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Little Triumphs

Two days after I brought my daughter home from the hospital, the novelty wore off. No one had told me that aside from feeding, sleeping, and filling their diapers, newborns don't actually do very much. Pretty soon I was longing for those big breakthroughs, that first smile or first word  -- signs that Eve appreciated all my hard work.

But what I hadn't factored in was that those major milestones depend on a whole series of invisible achievements. And just because your baby doesn't seem to be doing very much doesn't mean she isn't watching and absorbing what goes on around her. All of these milestones count toward those big baby firsts you can't wait for.

Understands what you tell her

Eve knew what I was saying long before she learned how to form words  -- I used this skill to train her to fetch my slippers for me!

How you'll know it's kicked in: Even before she starts to babble, your baby is tuning in to the sound of words. By around 4 months she'll recognize her name and start trying to copy the noises she's heard you make. By about 6 months she's heard certain speech sounds  -- such as the "ee" in Mommy, Daddy, and doggy  -- thousands of times, and can pick out that sound clearly in speech. By 1 year she'll probably be able to show that she connects those words to the things they label. I'd ask, "Eve, where is the doggy?" and she'd glance over at the family pooch.

Why it's important: She's using what she hears to learn how to talk. This is where her copycat skills come into play. When she starts to vocalize and you take turns to coo at each other, she'll try to copy your tone and accent. And though you may not understand what she's saying, you'll notice that she sounds different when she's excited or surprised or asking a question.

Games you can play: This is easy. Your baby loves the sound of your voice, so let her hear it. Talk to her while you're out walking or doing things around the house; repeat things over and over. Or sing. You don't have to go overboard (babies like a little quiet time, too), but at this stage she's happy to listen to what you have to say.

Kate Brophy lives in Florida and has written for All You.

Knows an object exists (even if it's out of sight)

Take away your infant's favorite teddy and he really won't be bothered; as soon as it's gone, he's forgotten about it. That changes as he reaches 9 months and learns about object permanence, a fancy way of saying he'll keep pictures of things and people in his mind.

How you'll know it's kicked in: Now that your baby has a visual image of you in his head, he's a lot more aware of what he's lost when you leave the room. So you'll be very aware of his dismay whenever you do. Just ask Sydney Law of Sheperdstown, West Virginia: "Up to now I'd been feeling underappreciated because Bronte didn't bat an eyelid when I left her at daycare. Then she hit nine months and started to scream the place down!"

Why it's important: Being able to picture you when you're not there is vital for your baby's sense of security. "He needs to know that when you're gone you'll be coming back," says Linda Acredolo, Ph.D., a professor emerita of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and coauthor of Baby Minds.

Games you can play: Hide-and-seek games can help your baby work out that some things stay the same even if they disappear. Amy Biesterfeld of Boulder, Colorado, played a game with her daughter Grace as soon as she started to sit up: "I'd use a shipping tube, and put Grace's toys through it. At first she'd be amazed when they appeared through the other end, but as she got older, she knew they hadn't vanished into thin air. Now she's almost two and puts her toys down the tube herself."

Realizes he's an individual

I can't forget that feeling of being surgically attached to Eve  -- and later to her baby brother, Jack  -- as if I were the only one who would do when it came to comforting them. And now I know why: They thought they were an extension of me.

"Your newborn has no idea he's a separate person," says Barbara Frazier, a social worker and play-therapy specialist, in Gainesville, Florida. The day he begins to understand that he's an individual is the start of his urge to explore the world around him.

How you'll know it's kicked in: When he's 3 to 5 months, your baby will begin to recognize you as a distinct person (Mom!) and will smile at you in a different way. You'll also notice that he'll reach out to touch your face.

Why it's important: Once your baby understands that he can do things independently from you, it stimulates his natural curiosity to explore and, eventually, attempt to walk.

Games you can play: Good old-fashioned peekaboo. "You'll do it naturally when your baby explores your face," says Frazier. "But it really becomes more fun when he's moving away from you for short periods because it allows him to practice losing and finding you over and over."

Communicates with you

Imitation is one of the earliest ways your baby starts to learn, and because it tends to naturally flow into a two-way process, it's also her first way of "talking" to you.

How you'll know it's kicked in: It's there from day one. "Babies who are only forty minutes old will try to copy an adult who sticks out his tongue," says Andrew Meltzoff, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle and coauthor of The Scientist in the Crib. Midway through her first year she'll be able to imitate newer, more unfamiliar actions, such as opening and closing her hands.

Why it's important: This ability to mimic is linked to many skills, from holding a spoon to babbling.

Games you can play: Roshan McArthur, of Los Angeles and mom of Kaia, 8 months, says: "I touch my nose and then touch her nose and say, 'My nose, your nose.' Kaia loves it." But any simple action will reinforce this milestone. "When your baby bangs a block on the table, you can do the same and pretty soon it's a turn-taking game that she'll really enjoy," says Meltzoff.

Discovers cause and effect

Eve was crying. Again. There were times when I felt as though bawling was all she did and walking the floor with her was all I did. Now I know it was another breakthrough: She was figuring out that there was a connection between her cries and my response  -- and that she could make something happen and get her needs met.

How you'll know it's kicked in: Even newborns can work out that their sobs make Mom and Dad jump to attention! But a more rewarding demonstration of this comes at around 3 months, when your baby takes a swipe at a toy and makes it squeak.

Why it's important: "Knowing that certain actions lead to certain outcomes is important for your baby's understanding of how the world works. It means he can problem-solve, applying what he's learned to new situations," says Acredolo.

Games you can play: A rattle can start to reinforce cause and effect: Your infant shakes it, it makes a sound, so he shakes it again. Once he's able to sit, give him a wooden spoon and a pot, or push a ball toward him. To bolster his understanding, talk about what he's doing: how his banging the pot makes a noise or pushing a ball makes it roll away.

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