When your recent addition is around 6 or 8 weeks old, near the peak of fussiness, she will smile at you for the first time—a rainbow breaking through the clouds of your exhaustion.
“That first social smile is the most amazing thing for parents; they just light up,” says Barbara Gannon, MD, a pediatrician and mother of six in New York’s Hudson Valley.
Whether it’s the middle of the afternoon or the middle of the night, you won’t be able to help smiling back. And in doing so, you’re nurturing the social skills your little one needs to explore her world.
We are social creatures from birth, intensely interested in—and dependent on—the people around us. By helping your infant practice her social skills, you’re building her confidence and supporting her earliest learning.
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“Infants are little people, and they’re social from very, very early on. Really, they are social from birth,” explains Rebecca Brand, an associate professor of psychology at Villanova University in Villanova, Pennsylvania. “They’re tuning in socially to so much about what goes on around them well before they’re showing any signs of it. Interacting, talking and trying to respond to the signals babies do give us are ways to help them learn, absorb and feel connected to other people.”
Hearing is one of the first senses to develop, so by the time she is born, your baby will recognize the sound of your voice. Within one to two months, she’ll begin trying out her own vocal cords.
Answering those sweet coos and sighs helps build your newborn’s trust and sense of security, showing her that when she attempts to communicate, you’ll pay attention, says Gail Gross, PhD, a child development expert in Houston, Texas, and author of the forthcoming How to Build Your Baby’s Brain. Babies who are secure and who trust their parents to meet their needs are better able to learn, she adds.
When you respond to an infant’s ooh’s and aah’s, you also help her understand the back-and-forth nature of human interaction, Brand says. If you watch closely, you’ll notice that even very young infants will begin taking turns—waiting for you to say something before they make another sound. “They’re learning to be a member of a social conversation,” she explains.
Talking to your baby is also a critical way to support language development. The more words your little one hears you say (or sing), the better prepared she’ll be to start school and learn to read a few years down the road.
It can feel awkward to strike up a conversation with someone who can’t really answer back, but try not to overthink it, advises Tasha Boucher, a marriage and family therapist who works with moms-to-be in Los Angeles. “Talk to the baby about what’s going on around them,” Boucher says. “Narrate [while] diapering, feeding or just wandering around the house.”
Keep in mind that hearing voices on TV is not the same as listening to words from loving parents and caregivers. Researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences found that infants learned much more when listening to someone face-to-face than by watching someone on a screen.
Gannon, who is also an expert adviser to toy-subscription service Please and Carrots, adds: “The television doesn’t make eye contact; the television doesn’t interact with you. You’re missing that social piece.”
At birth, your baby is extremely nearsighted. Objects around 12 or so inches from her face appear in sharpest focus—the perfect distance for gazing at whomever is holding her. “Your face is their favorite toy,” Boucher says. Newborns are fascinated by human faces and can recognize them very soon after birth, long before they can recognize other objects. So, show her lots of faces, including her own in a mirror.
Reading facial expressions is also one of the first ways infants learn to understand emotions—an important social skill. Some studies have found that shortly after birth, babies can distinguish and even imitate different facial expressions. Research from Brigham Young University has found that by 5 months old, babies can understand another infant’s emotional state by studying her face.
When you mimic your baby’s facial expressions, you can help her develop empathy, Brand says. “The baby makes a sad face, and then mom makes a sad face and uses a sad voice,” she explains. “The baby can begin to understand, ‘This is what I am feeling, and this is what that feeling looks like on another person.’”
Along with language and eye contact, movement is an essential factor in infants’ social development. After all, it’s largely through movement that infants first express themselves socially and practice new social skills, explains Priscila Caçola, assistant professor of kinesiology at The University of Texas at Arlington.
Your infant might show you she’s excited by kicking and waving, that she’s overwhelmed by turning away or that she thinks something is important by pointing.
Starting around 3 to 5 months old, babies begin to reach for objects. “They do not reach because they want something for themselves,” Caçola notes. “They often want to give or show it to their mothers.”
Later, your infant’s social nature will fuel her motor development. When she takes her first steps, it will likely be to someone who is calling her name. “They pull themselves up on the coffee table, and they try to take a few steps—not just because they want to move, but because they want to meet someone,” Caçola says.
Given the close link between social and motor development, she recommends parents consider whether their home offers babies enough opportunities to practice movement. Do her toys stimulate a variety of motor skills? Is there a rattle she can shake and a walker she can push? Is there enough room for her to move and explore? Are there stable objects like tables and chairs she can use to pull herself up?
“I don’t think we understand as a society how important movement is to social and cognitive development,” Caçola says. “We take it for granted.”
While your baby may be hardwired for social interaction, even she has her limits. Know that social interaction is crucial for newborns, but don’t feel like you need to keep up a nonstop conversation, says Boucher.
“We encourage parents to expose their baby to as much language as possible. That’s how the baby is going to learn about her world,” she explains. “But it doesn’t have to be an all-day, every-day word salad.”
Your baby will show you when she needs some downtime. If she breaks eye contact or turns away, this could be a sign that she’s becoming overstimulated. “You’ll learn to read your baby’s cues and body language,” Boucher explains. “If she becomes rigid or arches her back, she could be feeling a little overwhelmed, and you’ll know she’s had enough for now.”