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Hey, That's Me

Does your baby get excited when she sees you? Does she cling to you when a stranger enters the room? Does she suck her thumb when she's upset? Each of these behaviors offers insight into your child's emotional development during her first year of life.

While many parents focus on their baby's physical changes, they often overlook the important emotional transformations taking place at the same time. That's partly because the latter are more subtle: You have to look behind the scenes a bit to make sense of what's going on. Here's a look at five first-year emotional milestones, along with some background that will help you understand your little one's development.

Contributing editor Lawrence Kutner, Ph.D., the author of five books on child development and parent-child communication, is the father of a 10-year-old son and a 22-year-old foster son.

You and I Are Different People

We don't really know how soon a newborn baby sees other people as, well, other people. Many experts say a newborn views her mother, father, and everyone else around her as simply another part of herself — in the child's mind, there isn't a clear place where she stops and you begin.

While this idea hasn't been scientifically proven, the following demonstration to help you see one piece of evidence that may support this theory. Try to tickle yourself. No matter how ticklish you are, you can't do it. Your body simply doesn't respond the same way when it's your own fingers doing the tickling as when it's someone else's. Now try to tickle your newborn. Nothing happens, right? Try again when she's a few months old, however, and she'll burst into a fit of giggles. Some experts believe this change in reaction occurs when a child is old enough to realize that you're an entirely different entity from her.

This process of self-discovery goes on throughout the first two years of a baby's life. To monitor your child's progression, try this easy test: Dot a little lipstick on her nose — make it a large-enough spot that it can be clearly seen — and then hold her in front of a mirror. Until she's about a year old she probably won't even notice the mark on her reflected image because she simply isn't paying attention to changes in her physical appearance. A few months later, she may notice it and reach out toward the mirror to touch it, showing that she sees the mark but doesn't realize that she's the one in the mirror. Only when she's 20 to 24 months old will she see the mark in the mirror and reach up to touch her own face. This shows that she now understands that it's her own image in reflection: When she sees herself in the mirror she thinks, "That's me!"

I Can Calm Myself Down

Everything is new, loud, and bright to a baby. Crying is one way to handle the stimulation, and so is being cuddled. But babies need a less-dramatic and always available way of calming themselves down when they begin to feel overwhelmed.

Learning to suck a thumb or a fist as a method of self-calming is a tremendous emotional accomplishment, giving a child a powerful way to handle stress. During her first few months of life, your baby may discover other self-soothing techniques, like cuddling with a stuffed animal or blanket. Comfort objects like these help give her the confidence she needs to face the world around her. To monitor your baby's calming skills, try "A Self-Quieting Test."

Some People Are Special

Most babies can recognize their mother's voice soon after they're born. In fact, research has shown that when newborns are offered two nipples that trigger two different voices when sucked, they'll almost always choose the one that triggers their mother's voice.

But simple recognition is not the same as forming a special and trusting relationship with a parent — and this means developing a healthy wariness of strangers. When your child is 7 to 9 months old, you may notice that she begins to show caution around people other than you or your spouse. Don't be concerned about this stranger wariness; it's a completely normal phase of development. Just give your tot the comfort and protection she needs right now, and remember that her actions mean she knows you're special and can be trusted.

I Can Fall Asleep By Myself

Although as adults we seldom give it much thought, falling asleep on one's own is a skill everyone has to learn. All babies tend to wake up in the middle of the night, whether they're hungry, wet, or just restless. Even if they don't need to be changed or fed, they'll often cry simply because they don't know how to go back to sleep by themselves.

Though many a sleep-deprived parent has experienced endless nights of this ritual, the problem is most common among those parents who tend to cuddle their newborn until she falls asleep in their arms. While this is a wonderfully comforting routine, it often causes the baby to associate falling asleep with being held and rocked. So when the baby wakes up and Mom or Dad isn't there to hold her, she gets frustrated and starts to cry.

To help your little one learn to fall asleep on her own, try putting her in the crib when you see her eyelids fluttering with sleepiness, and she'll likely make the final transition by herself. And when she awakens at 2 a.m. and wants to doze off again, she'll soon be able to say to herself, "I've done this before. I know what to do." This is a very important emotional milestone: Your child has learned to take a little more control of her life.

I Feel Secure When I'm With You

One of the signs that a baby feels comfortable in her relationship with her parents is the way in which she handles new situations. A baby who feels solidly attached to her mom and dad will use them as a "base" for exploring the world.

Let's say you and your baby enter a room with interesting and brightly colored toys on the floor. What will your baby do? If she actively explores the room, looking up or checking back with you every few seconds, her need for exploration and attachment are in balance. She may become distressed if you leave the room, but she'll likely appear happy and relieved when you return.

Some babies will explore the room but not look at or go back to their parents. These children appear not to get a sense of security from their mother and father: In fact, if their mom leaves the room, they don't act distressed, and when she comes back, they don't pay attention to her. Other babies will spend most of their time clinging to their parents and exploring very little. If one of their parents leaves the room, the child will become upset and probably will remain so when Mom or Dad returns. Either of these reactions indicate an insecure attachment between the parent and the child. Often a little extra love and affection will help forge a closer bond.

Examining your baby's emotional development takes more work than noticing her physical changes. But it's well worth the effort — you're helping your infant grow into an emotionally balanced child.