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The Social Life of Babies


Overview

Infants are hardwired to be social. Before birth, your baby was listening to the sound of your voice and learning to distinguish it from others. And studies have shown that even day-old newborns prefer photos of people to photos of objects. You don't need a lot of toys or interaction with other infants to teach your baby social skills. A lot of what he'll learn will come naturally  -- just by watching you.

Your baby's first interactions

During her first weeks, it may seem as if your baby isn't interacting much with you, but don't be fooled  -- she's actually paying very close attention to your face and the sound of your voice. This is how she's learning about the people around her  -- and about the way they express emotions.

To encourage your baby to socialize:

Respond to her needs promptly. Comfort her when she cries. Feed her when she's hungry. When you react to her wants, she learns that she can trust you to interpret her needs. And that trust is the foundation for her social development.

Play copycat. Even very young babies can mimic facial expressions. Next time your baby's alert and looking at you, try sticking out your tongue. After a few seconds, she may copy you. (You can also try widening your eyes or opening your mouth to see if she does the same thing.) This is how she gets to practice facial expressions and gets a sense of turn-taking.


The first smile

When your baby is around 5 to 8 weeks old, he'll flash that unmistakable, just-for-you grin  -- in part, a result of better muscle control and all those weeks of watching you smile at him. Around this time, your child will be able to recognize the difference between basic human emotions  -- happiness, anger, fear, surprise  -- just by looking at your facial expressions. So he'll smile when you do, and may even cry if he hears you getting angry at someone else.


The power of words

One of the most important tasks in a baby's social development is learning to make sense of language. Even from her earliest days she's listening to what you say. But it will take months before your baby grasps what individual words mean, and many months after that before she'll have the dexterity to say the words and the mental ability to match the right word to an object.

When she's about 2 months old, you'll notice that she'll stare adoringly at you, especially at your eyes and mouth. In a few weeks, she'll coo at you.

To help along your baby's language development:

Go ahead and stare. Eye contact and smiling at each other are key nonverbal ways to communicate.

Babble back. When she coos and gurgles, respond with a few of your own (or whatever sweet words your baby's noises inspire). This pattern  -- you talk and I respond, then I talk and you respond  -- is the foundation of dialogue. By treating your baby's noises as if they were speech, you're teaching her the rules of polite conversation.


Stranger and separation anxiety

At around 7 months, your baby will probably cry when he's in the arms of anyone else except you and his dad. He's starting to understand that he's a separate person rather than an extension of you. And this realization scares him, which is why he's become more clingy. Also, he's not really sure that when you disappear from his line of sight you'll come back.

Fortunately, this stage won't last forever: Stranger anxiety peaks around his first birthday, while separation anxiety peaks anywhere from 13 to 15 months.

What you can do to minimize his fears:

Give your baby time to adjust to a new environment. Let him sit on your lap or at your feet until he feels comfortable enough to crawl away.

Make "strangers" less threatening. Anyone your baby doesn't see that often is a stranger, even Grandma. So for the time being tell people to stoop to your baby's level (rather than towering above him), don't reach out to touch or hold him right away, and don't inadvertently block his view of you or his dad.

Play peekaboo. Besides being fun, the game teaches him that when Mom "disappears" behind her hands or the sofa cushion, she always comes right back.


The role of temperament

Each baby is born with his own social style  -- some are drawn to more exuberant people; others respond better to gentle voices and quiet gestures. But even if your baby is shy and reserved, it doesn't mean he won't be more outgoing when he's older. It's all about managing his fears. So if he doesn't want to be held by a particular person, just keep him in your arms. If you can, join a moms' group with fewer babies or a daycare that has smaller class sizes and one teacher. The idea is to help him adjust at his own pace rather than trying to force him into uncomfortable situations.


Other social building blocks

* Involve your baby in your day-to-day interactions  -- when she's in a front-carrier or her bouncy seat, she can watch the ways adults communicate.

* Tickle her. Any sort of tickle game teaches a baby how humor works and how to distinguish between serious human interactions and playful ones.

* Let your baby hang out with bigger kids. She'll want to look at them and maybe even feel their faces and hair. This is her way of studying them.


Signs of a social delay

Not all babies are on the same schedule. Don't worry if your baby isn't smiling back at you at exactly 6 to 8 weeks, or hasn't begun to coo at 3 months. But if he isn't babbling by 3 to 4 months, or he's not smiling at people by the time he's 3 months old and seems more focused on objects rather than faces, talk to your pediatrician.


Summary

Most of what you're doing already  -- from hugging and kissing your baby to speaking and playing with her  -- helps her learn how to interact with others. It'll be some time before your baby's ready to build peer friendships (see our Making Friends guide), but you can lay the groundwork for a rich social life as she's older.


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