The Social Life of Babies
There's nothing like your baby's first smile -- it's a wonderful reward for all your hard work in the first few months. It's also the earliest obvious sign that he's ready to join the great bustle of human society.
But his ability to interact socially actually begins much earlier than that: Even before birth he was listening to your voice and learning to recognize it as distinct from others. In his early months, he was practicing the facial expressions that, later on, will convey his feelings to others. He was even telling you, through periods of rest and activity, a little bit about the kind of temperament he was born with -- a temperament that will help determine the nature of his social interactions for the rest of his life.
So although your baby can't walk or talk, much less dance all night long, he has a
rich social life from the very minute he's born. How he learns to interact with other people:
Your baby's born hardwired to be social.
Given a choice between photos of people and photos of objects, newborns show a strong preference for images of the human face, says Matthew Hertenstein, Ph.D., a professor of developmental psychology at DePauw University, in Greencastle, Indiana. At first, because their eyesight is so blurry -- about 20/500 -- they study merely the facial outline. But around 6 weeks they shift to intense study of facial features; they're especially attracted to the eyes and mouth.
At 3 months, Farrah Williams of Mount Pleasant, Michigan, is too young to play with other kids, but she studies them endlessly: "When Farrah sees others playing on the floor, she stares really hard, with a smile on her face, and kind of leans toward them as if she wants to get down there and play, too," says mom Nikki.
By 2 months, your baby's able to distinguish the difference between basic human emotions -- happiness, anger, fear, surprise -- based on facial expression alone. She won't be able to understand the meaning behind these expressions for another few months, but she can tell the difference between them and react appropriately -- smiling when you smile and getting upset if you don't smile in response to hers. By 6 to 8 months, she'll be much more adept at reading faces.
Margaret Renkl is a contributing editor to Parenting.