It's a thrill for parents to witness a baby milestone, whether it be the first time their baby smiles, grabs, or rolls over. But what are these milestones and when do babies reach them? And how can you tell if your child is just a late bloomer or is actually delayed? Read on.
The 9 major physical milestones
Smiling (8 weeks)
Your baby has an adorable grin, but your husband says, "That's just gas." Is he right? It depends on how old your little grinner is. An infant can't produce what's called a social smile until about 8 weeks. It takes that long for his nervous system and vision to develop enough to see you and produce a smile in response.
Smiling is a baby's first social skill -- he's picking up on how relationships work -- as well as a signal of emotional growth. Your baby is showing you he can distinguish between different emotional states; he's aware that the happy feeling he gets when he sees you isn't the same as the sad feeling he has when you're not around.
Rolling over (2 or 3 months)
During tummy time (which you should supervise), your baby may lift herself into a push-up position and then start to rock back and forth or kick her feet. Then, if she's strong enough, those movements will send her rolling over. (She may get startled and cry the first time!) Flipping from back to front often takes until around 5 months because it requires more coordination and strength. You don't need to coach your baby to roll, though; just make sure she has a safe place to try it out if she wants to.
Grabbing (3 or 4 months)
After the first few months, babies begin to gauge where things are in space, and they can plan an action, such as grabbing a pacifier. By simply dropping something and picking it up, your baby's learning that he can manipulate things with his hands, and he's learning more details about how his toys work. He can make the rattle produce a sound, for instance, which teaches him cause and effect. Being able to grab things means he can engage more in play -- whether by himself or with you.
Hugging (5 months)
Your baby will quickly learn to hug Mom, Dad, and other people she's comfortable around -- as well as her stuffed gorilla, the cat, and anything else she adores -- by watching others hug and getting hugged herself.
Not all babies are wild about hugging, though. Some are naturally more affectionate, while others are just too busy exploring their environment to stop for a cuddle. So try not to take it personally if your baby isn't wrapping her arms around you. She might be more receptive to physical affection before naps, at bedtime, or while you're looking at a book together.
Playing peekaboo (6 months)
What is it about this game that makes your baby crack up no matter how many times you play? When a baby understands the concept of object permanence -- that even though he can't see your face, it's still there behind your hands or his blankie -- he gets a thrill from knowing that at any minute your smiling face will pop back into view.
A few months later, he'll be able to play along by hiding himself. How to increase the fun:
1. Sit close enough that your baby can see your eyes. It'll keep him focused on what you're doing.
2. Ask, "Where's Mommy?" Your voice will reassure him that you're still there.
3. Vary the length of time you're hiding and play with the tone of your voice to make the game more stimulating for him (and less monotonous for you!).
Sitting up (8 months)
Once your baby has enough balance, arm strength, and head, neck, and lower-body control, she'll be able to sit up and take in a whole new world. At this point, her improving eyesight will allow her to see objects outside her direct line of vision -- and she'll try to pull herself up to get a better look.
At first, she won't be able to sit up for long on her own and may need to put out her hand for balance. To motivate your baby to sit well, dangle or set her favorite toy in front of her, then slowly move it from side to side to encourage her to reach for the toy and rely solely on her torso and legs for balance. She'll be sitting without help in no time!
Crawling (6 to 10 months)
Now that your baby's sitting up by himself, it won't be long before he's looking to broaden his horizons. He'll probably start by repositioning himself, from sitting to being on all fours. Then he'll test his arms: When he figures out that they can support him, off he'll go. Some babies start to move without doing the typical hands-and-knees crawl. Yours might shuffle across the floor on his bottom, slither on his belly, or even roll. To encourage him, clear some space. Then place things he likes (including yourself) just out of reach. And be sure to keep him safe by childproofing the house. Take a tour on your hands and knees, and remove anything your baby shouldn't get into.
Pulling up (8 months)
Until now, your baby has depended on you to help her get up on her feet. But at around 8 months, her torso and leg muscles will be strong enough for her to stand up on her own. It's also when she'll realize that she can: Her confidence has been boosted by her ability to roll over, sit up on her own, and crawl.
At first, she'll look for things to pull up on -- the side of the crib, the arm of the sofa, your leg -- so be sure to remove objects that aren't safe or sturdy enough for support, or that have sharp edges she can fall on. And while she may not need to grab your fingers to get up anymore, she won't know how to bend her knees to sit until she's about 10 or 12 months.
Walking (10 to 18 months)
First steps represent a huge developmental leap. Walking requires muscle strength, coordination, balance -- and a certain level of emotional maturity, too. After all, when you're crawling, your center of gravity is just a few inches off the ground. To walk you need to have a bit more confidence. That's why some beginning walkers are content to cruise along the furniture for weeks. The more eager hike away and never look back.
On the most basic level, walking frees up your child's hands to carry items while he moves about independently. By incorporating everything he's learned from all the other milestones -- about space, objects, and people -- he can now bring you things. This turns a purely physical skill into a game, as well as a rich social interaction. For instance: He comes over to you with his little toy duck and you say, "Thank you." You quack a few times (to his delight), and then he takes his duck away and you say, "Bye-bye, duck."
What influences your child's development?
Some kids are daredevils: the first to climb onto the coffee table to see out the window and -- later -- the first to jump off the diving board. They're frequently the ones who walk early. More cautious kids often want to know they can do something well before they do it all.
Think of your own family -- is there one person who's particularly good at writing or loves to build things? Individual fortes can show up as early as age 1, so a child who talks early may well end up being a talented writer or orator. This doesn't mean that children who are late bloomers in these areas won't thrive in them eventually, though.
Kids with an older sib often reach milestones sooner than expected because they push themselves to keep up. On the flip side, having an older sibling may also mean that milestones come late -- if, for instance, a child has an older brother or sister who gets his toys for him rather than letting him get them himself. So sometimes you'll need to act as a referee, reminding your older child to let his brother try things by himself or not to push him too hard to do something he's not ready for yet.
Babies born early often take longer than others to reach milestones, but by age 2 they usually catch up to their peers. In fact, pediatricians say that when gauging a preemie's development, parents should begin counting from the child's due date, not from his birth date. So a child born three months early should be expected to reach at 6 months the milestones of a 3-month-old.
Signs of developmental delays
Most of the time, kids who are slow to develop in one area catch up just fine. But sometimes late milestones can signal a problem. The warning signs:
* Your child is delayed in more than one area. For instance, she's 15 months old and hasn't uttered a word or taken a step, and she seems to be wrapped up in her own world, or she doesn't turn to look at you when you enter a room or say her name.
* The delay is two months or more from the norm. He's 17 months old and not walking, or he's 7 months and hasn't smiled yet.
* Your child doesn't seem to understand or respond when you talk. Somewhere between 8 and 12 months, most babies will point to their favorite stuffed animal if you ask them where it is, or at least look in the right direction. By 12 to 15 months, they'll begin to respond to simple verbal requests: If you ask a typical 1-year-old to bring you her shoe, she will.
Easing your worries
Milestones are often a source of stress for new moms, particularly if they focus too much on checking off items on a development chart rather than simply enjoying the glorious journey of their child's growth. How to stop the worries:
Back away from the computer. Fueled by Internet searches, your mind can travel down all sorts of frightening pathways if your baby is not hitting his milestone markers. But the truth is that "normal" has very broad parameters.
Stop comparing your baby to others. There is no indication that minor variations in the achievement of milestones have any relationship to later abilities or disabilities. So just because your friend's little achiever rolls over sooner than your baby doesn't mean your kid is less advanced.
Seek help in extreme cases. A mild delay in one area of development is generally not a cause for concern, but if it's coupled with other delays, talk to your doctor. Also, let your pediatrician know when there's a lag of more than a few months in any area of development.
Your baby's first year is full of wonderful surprises -- for him and for you. Try not to worry about whether he's smiling, crawling, or walking "on time," and offer him gentle encouragement. And most of all, enjoy the ride!