Babies are born social creatures. From their earliest days, they begin to connect to and collect information from their caregivers. In fact, even newborns are capable of imitating facial expressions, demonstrating an understanding of how another’s actions relate to their own. Within weeks, they are cooing and intentionally smiling, responding in rhythm to their caregiver’s communications. By the end of the first three months, most families feel they “know” their infant, and that they have meaningful 2-way communication that includes game playing (e.g., peek-a-boo; for some ideas, see this site with games). Until approximately your baby’s first birthday, he and his primary caretaker are often immersed in an intimate dyad of love and learning.
Between 9 to 12 Months
Around 9-12 months, babies become more interested in exploration. This drive often coincides with their learning to crawl and/or walk, which leads to new adventures further away from nurturing caretakers. They begin to point to objects, an important developmental milestone that demonstrates their ability to establish a shared focus with another. Pointing thus allows interactions to expand to include objects and actions, enlarging babies’ ability to learn through more complex interactions.
Between 9 to 18 Months
Between 9 and 18 months, babies develop a more sophisticated understanding not only of other people and things, but also themselves. For example, if you secretly put a spot on a 15-month-old baby’s nose and put them in front of the mirror, they don’t behave any differently. Do the same to an 18 month old and they stare at the dot and then try and remove it from their face. Thus, it is not until around 18 months that a baby recognizes the image in the mirror is actually himself, and not just a different playful toddler.
Nine to eighteen months is also the time when stranger anxiety begins, where babies hang back with less well-known adults. They will also show displeasure (at least initially) when their primary caretakers leave the room or put them in the care of another. According to British psychologist John Bowlby, this attachment serves a useful function. That is, it allows a sort of equilibrium between a baby’s increasing need to venture out and explore, and his need for a secure base to protect and guide him. The sense of security that a primary caregiver provides can then be carried with a child when she explores, allowing her to continue to meet the additional developmental drive for exploration and discovery. The ongoing development of this secure base allows babies to “graduate” from Erikson’s Trust vs Mistrust stage.
Between 2 to 3 Years
Between the ages of 2 and 3, children begin to push the limits to determine what a parent’s boundaries are. Your child may begin to say no, have temper tantrums, become “stubborn,” or more negative. She is testing to see if you will still love her, no matter what. She is verifying the lengths you will go to to keep her safe.
Not all of the shift to autonomy is negative. As children assert themselves, they begin to recognize themselves as separate from but still similar to others. This allows them to develop and demonstrate empathy, which makes its debut at around 2-years-old. You can foster this development by giving your child (boy or girl) the words for emotions that you or others (e.g., a favorite book character, playgroup pals) are feeling.
Even very young children can develop and apply relatively complex understandings of people and emotions. For instance, by the time they turn three, they are quite good at reading facial expressions. Most children this age can articulate how another will feel if they don’t get a coveted toy (disappointed) or if they are left alone (scared).