step in early language. If you don't hear babbling by the time your baby is 6 months, talk with your pediatrician to discuss your concerns.

Reaching and grabbing

(between 5 and 7 months)

"When a child begins to reach and grab, it says she can act intentionally on the world," says Claire Lerner, director of parenting resources for Zero to Three, a national nonprofit organization devoted to promoting healthy development for infants and toddlers. "It shows desire, interest and curiosity, which are all critical for learning."

To encourage reaching and grabbing, get down on the floor with your baby and place a favorite toy just out of reach. The more opportunities you create, the more you engage her senses and entice her to touch, smell, look, and learn about objects.

From standing to playing pretend

Pulling up to a stand

(9 to 10 months)

One of the first signs that your baby is getting ready to walk is that he begins to pull himself up to a standing position. "This is one of the most important gross motor [large muscle] milestones because it shows the stability and strength of the legs and trunk, which are both necessary for walking," says Dr. Stein.

It also shows that your child has the motivation to reach a goal—to get to that red block sitting on the coffee table, for instance. To help your child learn to pull himself up, it's a good idea to give him lots of time to be unencumbered—to limit the time he spends in the car seat, stroller and such.

At age 1, Mary Hoskins-Clark's oldest daughter, Katie, now 5, wasn't making any attempts to pull herself up to a stand. "In fact, she wasn't even crawling," says the Westfield, New Jersey, mom of three. So Katie's pediatrician recommended she be evaluated by an occupational therapist, who concluded there was nothing hindering her ability to crawl or walk. The therapist suggested that Hoskins-Clark simply needed to entice Katie to crawl, pull up to a stand and walk (instead of carrying her everywhere, which she was prone to do), by encouraging her to come and get her favorite toy or sippy cup. Sure enough, at 14 months, Katie started to crawl. Around 16 months she started to pull up to a stand, and was walking at 19 1/2 months.

Pincer grasp

(9 to 11 months)

There's the crude pincer grasp that occurs around 7 or 8 months, when babies use all of their fingers and their thumb to pick up a spoon or toy. Then, a few months later, they refine the skill and, with either hand, very neatly take their thumb and forefinger to pick up one Cheerio or one piece of a puzzle. "Getting the pincer grasp is one of the biggest keys to independence," says Lerner. "Eventually, a child will use this grasp to do essential things like feed and dress herself and brush her teeth." Encouraging this skill is as simple as letting your child hang out in her high chair with a few Cheerios or crackers. What if she isn't catching on? Give it time. Only if your child isn't using the pincer grasp by 12 months should you get an evaluation to assess her fine motor skills.

Gesturing

(around 12 months)

When your child has eaten all his peas and motions with wide-open hands "all gone," or points to his favorite book on the bookshelf, this is a preverbal form of language. Developmental experts say that gesturing is a clear sign that your child knows what he's thinking, and he's aware that he can communicate that to you as well.

If you consistently gesture to your child, he'll probably imitate you eventually by doing it back. As with all of the milestones, give him time to get the hang of it before presuming that he's not on track.

First word

(around 12 months)

The past months of cooing, babbling, pointing and gesturing have all been stepping stones to the formation of speech. When your daughter sees a ball and pronounces "ba" or "ball," her brain is making the connection between that sound and the object. "This also signals she's beginning to understand that a sound or a word is a symbol for an object," says Lerner.

On average, children begin talking around 12 months. By 15 to 18 months, some kids may say between 20 and 50 words, while others may say only 5 to 10. At this age, a child should also understand some words, such as when you ask her to "show me your nose."

The best way to promote speech? Spend time talking or singing to your child. Daily reading is another excellent way. If there are no words by 18 months, raise your concerns with your pediatrician, who'll want to rule out hearing problems or screen for developmental delays.

Pretend play

(around 18 months)

If you're looking for a little insight into your own habits, look at your toddler, who will often begin pretend play by imitating you. At 21 months, Carina Kilroy would jump at the chance to "catch up with friends" via the family's cordless phone. "Even though she could speak in sentences, when she picked up our phone she just babbled in nonsensical language, but with inflection. You could tell she was trying to sound just like me," says her Reno, Nevada-based mom, Dana Kilroy.

There's also a serious side to pretend play—it's critical to building your child's symbolic thinking. Ultimately, a baby who lives in a rich learning environment will have lots to smile, coo and babble about.

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