Learning Milestones

6-12 Months

6 Months: Making Inferences About Intentions
Six-month-olds are incredibly socially aware and getting quite good at reading subtle social cues, says Dr. Shulman. In fact, a study at York University, in Toronto, Canada, found that 6-month-olds could tell the difference between an adult being unable to do something and being unwilling to do it. When researchers tried but couldn't pass babies a toy, the babies seemed to understand and took it in stride. But when they held out the toy and then teasingly took it back, the babies averted their eyes and frowned -- body language that said, "I'm on to you, and I don't like it!" Learning to judge another's intentions is a key skill that will help kids on the playground and beyond. Foster this ability by being genuinely responsive to your baby's attempts to interact with you. Resist the urge -- we've all had it! -- to send a few texts or chat on the phone while feeding your baby or playing together on the floor. When you're not fully there, she's smart enough to know it.

9 Months: Gesturing
By 9 to 12 months, your little one will debut gestures such as shaking his head no, waving bye-bye, and pointing. "Gesturing and pointing show a new level of awareness and a desire to communicate," says Dr. Berman. Now is the perfect time to introduce songs such as "Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes." The gestures grab your child's attention, and the repetition helps the words' meanings stick. Once a child starts gesturing, he's ripe to learn sign language, adds Dr. Berman. It's also a good time to talk your child through routines such as dressing (identify body parts) and meals (teach "more," "all done," and "uh-oh" when food falls), says Dr. Shulman. Ideally you've been seizing opportunities to have a conversation with your child. When he points to an object, say something like, "Oh, you're looking at the ball. Do you want the ball? It's a red ball. Here's the red ball." "Every time you speak with your child you're pouring words into his brain," reminds Dr. Berman.

12 Months: Using Basic Words
Your baby still understands much more than she can say, but her vocabulary will grow steadily over the coming months. Boost her word count by continuing to respond enthusiastically to her attempts to speak. And keep encouraging your baby to gesture, because the ability to perform hand signals develops earlier than producing words. Set aside time to look at simple books together that give you an opportunity to label the pictures and to get your child's reaction. Before you know it, she'll be on her way to being an excellent conversationalist.

Originally published in the September 2011 issue of Parents magazine.

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