Your baby may be years away from boarding the school bus, but don't let that fool you. She's already studying up on the world around her at an amazing speed. "Babies are learning and understanding far more than they appear to be," says Parents advisor Jenn Berman, Psy.D., author of SuperBaby: 12 Ways to Give Your Child a Head Start in the First 3 Years. We asked the experts to home in on the coolest learning leaps your baby is making. Keep in mind that the ages below are general guidelines; babies develop at their own pace. But they all have one thing in common: They'll astonish you with just how smart they are.
2 Months: Understanding Cause and Effect
In one study, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley found that 2-month-olds kicked their legs more when their leg movements made a mobile above them spin, suggesting that they "got" that kicking equals moving the mobile. Most toys for infants work on the same principle: By kicking a large bar, your baby can cause the toy to light up and play music, i.e., so introduce toys she can "work." Babies also learn cause and effect by watching and experiencing their parents' reactions to their facial expressions, sounds, and gestures, explains Lisa Shulman, M.D., a developmental pediatrician at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, in Bronx, New York. "They realize, 'When I smile, Mommy smiles; when I make a sound, Daddy makes a sound back.'"
3 Months: Reacting Differently to Words Than to Other Sounds
A recent study compared 3-month-olds who saw pictures of fish and dinosaurs while hearing spoken words and those who saw the same photos but heard computerized tones instead of words. The result: The words got the babies' attention in a way the tones did not. "We were stunned that there was such a difference in the way babies as young as 3 months reacted," says researcher Susan J. Hespos, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology and director of the Infant Cognition Lab at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois. The study also underscores how important it is to talk to your baby -- a lot. "When you label and describe things in everyday conversation, that influences the way she perceives the world," says Dr. Hespos.
4 Months: Recognizing His Own Name
From birth, babies show an alertness to voices, but around 4 months, they usually start to look up when called by name, says Dr. Shulman. This is in large part because it's the word babies are most used to hearing. Achieving this milestone is a sign that your baby is able to discern sounds, is focused enough to make out those sounds, and has good hearing, says Dr. Berman. Think about it this way: The sentence "Jack, look at the stuffed bear" sounds like one big word jumble to the untrained ear, so it's quite a feat for a baby to pick out his name, or any other specific word, from the rest of the sounds. You can help by making an effort to use your child's name when speaking to him. It seems obvious, but it's important to remember, especially if you have more than one child and tend to address them as a pair or a group.
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.