In recent years, a remarkable body of research has shown that even brand-new babies have meaningful social-emotional experiences. Infants recognize and prefer the sounds of their own mothers' voices, smell, and even touch. Even the youngest babies are soothed by connections with caring adults. Because they have limited control of their bodies, it is difficult for them to show this connection. Subtle signs, such as imitating a parent's facial expression, demonstrate their interest. When given a choice, newborns prefer gazing at faces over looking at anything else. And the faces of their parents and close caregivers are their most favorites. And so the powerful social-emotional connection begins.
In her first days and weeks, your newborn will show clearer signs of her bond with you: following you with eager eyes, warming at the sight of your familiar face, even quieting her hungry cries when she sees you or feels your touch. Your gentle, loving voice and calming arms invite your baby to become more and more engaged. You are getting to know each other, creating the building block for all future social interactions and emotional experience.
In these early weeks, babies have a daunting task to master (with your help): They are working hard at getting accustomed to the world outside the womb and becoming regulated in their patterns of eating, digesting, sleeping, waking—and relating to others. For your baby, this is the beginning of what Dr. Stanley Greenspan calls engagement: becoming interested in and falling in love with the world. You can help the process in several ways; you're probably instinctively doing a lot of them already.
- Notice what sensory experiences please your baby most. What sights, sounds, positions, movements best sustain his attention?
- Interact. Acknowledge your baby's coos with soft warm coos of your own. Gaze into her eyes and follow her gaze. Sing softly, flirt, and return the first precious smiles (no, it's not gas!) between a month and 2 months after birth.
- Know when to stop. These interludes of interaction grow longer as your baby grows. But when he's had enough, he'll show it by turning away and perhaps beginning to cry. Don't feel hurt or rejected. By respecting his need to set limits, even for pleasurable interaction, you increase trust and strengthen your bond.
By 3 months, most babies have gone a long way toward that first goal of getting regulated, and (we hope) have learned to distinguish night from day. Your child will likely have longer awake periods, shower you with more smiles, and do more searching and observing of the world around her. Her curiosity is evident, and she can recognize familiar family members, such as her parents and siblings. You can help the growth process by following her lead. Look where she looks, gently commenting on what you both see, and you will share the joy of discovery.
By 5 or 6 months, your baby's pursuit of the world around him becomes even more focused, and his growing motor skills support his interests. He can reach for Mommy's nose or shake a rattle in Daddy's face and watch your responses with delight. As the weeks go by, he may become ornery about being held down for diapering, more insistent on being in charge. He will reach out for interesting objects and bring them immediately to his mouth. That includes Mommy's jewelry or ponytail and Daddy's glasses.
- Play games. Turn these growing skills into interactive games to enhance social-emotional growth. Play peek-a-boo; take a walking tour of your home to point out fascinating things; imitate your baby's actions as he shakes a rattle or jingling bell.
- Be attentive. By now, your baby can very clearly express her emotions. There is no denying her capacity for excitement, pleasure, joy, sadness, fear, and anger. When you respond sensitively to her, it helps her know that those she loves and relies on can understand her feelings. She learns that you will be there to comfort her when comfort is needed, as well as rejoice with her in pleasurable moments.
As he nears his first birthday, your baby will show off his growing independence. He may revolt at staying too long (which means longer than he wishes) in a crib or a high chair or show signs of fear and rejection of strangers, even Grandma who is visiting from far away. While sometimes challenging for you, these are all wonderful signs of social and emotional growth, as wonderful as the growing use of his voice to talk with those he loves, even without real words. Laughing aloud, shouting, babbling, crying with a new insistence, gesturing, and pointing for what he wants are all essential steps in social-emotional growth.
- Enjoy his demands! Respect and admire your little one's assertiveness with words, tone, and gestures.
- Join in her interests, and above all respond to her efforts at communication. Elaborate on back-and-forth play with a toy or your nose or your hair, making many two-way circles of communication happen. If she enjoys pat-a-cake, join the game with enthusiasm. She'll want to do it "more, more, more!" Although you are tired, endure just one more, and then another, for the sake of her growing pleasure in relating and her sense of mastering her environment. It is on this foundation that future social, emotional and cognitive growth will be built.
About the Author
Written by Adele M. Brodkin, Ph.D.
Scholastic's Parent & Child Magazine
Adele M. Brodkin, Ph.D., is a psychologist, consultant, and author of many books, including Fresh Approaches to Working With Problematic Behavior and Raising Happy and Successful Kids: A Guide for Parents.