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How Your Baby Learns and Grows

Watching babies grow and develop is endlessly fascinating. Parents, of course, celebrate each new accomplishment as if their child is the first ever to learn to smile, pull hair, scoot along the floor, or say "ball." But even a veteran baby-watcher like me still marvels at how much infants change and learn in that first year.

Many new parents want to know exactly when to expect that next milestone. What I tell them is this: Infant growth can be viewed as a developmental elevator. Your baby rides up from floor to floor, stopping at each level to learn a new skill. With nurturing and care, she graduates to the next stage at a pace determined in part by her genes and her temperament. Babies also build skills based on the environment they find on each floor. If the interaction with her caregivers is responsive and enriching, she is more likely to get back on the elevator with more skills, making the ride up to the next stage smoother.

That said, there's a wide range of what's considered "normal" infant development. Babies spend different amounts of time at each stage before moving on to the next one. Some make a brief stop at one level and quickly progress to the next; others seem to skip a stage entirely. Knowing this may help you avoid the neighborhood race to see whose baby sits or crawls or walks first. Here, a guide to the milestones that your child is reaching during this action-packed time.

Contributing editor William Sears, M.D., is the author, with his wife, Martha Sears, R.N., of The Baby Book.

Birth to 3 Months

Smiles • Holds eye contact, studies faces • Makes first sounds • Opens hands and swipes at things • Stretches out arms and legs • Lifts and turns head

Newborns have amazing abilities. They can hold an adult's gaze, recognize parents' voices, identify their mother's face, and respond to the unique smell of breast milk. They can cry to signal their needs, and communicate in more subtle ways  -- nuzzling the breast or opening their mouths as they search for the nipple.

Even more amazing is how much Baby's social skills grow in the first months of life. As his vision matures and he is able to focus more clearly, he studies faces and starts to smile in response to others. A baby's smiles are a parent's reward for the long hours of caregiving and the lost sleep of the early months. His face also expresses emotions from excitement and pleasure to worry and distress.

By the third month, your baby's sleeping patterns become more regular and his communication skills improve. Every time you respond to your baby's cries you are teaching him that his sounds have meaning. Reading your baby's cues and appropriately responding to them helps build trust that allows his social skills to blossom.

Baby also begins to gain control over his body in the first three months. His neck muscles become stronger and his head no longer needs your support when you hold him upright in your arms. When placed on his tummy, a 1-month-old can lift his head enough to turn it to the side. By 3 months, he can lift his head off the floor while propped up on his elbows.

4 to 6 Months

Develops binocular vision • Accurately tracks moving objects and people • Reaches with both hands and can hold onto toys and people • Cries less, babbles more • Begins learning to sit

At each stage of development babies acquire a master skill, one that helps them branch out into other activities. Binocular vision (using both eyes together) is the master skill of a 4-month-old. It's an important milestone, since using both eyes is necessary for depth perception.

As your baby learns to judge distances, she can use her hands more efficiently. A 4-month-old can gather objects, and by 6 months, a baby will be able to grab an object with one hand and transfer it to the other. Put away any necklaces and hang on to your eyeglasses  -- babies love to explore their parents' faces with their fingers and pull off what's not fastened down.

As Baby's neck and back muscles grow stronger, she'll be more comfortable on her tummy and will be able to lift her head, neck, and legs off the floor. Rolling over is another milestone usually achieved at this time. Your baby may startle herself (and surprise you) one day when she rolls from her tummy to her back and cannot roll back the other way, a move that requires more muscle strength.

A 5- or 6-month-old may be ready to experiment with sitting. You can prop her up with pillows to help her sit and to cushion the inevitable tumbles. She'll need to keep her hands on the floor at first to help her balance. By 6 months parents are very aware of their baby's temperament and learning style, both of which affect her development: Active babies may accomplish motor milestones sooner and are more accident prone, while quieter types may spend more time studying their environment.

7 to 9 Months

Sits unsupported • Lunges from sitting to crawling • Picks up tiny objects with thumb and forefinger • Gestures to communicate

Babyproof your home and get ready for the curious explorer. Infants vary tremendously in how and when  -- and even whether  -- they crawl. Many babies work on "combat crawling" first, wriggling forward on their bellies and elbows. As they get stronger, they manage to push up from the floor and rock on hands and knees. They may stall in this position, comically unsure of exactly what combination of arms and legs will help them move forward. Others may move in a half-sitting position rather than the classic hands-and-knees style of crawling.

While some babies may crawl at 6 months and walk by a year, most take a little longer. Some skip crawling altogether and work on pulling themselves up into a standing position. By 7 or 8 months of age, most babies can sit and balance well. They can reach to pick up toys and drop them from the high chair.

While learning to feed herself, your baby may use all of her fingers to pick up food, hold it in her fist, and bring it to her mouth. As her finger skills improve, she'll learn to pick up those O-shaped cereal bits between her thumb and fingers, advancing eventually to a pincer grasp that uses only the thumb and the forefinger. Make sure that anything your baby picks up this way is safe to eat, because you can bet it's headed for her mouth.

Along with all the motor activity, babies this age begin to babble. They mix consonant sounds with vowels and chatter away. Babbling babies do not form actual words, but they do sound as if they're engaged in a real conversation. Pitch, volume, and inflection all vary. You can encourage your baby's use of sounds and gestures to communicate by responding when she "talks" to you. Babies at this age also begin to use gestures to communicate  -- pointing at the cat, pulling at mom's blouse to nurse, raising arms when they want to be picked up. She'll also show you that she understands important words used in your family: Mama, Daddy, the names of siblings or pets, "bye-bye," or car.

10 to 12 Months

Progresses from crawling to cruising to walking • Babbles words that sound like "mama," "dada," "cat" • Waves "bye-bye"

As your baby's ground transportation abilities improve, an interesting psychological wrinkle develops: separation anxiety. Now that baby is capable of leaving Mother behind, she becomes fearful when she can't see her familiar attachment figure. It's as if nature put the fear there as a backup system, so that babies don't stray too far as they learn to crawl and walk.

One reason that separation fears intensify toward the end of the first year is that Baby is still learning to store and call up memories. Cover a ball with a turned-over cup and an 8- or 9-month-old will assume that it's gone. If he can't see it, it ceases to exist for him. By 12 months, the baby searches for the ball, lifts up the cup, and finds it. (This concept is called object permanence.) When Mother or Father goes away, Baby is not too sure that this important attachment figure will return and therefore will fuss and feel anxious. Your child will also begin to understand concepts such as "empty" and "inside of." Container play is a great way to keep an almost 1-year-old busy.

Standing and walking are the most dramatic accomplishments of a baby's first year. Before babies can stand independently, they practice scaling up furniture, pulling themselves up in a crawling motion and then balancing on two feet, while hanging on for dear life. As their legs get stronger and their balance improves, they start to move, inching their way along the edge of the sofa, not sure of what to do when they reach the end. If you're there, they may let go and take a step or two in your direction before plopping down on their padded bottoms.

Keep in mind that babies must accomplish these skills on their own timetables. Some will walk at 9 months and amaze the relatives. Others won't walk until they are 15 or 16 months  -- but this doesn't mean they'll be any less of a star on the soccer field at the age of 8. When an infant acquires a skill is not as important as the fact that he's moving through a series of developmental milestones. Enjoy watching your child's development: Your baby's personality  -- as unique as his fingerprint  -- will begin to magically unfold before your eyes.

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