For the first few months of your baby's life, she might believe you two are the same person. This way of thinking has its perks--her strong relationship with you helps your baby develop a true sense of self, says Marsha Gerdes, Ph.D., a child psychologist and codirector of the Neonatal Follow-up Program at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Read on for milestones your infant will reach on her way to becoming more independent.
Many of your newborn's movements are the result of primitive reflexes. "Infants' fingers are curled into a fist, so they can't do a lot with them," says Carol Delahunty, M.D., a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Cleveland Clinic Children's Hospital. That begins to change around
4 months, as your baby's nervous system develops and he learns how to make each body part do what he wants, explains Dr. Delahunty. He may start to wave his arms back and forth in front of his face, put his hands in his mouth, or suck on his toes in the coming months.
Bathtime is a perfect opportunity to point to and name his body parts. He won't understand what you're saying yet, but talking to him helps build his understanding of language before he says his first words. You can also play the I've-got-your-leg (or arm or nose) game and tickle that body part, sing songs such as "Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes," and read books like Where Is Baby's Belly Button?
Until now, your baby's only ways of communicating have been to coo, cry, smile, or make eye contact with a familiar face. But starting around 4 months, your baby will try to convey her likes and dislikes through other facial expressions. At 6 months, she'll use sounds and gestures too, says Hannah Chow-Johnson, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. She can now laugh when she finds something funny, bounce to show excitement, and display pouty, serious, and happy faces. Children will do these things instinctively, but they also imitate the faces, body language, tone, and mannerisms of those around them. Eventually, your baby will add her personal touch to the expressions she observes on others.
Pay attention when your baby shows her emotional side. Though she knows she's feeling something and her expressions come to her without thinking, she doesn't know what it all means without your help. If her eyebrows are arched and eyes are open, say, "You look shocked," or "Oh, no! Are you scared?" When her eyes light up and she wiggles her body, say, "Look who's happy today!" By doing so, you'll teach her that when she expresses herself you'll respond to whatever it is she's feeling.
The time you spent deciding on the perfect moniker will finally pay off! Around 6 months, most babies will respond to their name by focusing their eyes or pausing to listen. By 10 months, your baby may even turn around and look toward you when called, says Patrice Crane Storey, M.D., chairperson of the pediatrics department at Memorial Hermann Memorial City Medical Center, in Houston. He's starting to understand that certain words go with specific objects, and he realizes that he's Aiden, for example, as opposed to "ball" or "milk." "If you always call him the same thing and then pick him up (or interact with him in some other way), he learns to associate his name with himself," says Dr. Delahunty.
From birth, use his name often when speaking to or about him. Instead of asking, "Do you want that toy?" say, "Aiden, do you want that rattle?" Try not to use too many nicknames to avoid confusion.
The tear-filled tantrums that come on when you drop her off at day care (or even just take a bathroom break) are a sign she's becoming her own person. As she begins to understand that you won't always be by her side, your baby may become clingier and might try harder to get you involved in what she's doing, says Dr. Delahunty.
Originally published in the December 2013 issue of Parents magazine.
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