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Some of the biggest thrills for parents come in their baby’s first year of life: the first smile, first “ba ba,” first steps. But after reading the baby books, most new parents know what should be happening when, and many are disappointed, or begin to worry, if their children seem to be behind the curve. Such anxiety generally is misplaced. “Milestones are important because they let you know that a child is following normal developmental lines,” says Barry Lester, Ph.D., director of the Infant Development Center at Women & Infants Hospital in Providence, R.I. “But milestones are averages, and they have a huge range. It takes a very big departure from the average to be considered abnormal.”
Many factors, including genetics, influence when a child reaches a milestone. For example, a heavier baby may be slower to crawl, and a child growing up in a bilingual home or with a precocious older sibling may talk later than average (she can’t get a word in). Moreover, development can be uneven because babies don’t put the same energy into all areas at the same time. So, a baby who talks early may be slower to master physical feats.
Rather than focusing on when milestones occur or comparing your baby with others, watch for progression. If a child is moving from one stage to the next, she’s probably OK, says Beth Ellen Davis, M.D., M.P.H., a pediatric-development specialist at Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma, Wash. And as long as a baby is in the normal range, there’s no association between when she reaches milestones and her intelligence or physical process later. That said, here’s a rough timetable to let you know what to expect in the first year.
The Social Ladder: Even in the first week of life, your newborn can recognize your voice and focus on your face, turning toward you when he hears you. In the second month, he flashes his first intentional smile; earlier smiles are neither social nor caused by gas but a way of reflexively exercising the facial muscles, says Anouk Amzel, M.D., an assistant professor in clinical pediatrics at Children’s Hospital of New York at Columbia University Medical Center.
The Gift of Gab: The first sounds are reflexive, like coughs, grunts and sneezes. At about 3 months, a baby starts to make vowel sounds, such as “ooh” (aka cooing). He listens intently and can turn his head in the direction of voices other than mom’s, which shows awareness of sound—an important aspect of speech development, says Froma P. Roth, Ph.D., a professor in the hearing and speech sciences department at the University of Maryland.
Physical Feats: By 2 months, movements become more voluntary, less jerky, and the baby gains control of his neck. He also starts batting and kicking at toys. This shows that he desires something he sees but can’t yet grasp it, Amzel says. By 3 months, he can grasp a rattle that’s placed in his hand and bring his fingers into his mouth. He also can lift his head 45 degrees while lying on his tummy and can push his legs down when held standing.
Age-Appropriate Activities: Get very close when talking to your baby, Amzel says. Read him simple books that have pictures of bright objects, animals or faces. Place him on his back under a baby gym so he can kick and bat at hanging toys.
Causes for Concern: At 3 months, he does not smile socially, coo or lift his head 45 degrees.