At a mere 4 months, my daughter, Rachel, began to shriek when I would pass her to anyone else, even her dad. Separation anxiety, a friend told me. Too early, I thought. All the books said that's a month-9 milestone.
But my friend was right. Rachel was early, and for months she yelped at each separation. But because I was so focused on stopping the crying, I didn't consider that the weeping itself signaled a step forward in her cognitive development. Memory, it turns out, is one of the first features of intellectual growth to show itself, and Rachel's wails revealed that hers was rapidly blooming. It allowed her to hold an image of me in her mind's eye then react at each departure, much to my chagrin.
"Parents tend to focus on the physical milestones, like walking, and split them off from a child's intellectual, social, and emotional growth," says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, in New York City. "But everything happens together. All those physical abilities are controlled by the brain, and as they begin to develop, so do other aspects of the child."
Rolling over, for instance, not only shows that muscles are developing on target, but it also feeds the baby's confidence and emotional well-being. If I'd had that perspective when Rachel was a baby, I might have been more understanding of her crying and more able to have fun helping her along, instead of worrying about the timing of her achievements. More of what I wish I'd known in the first two months: Betty Holcomb is a freelance writer in New Jersey and author of The Best Friend's Guide to Maternity Leave.
Newborn to 8 weeksDuring the early weeks of life, your baby's understanding of the world is so limited that he most likely thinks of you as an extension of himself. "He doesn't know where you begin and he ends. He hasn't even found his toes yet," says Karen Deerwester, who teaches parent-education seminars in Coral Springs, Florida. His movements are more reflexive and out of control than intentional, and so are his emotions. Then, suddenly, the best thing happens.
The first time your baby flashes you a toothless grin, usually by 2 months, the earth seems to shake. "Grace was in her bouncy seat when she first recognized me and gave me this big, beaming smile. It was the greatest moment," says Brenda Mooney, a mom in Denver.
The responsive smile isn't just a charming accident. It's also a baby's first social skill -- a sign that he's picking up on how relationships work -- as well as a signal of emotional growth. With that adorable grin, your baby shows 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. He figures out quickly that when he smiles, you'll smile back, which deepens the connection.
"Likewise, at this age babies also begin to cry because of their feelings, as opposed to just responding to pure physical need, like hunger or discomfort," says Bryan Sibley, M.D., a pediatrician in Lafayette, Louisiana. "They're able to feel when they're scared or unsettled, just as they're able to experience happiness."
Milestone: sense sensibility
At about the same time, your baby's sensory equipment -- eyes and ears, especially -- has begun to mature, allowing her to focus and make visual distinctions. Up until the second month, she can see only about 9 to 12 inches clearly. But as she develops distance perception, she follows your movements, watches toys, turns toward the barking dog.
It's the first sign that your baby is making sense of the physical world -- she can now choose to look at something she likes instead of simply waiting for it to float across her field of vision. She's also more keyed in to the tone of your voice, your facial expressions, and she'll react accordingly.
You can help her along by bringing the world of experience to her. "Crinkle some cellophane, ring a bell, shake a rattle, spin the mobile," says Deerwester. "Touch her, rock her. Help her find her toes. All this stimulation is not only fun for both of you, but it also helps make her feel secure." Plus, you're letting her discover where her body ends and yours begins. It's her first glimmer of her own self.