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Magic Milestones

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 it's a month-eight 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."

Beyond signifying healthy physical progress, those first-year milestones offer a window on other key aspects of an infant's burgeoning development. With each new accomplishment, a baby reveals something about herself, along with clues to her emerging social skills.

Rolling over, for instance, not only shows that an infant's muscles are developing on target and that her brain and nervous system are now equipped to direct the movement of her legs, but it also feeds the baby's confidence  -- and thus her emotional well-being. And this movement fuels her cognitive growth by providing her with a new perspective on the world and her place in it. That, in turn, lays the groundwork for her next accomplishment.

"Development is a process that fosters as well as reflects learning," says Bryan Sibley, M.D., medical director of Beacon Children's Specialty Hospital, in Houston. "Each skill is a building block for more skills."

If I'd had that perspective when Rachel was a baby, I might have been more understanding of her crying and able to have more plain old fun watching her grow and helping her along, instead of worrying about the timing of her achievements.

Here's what I wish I'd known...

Betty Holcomb is a PARENTING contributing editor. Her most recent book is The Best Friend's Guide to Maternity Leave.

The First 2 Months

During 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 even know where you begin and he ends. He hasn't even found his toes yet," says Karen Deerwester, who teaches parent-education seminars in Parkland, FL. His movements are more reflexive and out of control than intentional, and so are his emotions. Then, suddenly, the best thing happens.

Milestone: Smiling
The first time he flashes you a toothless grin, usually by 2 months, the earth seems to shake. "I remember the first time Grace recognized me and smiled. She was sitting in her bouncy chair, and she just 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 Dr. Sibley. "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 now, 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 your emotions, the tone of your voice, your facial expressions, and she'll react accordingly.

As her brain stores all this new information in her memory, 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 you're providing is not only fun for both of you, but it also helps make her feel secure and gives her a sense of well-being." Plus, you're letting her discover where her body ends and yours begins. It's her first glimmer of her own self.

2 Months to 6 Months

The movement now begins and won't stop anytime soon, as your baby learns to flex and toss, wiggling and woggling every which way, reaching and grabbing, chewing and sucking, starting to explore everything within reach.

Milestone: Rocking, Then Rolling
These are the months when deliberate action takes over, as your baby's cerebral cortex develops, giving him the ability to better control and direct his movements and emotions. Rolling over marks the beginning of this exciting period.

But all that's just the tip of the iceberg. Along with physical control, he's developing "sensory integration," a fancy way of saying that he puts all his perceptions together  -- sights, smells, tastes, sounds, and touch  -- to learn even more.

And with his newfound ability to move, he can explore more of the space he inhabits and the qualities of the objects you give him, finding out what's hard, soft, hot, or cold. He's able to lie on his back and look at his hand, put it in his mouth, or hold a little rattle and shake it. He'll delight in feeling and experiencing different textures and shapes. He doesn't need educational toys per se; he simply needs objects that let him flex his exploration muscles. The lid of a plastic food container might be just as much fun as a handmade maple chew toy.

Being able to direct his movement also allows him to be a more social animal  -- wiggling when you and Dad come into the room, even laughing to reveal his pleasure. It won't be long before he lifts his arms, showing you he wants to be picked up.

Milestone: Spatial Dexterity
Her fine motor skills are also developing, letting her reach and grab, hold, and even pass objects from hand to hand. By 3 or 4 months, many babies begin to gauge where things are in space, and they plan an action  -- such as grabbing a pacifier  -- that hones their physical mastery and boosts their knowledge of the concrete world.

I remember the day Rachel grasped her rattle and shook it; delighted, she shook it again, and then handed it to me. This sequence had taken a few weeks to progress, after her first awkward grabs and grips. I'd shake it and smile as we passed it between us. And so it went for a while, until she learned, a few months later, to drop it and get me to pick it up.

In that simple action, she demonstrated that she could control and manipulate things with her hands, learning more details about how her toys worked. She could make the rattle produce a sound, which revealed her first understanding of cause and effect. And, most dramatically, it showed that she could play (and get me to play along with her).

"In reaching for an object, babies are anticipating what it will do and how to make it work," says Deerwester. "Once that's in their memory, they build on it and learn to do more."

6 Months to 9 Months

By 6 months, most babies are looking you in the eye  -- as they sit up. Soon they're off and crawling, scrabbling on their stomach, growing ever more independent. And all along, their brain is growing in response to all that activity, committing the new skills to memory.

Milestone: Sitting Pretty
Take it from your baby's proud smile: Sitting upright for the first time changes everything. There's new depth to the room, three dimensions. Sitting up frees his hands from the work of supporting his upper body; now he can hold his toys more easily, pull them apart, shake them with vigor, drop them and pick them up. "Once Molly was sitting up, she played differently," says Rochelle Goldberg of Fairfax, VA. "She would spend a lot more time with a single toy, taking a doll and just moving the arms up and down, seeing what it would do."

This milestone  -- as well as others  -- shouldn't be rushed. Your baby will sit up when his muscles and mind are ready, and it may not happen when you expect it to. Trying to hurry it can actually slow down development, says Deerwester. "For example, after a baby rolls over and has some body control, some mothers, eager for the next stage, put their baby in a sitting position. But doing this won't help the child develop the muscles he uses to get in the sitting position." You have to let him move as much as he can so he can do it for himself.

"Kids need to interact with their world at their own level, to build their knowledge of it piece by piece," says Deerwester.

Milestone: On Hands, Knees, and Feet
The transition that really opens things up for them is their learning to crawl. And as with other physical milestones, the intellectual spirit follows. Once a baby is mobile and can take off on her own, she can learn how big a room is and what different objects feel like, or even chase Mom into the next room. And as she moves about, she gains a new understanding of the world and can even begin to place things in sequences, seeing how one action leads to the next.

"Kids this age get a sense of dimensions, of the properties of objects, of what things are, what shapes are, what they can do, and what objects in the world will do," says Deerwester. "They learn volume by filling and spilling. They learn about depth by taking risks and going to the edge of things."

You can't teach your baby to crawl, but you can ensure that she has the opportunity to try  -- and make your house as safe as possible for when she finally does. Be certain that there's at least one contained area  -- carpeted if possible  -- in which she can scoot around without being told "no" all the time.

9 Months to 1 Year

By now, all that moving around and playing with things has taught babies a huge concept: Objects are permanent and separate from them. You can leave Mr. Bear in a room, and he's still there when you come back.

Milestone: Understanding Peekaboo
"When Molly was eight and a half or nine months old, she started to really enjoy this peekaboo game: I'd hold up the cloth and say, 'Where's Mama?' and she'd rip it off and laugh. Then I'd put it over her head and say, 'Where's Molly?' and she'd pull it off and laugh again," says Goldberg. "Before that, she wouldn't smile at this game at all. I'd pull the towel off her face, and she didn't look that happy. I don't think she thought it was very funny."

The awareness that things exist, even when they're hidden, gives your child a whole new perspective on the world. "When a baby drops something and then expects you to pick it up, or plays with a jack-in-the-box, he's showing he's learned that things haven't disappeared just because they move or are out of sight," says Galinsky.

The downside is, outside of the context of the game, he can also anticipate that an object will disappear, so he's more likely than ever to express separation anxiety. He now knows that when you leave, it doesn't feel as good as when you're in sight. So he wails, hoping to bring you back! You can reassure him from the next room by making sure he hears your voice and letting him know you're nearby. And eventually, he'll discover that you'll always come back (or that he can go to where you are).

After all, feeling secure and loved is central to all other learning, to the desire to push himself, to achieve all those physical milestones, to be part of the world.

Milestone: Baby Steps
Your baby's now a toddler, signifying the beginning of a whole new life phase, one that will thrill and terrify you both!

On the most basic level, walking frees up your child's hands to carry items while she moves about independently. That kind of control  -- the ability to drag a favorite toy or book from one place to another  -- endows her with a sense of power and competence that wasn't possible before. By incorporating everything she's learned from all the other milestones  -- about space, objects, and people  -- she can now bring you things. This turns a purely physical skill into a game as well as a rich social interaction. For instance: She comes over to you with her little toy duck and you say, "Thank you." You quack a few times, in all likelihood to her extreme delight, and then she takes her duck away and you say, "Bye-bye, duck."

This newfound physical autonomy and its accompanying sense of volition leads to more and more discovery. And so the first year ends, with your baby integrating all the knowledge, social skills, and confidence she gained when she learned to roll over, sit up, crawl, stand, and walk. Now she's ready to accomplish more, in her own way, on her own terms, and in her own style. She has become, in essence, her own little person  -- a far cry from the helpless creature you brought home from the hospital. "It's breathtaking to watch these milestones unfold, along with all that they signify," says Deerwester. "There's just no other word for it."