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Social Studies

Human beings are social creatures  -- and that includes babies. And while it will be years before your child's calendar is filled with playdates, and even longer before the term "sharing" holds any meaning, your baby is busy laying the groundwork for all of his future social interactions. Think of this as the caterpillar stage of your social-butterfly-to-be.

Making friends isn't number one on a newborn's agenda, of course. Right now, babies are focused on getting their needs met. But part of making sure that they are fed and kept warm is establishing a rapport with the people who care for them. Every time your baby's cry for a clean diaper or a snuggle is met with the hoped-for response, he learns that he can trust you to interpret his communication.

Crying, cooing, and flailing about are all ways that babies try to get a response. Later, your baby will use these tools to try to strike up interactions with others.

Gary Levy, Ph.D., is an associate professor of developmental psychology and research director of the University of Wyoming's Infant Development Center.

Show Me How

As a parent, you play a special role in your baby's social development. You are your baby's model for interpersonal behaviors, as well as his social director. The special trust your baby has in you creates a foundation for learning about the world. This bond is vital: Babies who have a good relationship with their parents tend to be more engaging, sociable, and cooperative with peers during toddlerhood and preschool.

Many new parents obsess over which toys to buy to keep their baby stimulated and occupied. But babies whose parents only provide them with toys and objects tend to play in less complex ways with their parents and other children than babies whose parents spend a lot of "floor time" with them.

But the benefits of parental attention don't stop there. Parents can help their babies develop methods of handling frustration, achieve a sense of control over their environment, and learn how to respond to language and sounds. Parent-child interaction also allows babies to practice social give-and-take.

Getting To Know You

Babies are aware of other babies at a very early age. Think back to the hospital nursery, for example. Once one baby starts to cry, so do many of the other babies. From 1 to 3 months of age, your baby may enjoy having lots of different people paying attention to him. Although some babies become overstimulated, others like all the commotion. As the weeks pass, he will become more expressive as he learns which actions command responses from his audience. He's also paying attention to what you're doing and may seem to imitate some of your movements and facial expressions.

One of the biggest highlights of this time for parents is the emergence of the social smile. Nope, it's not gas: Your baby is beaming for the pleasure it gives him  -- and you.

Your 4- to 7-month-old loves looking in the mirror. As beautiful as he may be, he's not vain  -- just fascinated by facial expressions. A nonbreakable mirror attached firmly to the side of his crib can be a long-lasting source of amusement.

Your baby is also paying attention to your expressions and may respond to the emotions you display. This can be a very happy and rewarding time for Baby: Make the most of his sociable mood by starting to teach him to wave bye-bye.

Younger babies certainly prefer the comforting sight of mom's and dad's familiar grins, but they're entranced by any and all new faces they see. But as your baby pushes past the 8-month mark, he may become shy or anxious around strangers. He may demand the company of his primary caregiver and become clingy and fearful when others are around. Stranger anxiety and separation anxiety are no longer just empty phrases to the parents of a 10-month-old, who may shriek and sob whenever they leave a room.

As the end of his first year approaches, your baby becomes highly discerning, preferring certain people and toys over others. He can be quite a mimic, too, as he explores the give-and-take of communication. Toys that respond will be favorites: busy boxes with buttons that make things happen, push-pull toys, and those old favorites, mirrors.

Once Baby starts to crawl, he'll expand his circle of friends  -- and his repertoire of interactions. Many babies love looking at other babies. Ears, noses, hair, arms, and legs are no longer safe as babies touch, push, and tug.

Being around other children helps your baby practice his social signals. Start out with one other child and work up to small groups of no more than four or five. Pay attention to your baby's mood and step in to calm things down if he becomes overwhelmed.

Babies who are in daycare situations have even more opportunity to interact, and this experience can be very positive. Research has shown that infants who are in a quality childcare setting for fewer than 10 to 15 hours a week show social benefits, such as being more communicative and secure. If the childcare setting is made up of a small number of children and the same caregiver over time, the benefits can be even greater.

If your baby has no interest in interacting with other babies, don't worry. This has nothing to do with being shy and doesn't predict anything about your little one's chances of being elected Most Popular in high school. Most 1-year-olds are simply not ready to play together in any meaningful way. And although your older baby may be able to play by himself while seated next to another baby, the feeling of camaraderie will last only until one baby starts to covet his neighbor's playthings. Sharing is not a practical goal until your baby is well into the toddler stage.

Your baby may not be ready for a tea party, but a round or two of peekaboo or patty-cake with you could be just what the doctor ordered. Remember: Play isn't just fun and games. It's a way for your baby to exercise his creativity, explore his emotions, and practice communicating. And what looks to you like passing blocks back and forth and exchanging goofy grins is actually proof that your baby is learning the ground rules of his social world.