Raise a social baby from Day 1! Here's a breakdown of must-know facts about social development in babies and how you can help your child thrive.
couple with newborn baby
Credit: Alexandra Grablewski

Forget the notion that a newborn's earliest experiences don't matter. Babies start their social development on Day 1.

"The biggest change in our understanding of early childhood development, especially over the last 10 years, is the focus on social and emotional development," says Claire Lerner, LCSW-C, director of parenting resources at Zero to Three, a nonprofit focused on infants and toddlers. "A whole new body of research has shown that the quality of a child's early emotional experiences deeply affects the brain's architecture and therefore a child's long-term development, and the key variable is the quality of the baby's attachment to her primary caregivers."

Feeling the pressure of what that means for your newborn? Relax. In the first month, babies simply want to feel safe and secure; that allows them to focus their energy on learning about the new world around them.

What to expect: Social development in the first month is all about attachment. "This attachment process lasts throughout infancy and is an important basis for later social development," says Pete Stavinoha, Ph.D., psychological services manager at Children's Medical Center of Dallas and professor of psychology/psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School. "It can be a difficult time for parents because babies in the first month don't display much of what we would consider social behavior. Instead, the relationship seems more like a one-way street -- the baby has needs and parents meet those needs."

In addition to recognizing faces and voices, newborns can even recognize the smell of their closest family members, Lerner says.

Progression: Don't expect a lot early on. "There won't be a lot of obvious social behavior from the baby during the first four weeks," Dr. Stavinoha says. "The baby may start orienting toward familiar voices and the baby may stare at faces, or images of faces, more so than other shapes."

At the same time, your baby is making connections. "Even at the end of the first month, if your baby is crying and you call out to them, [she] might calm down because [she] knows your voice means you're coming soon," Lerner says.

How to help: Just being there for your baby -- changing him when he's wet, feeding him when he's hungry, snuggling him, sharing some love -- goes a long way toward boosting your bond. "Spending lots of time with your baby and being responsive to her needs helps establish a sense of routine, security and predictability," Dr. Stavinoha says. "These are all important for attachment and later social development."

Try to figure out your baby's cues. "It's amazing how much babies communicate even in their first month," Lerner says. "For example, crying is obviously one way babies show distress, but they'll also arch their back, and avert their gaze to let you know "I'm overwhelmed and I need a break." It's also important to talk with your baby, and not at her, Lerner advises. Wait for a response, whether it's a sound, gesture, or facial expression (even if you don't get one) when you greet your little one in the morning. One day she might surprise you with a well-timed coo.

And, as extra reassurance, you might want to leave a scarf or a T-shirt with your scent near the baby's crib, but safely out of reach, especially once baby is mobile, Lerner says.

When you should you worry: It's too early to worry about a baby's social development, Dr. Stavinoha says.

Don't freak out if: Your baby isn't very interactive, Dr. Stavinoha says. "Soon the baby will develop a smile and become much more socially responsive and engaging with the parent, but not typically during the first month," he says.

Don't stress if your baby seems hypersensitive. "Even in the earliest months of your child's life, cuing into your child's temperament is really important," Lerner says. "Some babies are wired in a way where the slightest change in temperature or light or sound is really overwhelming."

Copyright © 2013 Meredith Corporation.

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