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Developmental milestones: Socialisation

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How does your baby learn about his connection to other people? How and when does he start making friends? It all starts with you. As his parent, you are your child's first playmate. You will become his favourite person. He will delight at the sound of your voice, the sight of your face and the touch of your hand. With your help, your baby will become familiar with others and begin to enjoy their company, too. This is the beginning of the development of social skills. 

When it develops 

Between birth and age three, your baby's social skills gradually mature. From the moment he's born, your child learns to adapt and respond to the people around him. During the first year, he focuses mainly on discovering what he can do (grab and pick up objectswalk, and other skills) and interacting with his parents. He'll enjoy others but will definitely prefer you and your husband. Around the time he turns two, he begins to enjoy playing interactively with other children. But as with any other skill, he will need to learn how to socialise with other kids by trial and error. At first, he will be unable to share his toys. Later, he'll become a better friend as he learns how to empathise with others. By age three, he'll be on his way to making real friends. 

How it develops 

One month 
Even newborns are social creatures. They love to be touched, held, cooed to, and smiled at. As early as the first month, your child will begin to experiment with making faces at you. He'll enjoy watching your face and may even mimic some of your gestures. Stick out your tongue and watch as he does the same. 

Three months 
By this time, your baby will spend his waking hours watching what goes on around him. He'll even flash his first genuine smile, a momentous event for most parents. Soon he'll be an expert at 'smile talk,' starting an interaction with you by sending a smile your way and gurgling at the same time. 

Four months 
He's becoming more open to new people, greeting them with squeals and glee. But at this age no one comes close to Mum or Dad. Your baby will reserve his most enthusiastic reaction for you. This is a sure sign that the two of you have bonded. 

Seven months 
As he becomes more mobile, your baby may start to take an interest in other babies. But it will probably be limited to a glance and a grab. Once in a while, they'll smile and coo, and imitate each other's sounds, but they'll mainly be preoccupied with the task in front of them. When two babies under one year old are put next to each other with a set of toys, they usually play side by side but not with each other. For the most part, your baby is far too busy developing other skills to be really engaged with a playmate. Babies this age really like their immediate family best. They may even begin to be afraid of unfamiliar people. Stranger anxiety is common. 

12 months 
Toward the end of his first year, your child may begin to seem anti-social -- crying when you leave his side or anxious when you put him in the arms of someone other than you or your husband. Many kids go through separation anxiety, which peaks sometime between 10 and 18 months. Your child will prefer you to the exclusion of others and may be distressed when you're not around. Only your presence will calm him. 

13 to 23 months 
Toddlers are a different story. They're more interested in the world but mainly in how everything in it relates to them. As your child learns to talk and communicate with others, he'll also learn to make friends. He'll enjoy the company of other children now, both his age and older. Between the ages of one and two, however, he'll be fiercely protective of his toys, which can be hard for parents who think their child should be learning to share. You may also notice him imitating his friends and spending lots of time watching what they do. He'll also want to assert his independence - by refusing to hold your hand when you walk down a street, for example, or throwing tantrums when you tell him he can't do something he wants to do. 

24 to 36 months 
Kids tend to become even more self-centred between the ages of two and three. They aren't yet able to put themselves in other people's shoes or understand that other people have feelings, too. But as they get older, they learn how to share and take turns, and may even end up with one or two 'special' friends they cherish. 

What comes next 

Children naturally love and gravitate toward other people, especially other children. As your child grows, he'll learn more about how to respond to others in social situations, and his enjoyment of their company will grow. Children learn a tremendous amount from watching and interacting with other children. When he learns how to empathise with other children and how much fun it is to have playmates, he'll develop more true, lasting friendships. 

Your role 

Spend lots of face-to-face time with your baby, especially in the first few months. He'll love the attention and will enjoy making faces with you. Invite friends and relatives over; babies love visitors, young and old alike, especially when they're all going ga-ga over him. 

If your child develops stranger anxiety, don't be upset or embarrassed. Babies normally become nervous around unfamiliar people at approximately seven months. If he cries when you put him in a distant relative's arms, for example, take him back in your arms and try a slow desensitisation process. First wait until he is comfortable in your arms while the other person is around. Then, have the individual talk and play with your child while you hold him. Then, hand him over to the other person for a short time, and stay close. Finally, try to leave the room for a few minutes, and see how it goes. If your child bawls, take him back and comfort him, and try again another time. 

Toddlers can benefit from having peers around, so arrange to have friends over to play, but make sure you have plenty of toys for everyone. Your child may have difficulty sharing his things with others. 

If you have a two- or three year-old who appears to be behaving selfishly, you may be concerned that you have spoiled him. Try not to worry too much; children this age are self-centred by nature. Still, it's important to take the opportunity to show them how you want them to behave; if you make a point of saying "please" and "thank you," complimenting someone on a job well done (particularly if you have live-in help), and sharing things, your child will learn from your example. 

Join a playgroup or music or gym class so he gets a chance to be with other kids. Soon he'll learn how to make and keep friends, and will have an active social life. 

When to be concerned 

If your baby seems uninterested in relating to anyone except you and your husband by the time he turns one, no matter how much effort you put into drawing him out, or if he doesn't even want to interact with you, talk to your doctor. He may have a hearingproblem or other illness. 

If your toddler (one to three years old) seems overly aggressive and is incapable of spending time with other children without biting, hitting or pushing them, you may want to discuss this with your family doctor or paediatrician. These behaviours may arise out of fears or insecurities, and your doctor may be able to suggest ways to handle them and meet your child's needs. (Babies may go through a period when they act like mini Count Draculas, biting their playmates, but that's usually related to their exploration of what they can do with their teeth.) While all children do become unfriendly to others some of the time, especially when they're fighting over toys, it's unusual for them to be aggressive all the time. 
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