When you hear the phrase "baby milestones," you think of the developmental milestones your pediatrician checks off on your child's health record—first step, first word, yadda yadda. But the cute tricks your child suddenly springs on you are equally good evidence that her mind and body are growing fast. Here's a timeline of milestones for some of those "grab-the-camera" moments, and what they say about your baby.
1 1/2 to 2 months
What parents could possibly forget the first time their infant intentionally flashes a gummy grin? These "social smiles" (as opposed to the fleeting grimaces infants make when they're gassy) are heartwarming, but they're also a sign that the parts of your baby's brain that control eyesight and muscle movements are booting up.
A smile also shows off your child's newfound social savvy. She's starting to understand the positive emotions a happy face conveys—and that making one can get her plenty of attention. Encourage her by smiling at her as often as you can and, of course, acting surprised and pleased when she smiles back.
4 to 6 months
Laughter is instinctive, but it's also something your baby has to learn. By this age, he's heard other people laughing many times, and he's gained enough control over his vocal cords to realize it's something he can do too.
Don't be surprised if he laughs like Flipper at first, making a staccato "heh-heh-heh" and then a high-pitched squeak as he inhales. The reason: His larynx is still small and floppy, and he doesn't have good control over it. Savor this ultra-cute phase while it lasts. By his first birthday, his laugh will be sounding a lot more like your own.
4 to 6 months
If you're like most parents, you're looking forward to your baby's first words almost as much as you looked forward to his birth. Pay attention: An infant's first communication starts much earlier than you may think.
"One of the first forms of communication is 'blowing raspberries,'" says speech language pathologist Amy Chouinard, M.A., CCC-SLP, a co-author of Let's Talk Together: Home Activities for Early Speech & Language Development (Talking Child). "It shows the child is experimenting with his mouth, which goes hand in hand with speech development."
According to Chouinard, not all babies will blow raspberries. About 25 to 33 percent of all babies never do, and just go straight to babbling. Yet those who do "blow bubbles" and display other complex mouth movements like licking their lips tend to pick up language more quickly as toddlers, a recent study found. "So get close to your baby's face and blow raspberries at him," she advises. "When you do this, your baby will try to imitate you." It will encourage her to try other sounds, which is great practice for forming consonants, vowels, and—eventually—words.
4 to 8 months
Sooner or later, you'll probably find your baby happily sucking on his toes. Yes, this is strange, but it's still an important milestone. His hands aren't very coordinated yet, but he's jonesing to learn more about the objects around him. So he explores things by putting them in his mouth—including his own feet, once he's found them.
Besides promoting body awareness, toe-sucking is very satisfying and soothing to your little one. So don't discourage it; this phase generally passes on its own. (And don't be concerned if he never does this trick, by the way—not all babies do.)
8 to 10 months
Imitation is one of the best ways for your child to learn about the world. Now that he can grab things, he's bound to try to use some of your stuff. His fine motor control isn't developed enough to let him do delicate tasks, but he can hold your comb or brush up to his hair and try to drag it through his fuzzy mop.
If he can get his hands on a toothbrush, he'll attempt to give his gums and teeth a once-over too. In fact, he may scour his mouth for hours once he realizes how good the bristles feel on his gums. Be careful: His grand finale may be to throw the toothbrush into the toilet. (Better give him Dad's!)
10 to 12 months
Not every baby becomes attached to a comfort object, but many do around this time. You may have to lug a stuffed teddy along on every outing.
Grin and, uh, bear it. Your baby is mastering a few milestones that bring some big changes right now, like learning to cruise and take his first steps—away from you. He's bound to feel insecure at times, which is where his stuffed animal (or blankie or cloth diaper) comes in. Its cuddliness reminds him of the affection he gets from you, and it gives him something to hold onto, literally, as he faces up to the new challenges in his life.
10 to 12 months
You've sent plenty of smooches your baby's way. Now she may blow one back. Just being able to bring her hand to her mouth is a big development. At birth, her arm muscles were contracted and her hands were in fists. By about 8 months, everything had loosened up enough so she could hold a bottle. Now her control's so good that she can put her palm to her lips and flick it away with bravado.
There's more. She's showing that she likes giving affection—a sign of healthy emotional development. Try merely saying "Blow a kiss!" and see whether she does it; if she does, she's also got a great understanding of spoken language.
12 to 15 months
You've probably been trying to play this for months—first to blank stares, then to polite "I'll humor Mom and Dad" smiles. But things are about to change: Your child will join in, or even start, the game.
It's more than just mere imitation: She's learned about "object permanence." Before, if something was out of sight, it was out of mind too; she thought it had simply ceased to exist. Now, if something suddenly disappears—say it's you, ducking around the corner of the couch—she wonders where it's gone and tries to find it. Popping out and gently saying "aboo!" will give her a thrill.
13 to 15 months
Why do toddlers sometimes put their hands on the ground, then look upside down through their legs? As they start to master the whole walking thing, their balance becomes much more refined. It's interesting to challenge themselves in new and exciting ways. A topsy-turvy look at the world stimulates their visual development too. Oh, yeah, and then there's also the most important reason of all. It's fun.
14 to 16 months
Don't expect to see the moonwalk or the Macarena just yet—actually, the most your child will probably do is bop up and down while keeping her feet planted on the ground. She may even hold onto a chair or your legs for support. But as she rocks out, she's showing off her growing motor skills and her ability to pick up the pattern of the music's beat. Dance along to encourage her.
16 to 18 months
Your baby may have thrown his arms around you before or given you a kiss on command. But there's no mistaking the day he toddles over and does both on his own for no reason at all—or so it seems.
Actually, as your little one starts exploring the world, he can feel torn at times. One part of him wants to be fiercely independent; the other part wants reassurance that Mom and Dad are still there. The best thing to do is also the easiest: Hug him right back.
Sources: James Gaylord, M.D., and Michelle Hagan, M.D., coauthors, Your Baby's First Year for Dummies; Alan Rosenblatt, M.D., neurodevelopmental pediatrician in Chicago.