Raising a kid is like having first-hand access to your own nature channel. We binge-watch our newborns furl and unfurl their fingers as if they were the latest hot series about sea anemones, and document their first steps like wildlife photographers. We grasp for clues about who they might become—is the fact they are cooing a sure sign of future genius?
But underlying that pride is often a nagging sense of worry. All it takes is just one parent’s boast about her progeny’s clearly advanced ability to roll over to strike fear in your gooey heart. I worried for weeks that my son’s pudgy legs were hampering his ability to walk. I needn’t have. He was off like a bullet right around his first birthday—perfectly, gloriously average.
That’s the important thing paediatricians want us to remember: Milestones are averages. There is a huge range—while some babies start to crawl as early as six months, and most can crawl by 12 to 14 months, many will get there a bit later. If your child doesn’t meet a milestone “on time,” don’t panic. Talk over any concerns with your doctor, especially if your baby loses a skill he had seemed to master. If there are any serious delays, your doctor can help you explore the many therapy options.
Sometimes, temperament can slow things down, especially when it comes to gross motor skills, such as crawling and walking. If a kid is cautious or laid-back, he may be a little slower to try these skills out, says Calgary paediatrician Janice Heard. “But they will learn everything eventually.” In a few years, no one will be able to tell the difference between a kid who walked at eight months and one who walked at 18 months.
Most skills emerge naturally, but there are many ways to support and encourage them every day, all of which include playing, cuddling and talking. Added bonus: Once you know the mechanisms of development, you can take even more pleasure in the little things. (If only I’d known that my baby’s penchant for taking off his socks was an actual milestone—really!—I could have fetched them over and over again with more, um, patience.)
Here’s a guide to the five major developmental categories babies work on from the moment they’re born and how you can cheer your little one on.
This category has all the brag-worthy firsts: sitting, crawling and walking. Baby’s first year is “typically the ‘motor year,’” says Ripudaman Minhas, a Toronto developmental paediatrician.
Muscle development starts with the head and neck, and moves down the torso, through the legs to the feet. As your baby’s neck muscles become strong enough to hold up her head, she’ll try to roll over and then sit up. From there, she’s ready to start cruising along furniture and, eventually, walk. What can take mere minutes in the animal kingdom—a foal often stands within an hour of being born—can require between 10 and 14 months (or longer) to develop in humans.
What to watch for
Controlling head and neck (three to eight months): After weeks and weeks of supporting your baby’s neck while holding him, around the three-month mark you’ll notice that he’s able to do it himself, as well as raise his head and chest when lying on his stomach.
And while we gush about walking, the skill of rolling over is a crucial one to tune in to. Just as I was loving the momentary freedom of being able to put my son down in the middle of a bed or couch to fetch something (like those socks!), he was working on rolling over. No parent wants that first roll to include a plop to the floor, so keep an eye out. While most babies can roll from front to back and vice versa by eight months, this skill can develop sooner. By the age of six or seven months, he’ll also likely be sitting up by himself and even supporting his weight on his legs with a little help from you.
Crawling (six to eight months) and walking or cruising with help (nine to 12 months): While many babies start crawling or scooting around the six-month mark, some kids will often sidestep that stage altogether and head straight to walking. That’s not to say that if your baby skips a step she’s missing out. “Some kids don’t crawl. They ‘bum shuffle’ or roll and then go to walking,” says Asha Nair, an Ottawa developmental paediatrician. As long as they’re moving forward and building on the last skill, all is good, says Minhas. “That’s just part of who they are—they still manage to do the milestones that come after.”
Your doctor will look for red flags, such as muscle stiffness or general floppiness, which may indicate conditions including cerebral palsy or gross motor delay. These issues can be diagnosed as early as eight months and may warrant physical therapy from an occupational therapist or other health professional. Worried because your child is not yet walking? Your doctor will be watching his progress, and will investigate further if he isn’t walking by 18 months.
What parents can do
Two words: tummy time. Babies don’t generally love it at first—they can see more with less effort while lying on their backs. But you should aim for four or five periods of at least a few minutes of supervised tummy time a day, Nair says, “so they know it’s part of their routine.” And yes, havingyour baby lie tummy-down on your belly while you’re lying down or reclining on a chair counts, as long as she’s trying to lift her head and look at you. (Just stay awake!)
Tummy time leads to gross motor wins, and not getting enough can delay strengthening of neck and back muscles. Once tummy time is a cinch, put your baby on her hands and knees in what’s called a four-point stance to encourage crawling.
Let your inner Marie Kondo go—this is a messy developmental category.
Babies begin to develop their fine motor skills by using broad movements from the shoulder that are refined over their first year right down to their fingertips. Even before they can sit on their own, babies start batting objects hung over their crib or play mat. And by the time they’re four months old, they are grabbing objects and bringing them directly in front of their faces for a closer look.
These are early signs of hand-eye coordination, so if your baby is having any issues, such as not connecting with the toy she’s batting at, have your doctor check her sight. Watch to see if your baby is using both hands equally. If your baby is favouring one side over the other, your doctor may want to rule out muscle weakness. (Left- or right-handedness doesn’t show up until after 18 months.)
What to watch for
Clapping (three months): While she may not be applauding your marathon breastfeeding session (sorry), bringing open hands together is a great sign your baby is developing in a typical way. (But don’t expect the clapping to make much noise at this stage. It’s the bringing the hands together that matters.)
Finger-feeding (12 months): At first, babies rake toys or food into the palms of their hands with their fingers. Then, as they approach the 12-month mark, babies master the “pincer grasp” with their index fingers and thumbs: With Jedi-like focus, they pick up pieces of food and take them to their mouths.
Begin drinking from a cup by themselves (12 months): Yes, this can get sloppy, and it may seem like more water is hitting the floor than his stomach, but the Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) recommends holding a cup for your baby to try from six months onward. Don’t think of this as teaching him the proper way to drink liquids. It’s more about developing the intricate blend of fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination we all use daily.
What parents can do
Set out items they can reach for. Blocks are the ultimate toy, as babies can grab them, transfer them from hand to hand, bang them together and drop them to see what happens. (An early lesson in cause and effect.)
When your baby is able to eat solids, let him play with small, soft pieces of food. He can put them in and out of containers, for instance. Nair suggests giving your baby a little water in an open cup at one meal each day. “Kids can surprise you,” she says. “They can do a lot of things we don’t know they can do.” And sippy cups are OK; just make sure the lid is off by the time your baby is 24 months old, says Heard.
Nix screen time for the whole family:
While screens have practically become an extension of ourselves, we may want to rethink the cozy relationship we have with our gadgets. Standard public health guidelines suggest kids under two should have no screen time. Research has found that apps and computer programs, even those labelled educational, don’t help baby’s development and might even impede it. Babies can’t interact with screens the same way they can with a human, says paediatrician Janice Heard, adding that parents “should have zero screen time, too” when with the baby. (Or at least try to minimize use.)
Most parents know to read and play with their kids, she says, “but we’re finding that people who would normally have done these things are distracted by technology. People are walking down the street on their phone, not talking to the child in the stroller.” Heard says she and her colleagues are speculating the ripple effects of the smartphone revolution are now being observed in school-aged kids. If kids don’t have as much experience problem-solving in social situations, they can have a tendency to overreact, explode or withdraw.
“Children’s social interactions are affected, and the ability to regulate their emotions is affected,” Heard says. “Researchers are starting to correlate it with the debut of smartphones and parents not interacting with their babies.”
From the moment they’re born, infants are working on their social lives. They’re learning about who they can rely on, how to have a conversation and how to interact with those around them.
Smiles—one of the major social milestones—tend to show up after the first few months of non-stop breastfeeding, spotty sleeping and general exhaustion. (In other words, just when you need them most.) “The first time they smile when you’re looking at them or talking to them, that’s a beautiful moment,” says Nair. After that, watch for baby to mimic the sounds and movements you make; these are early attempts at communication. This is also where the sock-removal prowess comes in. It’s not about warm or cold feet—it’s about play and movement.
A demanding baby is a healthy baby. As Heard says, “Babies require a lot of attention. They want to be held and talked to; they want to see things.” A lack of social interaction—which can include eye contact or reaching for you—that persists past six months to a year is a clue that a child may be on the autism spectrum, which is usually not diagnosed until the age of 18 months.
What to watch for
Smiling (three to eight months): It’s true: If you think you see smiles before the six-week mark, it’s most likely gas. But after that, you’re in genuine smile country.
They’ll be grinning when you grin at them, but also spontaneously. And by eight months, most babies will smile at the baby they see staring back at them in the mirror—not because they recognize themselves, but because they’re learning that smiling is a social act.
As part of the continuous formation of neural pathways that’s happening in their brains, babies are quick to read social cues from those around them and test them out. In one study out of the University of New Hampshire, babies as young as six months looked for the reactions their parents had when witnessing the same absurd or silly events. By 12 months, they internalized this ability—they know that a weird noise, absurd movements or a silly face is indeed funny and will no longer check on their parents’ reaction before laughing.
Copying body movements (three months): You are your baby’s first and most influential teacher. She is always watching you, and while she may not nail them, she is trying to copy your body movements—including those cheesy Drake moves you do while making coffee.
By 12 months, babies copy the behaviors of others while they play—and they’ll not only imitate your moves but also the more mundane acts such as, well, making that coffee. I once thought I had a mini-barista in the house, but I really had a mini-me who was well on his way to being a social butterfly.
What parents can do
Want to ensure your child learns how to pick up on social cues? Pick up on hers. She’s looking to you to answer her when she’s hungry, tired or needs a hug. Interact with your baby as much as you can, even during something as routine as a diaper change—say, “Let me count your toes,” and respond to the looks on your baby’s face, says Heard.
The CPS says responding “warmly and predictably” when your baby reaches out will help her feel not only safe but heard. And it can be fun, too. Even a silly shared gesture like a raspberry can be a precursor to having a conversation, says Nair. “They learn it, then it’s a back and forth conversation: I do it, and then you do it,” she says.
Reading and singing are key here, too, in a way that goes beyond language. When you’re singing a song your kid knows, pause and watch for him to get excited about the next line. “They just want you to do the next step. These are all important parts of social language,” says Nair.
In baby’s first year, the conversation can feel a little, how shall we put it, one-sided? That’s especially true if you’re the only adult in the room for long stretches of time. But it’s important to keep up the chatter, because you’re building up your child’s language reserves every time you narrate the day (“Let’s go for a walk,” “Is that a bird up there?” or “Time for lunch!”) or tell a story.
The coos and babbles may be all you get for many months, but you need to keep talking. “A lot of kids are late talkers,” says Nair. (And early talkers don’t necessarily do better in school.) By 18 months, kids should have 10 to 25 words they use consistently. “If there are concerns at any of these times, it would be important to rule out a hearing problem and refer them to a speech therapist,” Nair says.
What to watch for
Babbling (eight months), and saying “mama” and “dada” plus one word (12 months) In speech, there is a definite order to development, says Minhas. “They’ll coo before they babble and babble before they start forming words, and it will build up from there,” he says.
While it can happen as early as 10 months, by 12 months, most babies will use “mama” and “dada” correctly (she may say “mama” as early as eight months, but she won’t be actually referring to her mother), plus one other word. That third word can be what’s called a “word approximation.” If “ba” always means bottle, that counts, says Nair.
What parents can do
Keep talking. “We know babies who are spoken to, read to and sung to have better language skills later on,” says Nair. And, sorry, but e-books and screens of any kind just don’t pass muster. As a recent study in JAMA Pediatrics showed, face-to-face interaction is the gold standard. Make sure your baby is watching your mouth, so she can imitate you. Research suggests young babies can even show signs of learning a second language when it’s taught to them in person from a native speaker, but not when that person is simply on a video. The interactive element is key.
Insist on reading books to your baby, even if it seems like he loves chewing them more than listening. “All the things you do when you read—the intonation of your voice, the different sounds you’re making, the pointing—that’s how babies learn to do those things,” says Nair. A 2014 University of Iowa study found that when mothers respond to babies’ babbling while reading to them, more beneficial pre-language chatter happens than during other kinds of interactions.
Much like language and social skills, cognition—thinking, understanding, problem solving, memory building—blossoms with interactions with others.
“Human to human interaction is the best way kids are going to learn early on. Playing with toys, books and with peers and siblings and other kids, and having parents talking to them and doing different things with them is really the way to do it,” says Nair.
During the first three months of life, expect your baby to be busily storing away the identities of the people he’s close to. (One recent study using brain imaging documented how this phenomenon occurs in the right hemisphere of the brain far earlier than previously thought.) By the end of this period, he’ll recognize those people when he sees them. Then, at eight months, he’ll start to understand that people and objects still exist even when he can’t see them.
What to watch for
Tracking objects (three months): The ability to track an object as it moves is one of the first signs of a stimulated brain. Once that skill is mastered, babies begin to track objects and then wonder where they’ve gone if they disappear from view. This is the notion of “object permanence,” a key building block of cognition. As early as seven months, but usually by eight or nine months, babies will know an object still exists even if it’s hidden. Like little detectives, they’ll struggle to find it: If you drop a squeaky toy over the side of their high chair, when they’re hitting this milestone, they’ll lean over to look for it.
What parents can do
Ever wondered why we instinctively play peek-a-boo? It’s because we’re helping baby understand that just because he can’t see something, it doesn’t mean it’s not there. Try concealing items under cups. And, not to sound like a broken record, keep talking and reading.