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Wit & Wisdom: On the Road to Friendship

Friendships are the cornerstone of our lives. They've been important to us since childhood, helping us to learn and grow. Indeed, our first friendships probably began to emerge when we were just toddlers. But how did these relationships begin? How did we learn to make friends?

Social development begins from the very first moment your child enters the world. Everything you do with your baby from that day forward  -- from hugging and kissing her to speaking and playing games with her  -- helps her learn how to interact with other people. And if you watch closely, you'll see how your baby's social activity develops over time.

Remember that not all babies are on the same schedule: Don't worry if your child doesn't do one or more of the things I describe below or does them later than indicated. It doesn't mean there's anything wrong with her, only that she's developing in her own unique way.

Contributing editor Lawrence Kutner, Ph.D., is a psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and the author of five books on child development and parent-child communication.

Knowing You from Day One

The first social interaction your infant has will be with you  -- breastfeeding or simply sleeping in your arms after delivery. After being thrust into the bright, loud world, you're a source of comfort to her  -- partially because your newborn can already recognize your voice. Researchers have found that nine months in the womb allow an infant to become quite familiar with her mother's voice, helping the two bond even before birth.

Twenty years ago, psychologists conducted an experiment to see if newborns (some as young as a few hours old) preferred their mothers' voice to that of another person. They first asked mothers to read a nursery rhyme into a tape recorder. Then they had the women's babies listen to the readings through headphones while they sucked on a rubber nipple attached to a device that measured the rate of the sucking. By sucking either slowly or quickly, the babies could control whether they heard their own mother or an unfamiliar woman reading the nursery rhyme. Almost all the babies chose to listen to their mother, demonstrating that they recognized her voice and found comfort in it.

Here's a test you can try that will show you how your newborn responds to your voice. Place her in a bassinet in a quiet room with dim lights while she's alert. (This won't work if you try it just after a feeding since she'll probably fall fast asleep.) Move to one side of the bassinet and quietly say her name a few times. If you're her mother, odds are that she'll turn her head to look at you. (Many babies, although a smaller number, will do the same thing if they hear their father say their name.) Obviously a baby's name doesn't mean anything to a newborn; it's the familiarity of the voice that makes her turn her head.

Baby See, Baby Do!

Along with voices, faces are an important part of an infant's social experience. Experts aren't sure why, but babies seem to be genetically programmed to recognize and be attracted to faces, even those in illustrations, photographs, or videos. One study showed that newborns paid much closer attention to a drawing of a face with the eyes, mouth, and nose in their proper places than to a drawing in which the facial elements were scrambled.

Many babies between a few weeks and a few months old will mimic the faces they see (although some babies don't do this at all, so don't be worried if your child doesn't). To see if yours will, bring her to a quiet place when she is alert. Staying about two feet away from her, call her name or clap your hands so she'll look at you. Don't get too close or you might accidentally overwhelm her. When that happens, she'll simply turn away.

Once she's looking at you, stick out your tongue. After a few seconds she may do exactly the same thing to you! Next, open your mouth and eyes wide. Again, she may mimic what she sees in your face. Then smile, and see if she does the same. Not only is this a lot of fun, but it also stimulates your child and gets her to pay attention to faces. And think about it: The two of you are having your first conversation without words.

Can We Talk?

Your words, however, are incredibly important to your baby, even if she can't understand them at first. Learning to make sense of language is one of the most important social development tasks a baby accomplishes. But to do this, she must first be interested in the sounds that you make when you speak to her.

As parents we hold one-sided conversations all the time. When you say to your baby, "Well, you look like you had a nice nap. Are you hungry?" you don't really expect an answer. Yet your baby is listening very intently as she tries to decipher what you're saying.

Once your baby is a few months old, you can see this focus in action. When you talk to her, watch her eyes and the expression on her face as she looks at you. If you suddenly stop paying attention to her, you'll notice that her expression quickly changes. She seems to become worried. She looks from your eyes to your mouth and then back up again. She may pout her lower lip, wrinkle her brow or do other things with her face in an attempt to get you to start talking to her again. These behaviors are telling you just how important your conversations are to your infant, even well before she can say a word of her own. Speak to her often; she craves the interaction with you and draws comfort from it.

First Words

The word "infant" literally means "not speaking." Unlike many of the motor skills your baby is trying to learn, such as sitting up and grabbing a rattle, learning to speak is inherently a social activity and cannot be done alone. The slow progression toward using sounds as words requires your help and lots of verbal interaction.

The first vocal expression to come from a baby is a cry  -- one that sounds like it carries a great deal of indignation as she enters the world outside the womb. Because of her immature vocal tract, her sounds during the first few weeks of life are generally limited to a few soft snorts, grunts, and, of course, wails.

But within a month or two, she'll start making cute little cooing noises. The timing of these sounds couldn't be better, since they come when many new parents are sleep-deprived, frustrated, and emotionally overwhelmed. That sweet cooing sure gets our attention, and we respond with smiles, hugs, kisses, and, most importantly, words: "Gee, you certainly seem happy this morning!"

Your baby knows a good thing when she hears it. She'll keep cooing and trying other sounds when you're near her to see how you respond. At first these sounds will be single syllables like "fff" or "buh." But because you're paying more attention to what she says, and because her vocal tract and brain are maturing, she'll soon start making repeated sounds like "gaga." A few of these, like "mama" and "dada," will get her extra attention from you, so she'll say them more often. Then, because you've been talking to her for all these months, she'll start making sounds that mimic the rhythm and tone of your language. Although these sounds aren't words yet, they'll fit into the pattern of English, Spanish, Chinese, or whatever language you speak at home.

Remember that each baby has to crack the code of language at her own pace. Some verbally skilled adults were early talkers; others took their time. What's important is simply that your baby learns words and language patterns, not the age at which she does so.

Making Friends

So your baby has a few words under her belt, and she loves faces  -- especially those of other babies  -- and voices. The next step is making friends.

Researchers have noted that toddlers form strong emotional attachments to certain playmates, becoming excited when they see them. But it takes a while for babies to reach that level of socialization. Place two infants next to each other and, after some initial excitement and curiosity, they will probably ignore each other, unless one of them starts to cry and triggers the same response in the second child. While the children may be physically close, each seems to be pursuing her own agenda. Even their "conversation" reflects this split. Their words sound like two independent monologues rather than a dialogue. ("Big truck." "I pet the puppy." "Vroom, vroom." "Bad dog!")

This type of parallel play, as it is known, is an entryway to more complex peer relationships. A few years down the road, your child will discover that friendship is a kind of laboratory in which she'll experiment with ways of handling emotions and practicing new skills. And the interactions she has had with you through speech, play, and even just cuddling will have provided the foundation for successful, long-lasting friendships.