Your baby's social and emotional development is inextricably linked to his physical development. As soon as he is able to hold head steady, you'll notice that his interactions with you become longer and more complex.
It usually takes three to four months for the infant and his parents to establish a flexible routine. In general terms, this consists of 10 to 12 hours sleep at night, probably broken with at least one feed, two periods of sleep of approximately two hours during the day, and three or four periods of being awake. Managing the increasing amount of time that the baby is awake is his next challenge.
Somewhere between two and three months, your baby's capacities for social interaction have increased dramatically. You have a sense that you know your baby and you feel rewarded for the months of sleepless nights and hard work. Your baby is now smiling, is perhaps chuckling and babbling, and definitely engaging in long periods of looking deep into your eyes. Just looking at him gives you great pleasure and he feels the same way looking at you.
Between four and six months, your baby will be the most sociable member of the family.
Providing opportunities for your baby to seek you out in this playful way will boost his confidence as he fine-tunes his control of the excitement level. He is learning very important lessons - how to be a social being, and the skill of reading facial expressions. Through reading another's face we believe we can understand their feelings and intentions. It's a skill your baby is concentrating on at the moment.
Since birth, your baby has been fascinated by faces. Faces have features that are particularly attractive to the baby's eye - the curve of the cheek and eyebrow, the contrast of the whites of the eyes against the pupils, the acute angle of the corner of the eye, the symmetrical balance and the motion of the lips moving inside the frame of the face. It is no wonder that the face holds your baby's attention.
Your face is now important for two new reasons. On our faces we show our response to the baby, moment by moment, mirroring back emotions which enable him to feel a special connection to another person. Likewise, our faces seem to act like a trigger to the now more playful baby, eliciting a big smile and chuckle. Babies of this age are very open to feelings and exquisitely sensitive to changes in expression, expecting genuine emotions to be reflected back. In fact, your baby knows when your emotions don't match the expression on your face. So it is better to be honest with our babies about our feelings than try to hide them.
Your baby is engaging in long eye-to-eye exchanges and practising the skill of social exchange by fine tuning his gaze control. By looking at you the baby can almost always pull your eyes toward himself to achieve that special connection. He can then hold your gaze for a time, expanding the interaction by babbling, or ending it by looking away. Mutual gaze is the structure of the interaction. Your baby will express various emotions around the mutual gaze experiences - excitement and joy as well as anxiety, wariness or curiosity if a new sound occurs or a new person appears.
Social interaction is the key to your baby's existence at this time. His most rewarding moments are locked in the moment of a mutual gaze. He is becoming well grounded in non-verbal communication which provides vital cues to the emotional content of current and future relationships. With gaze control and the eliciting of other responses from the adults, the baby is learning that he in fact makes things happen himself.
Not only can your baby initiate interaction, he is also discovering that he can make his body do things. Clumsily at first, but with more and more control, he is batting out at objects, purposely playing with the bib and carrying toys to his mouth. One day, while lying on the floor, head tucked forward and knees bent, he rolled over. What a surprise! What fun. No doubt he looked at you for acknowledgement of how clever he is.
In fact, your baby's physical development , or motor competence, plays an important part in his social and emotional development. First the baby has gained head control so he can now hold his head steadily in the centre in order to hold your attention. He can hold his head in the centre while lying down, held sitting, bouncing or while you hold him above your head. Time on his tummy on the floor has built up the muscles which allow him to have the control to enjoy being placed and supported in a sitting position. He will not be able to support himself until he is about six months old.
You can appreciate that babies who have difficulty holding their heads in the centre - that is, who don't have control of their muscles to turn their heads as they wish - are not going to be able to draw their parents into social interaction in quite the same way. Likewise, babies who haven't built up the muscles of the shoulders and trunk will not be getting the same satisfaction from practising rolling over, or spending time trying to sit up. Their time doing these activities will need to be shorter and more frequent to allow them to build up a capacity for reaching these physical milestones .
Given that the social exchange with parents is so important, babies whose motor development is not as competent need to be assisted to achieve the positions where face-to-face exchanges can be enjoyed. These babies are sometimes irritable when awake. Perhaps their fussiness is simply because they can't maintain for themselves a position to play in. You can help such babies by giving them additional support. For example, putting a pillow under their head and shoulders when they are lying on their backs on the floor, or a rolled nappy behind their head when sitting in a baby chair - enables them to avoid frustration and engage in exciting, stimulating and rewarding exchanges.
As a very competent, sociable little person, even by the age of six months your baby is ready to expand the areas of taking the initiative, engaging people in conversation and looking out to the world for stimulation. But more on that later...
By Beulah Warren. Beulah is a registered psychologist in private practice with particular focus on families with young children.