Social Development in Infancy

Anxious to know when your baby will smile, recognise themselves or play? Find out the key social development milestones for infants from birth to 12 months.

The first 12 months of an infant’s life are full of social development milestones. They go from being a helpless little creature to a vocal one-year-old with their own personality. They rapidly become more communicative and expressive with their face and body.
Here are some of the social milestones you should anticipate from your newborn during the first year of their life:

Birth to Three Months Old
Babies are very astute social learners and are primed to engage and communicate with people right away. How early on and how often they do so depends on how well and how often adults engage with them.

  • Making Faces and Recognising Others: Newborns will begin imitating simple facial movements and head turns after only a few weeks. When they see an adult sticking out their tongue at them or opening their mouth wide, they will do the same back. At around the same time babies will be able to recognise your voice. Try calling their name while they are looking elsewhere, and your little three-week-old will turn to search and find your voice and face.

  • Smiling: Many babies will start smiling responsively when they’re between six to eight weeks old, though many others will treat you to their first smile at around the three month mark. The onset of a social smile varies, but evidence shows that they are quicker to occur in babies whose loving parents have been interacting and using baby talk, since birth. Not sure how to speak baby talk? Use long drawn-out vowels, a voice one octave up and very slow, loving, pleasurable tones.

  • Kicking and Playing: By the time babies are 3 months old, they already love to play. Your baby should enjoy kicking and keeping an interested eye on things, for example, a mobile hung over their cot or toys dangled at their feet. The baby will concentrate on the object, and will vigorously kick to keep it moving — some babies will do this up to 20 minutes! Babies prefer to see faces over objects and also prefer to listen to people’s voices over other noises. Babies especially love to play with familiar people who talk and smile with them and who respond and talk back to them. The voice and the face together are what make the baby engage and play longer.


Four to Seven Months Old

  • Vocalising Their Needs: At this ages, your baby will begin trying to vocalise when they need you. For instance, when they drop a toy and can’t reach it again, they will call for you to get it. Respond to them gently and quickly when you can before your baby gets frustrated (to avoid the ear-splitting crying). If you can’t address your baby’s needs (for example, if they are frustrated because you won’t allow them to keep throwing food), redirect their attention with a toy or a book.

  • Talking to Their Reflection: Although your baby won’t develop self-recognition until later, your baby will enjoy looking at their reflection. They are begining to recognise things in their environment, and at this point, that pretty face in the mirror is just a playmate they can babble and laugh with.

  • Imitating Your Moods: At this age, your baby is beginning to learn what your vocal tones and facial expressions mean: they are recognising emotions and moods. They will still be hard wired to imitate you though, so a happy baby starts with a happy you!


Eight to 12 Months Old

  • Separation Anxiety: Separation anxiety will kick in at around eight months old, as your baby starts to become aware of themselves and who other people are. Your infant may start hiding their face in your chest when their carer approaches and reacting strongly when you leave for work. People they’ve always been comfortable with may startle or frighten them. For now, when you leave, they doesn’t understand that you’re coming back. As they grow, they’ll realise you always return and the anxiety will subside.

  • Mimicking Your Behaviours: At around the same time, your baby will also starting to mimic your behaviors, such as waving and talking on the phone. Communication and social interaction go hand in hand, so babies at this age are waving bye-bye and responding to being told ‘no’ — even if they don’t want to stop what they are doing, they should at least pause and show recognition of what they are being told. They hear what you’re saying, but may test their limits by showing defiance and assertiveness.

  • Recognising Themselves: When they looked in the mirror before, they likely didn’t know that the face staring back was their own. Now, they will recognise that the baby in the mirror is them, and they may touch their own face when they see themselves. They will also be starting to show an understanding of some of their body parts and may extend an arm or a finger to show objects of interest.


At 12 Months Old

  • Interacting With Others: At around 12 months old, your little one may be ready to explore the world, but they’re still hesitant about people they don’t know. At this age, it is normal for some children to appear shy or nervous around strangers. The important thing is to make your child feel loved and to appreciate that this can be a stressful time for them.

  • Your child will probably enjoy being around and observing other children at this age, but they likely won’t play with them: Tears may erupt if someone touches their favorite toy, and they may snatch objects from others. But your little one won’t always be rude to others. They haven’t discovered empathy for others’ feelings yet, so sharing is not in their vocabulary. With time and positive reinforcement from you, they will learn to treat others as they would like to be treated. You can help them by sitting with them and another child their age and rolling the ball to each of them. Encourage them to roll the ball to each other. They might not, but at least you’re planting the seed!

  • Interacting With You: At this age, your child is taking in everything that is going on around them, therefore their interactions with you will serve as a model for all other interactions. Help them practice back-and-forth chatter with you, show them how to properly pet the dog and how to greet others with a wave. Gesture to an object as you say its name — your little one will try to mimic you in all these aspects. These exchanges will quickly build language skills, strong connections in the brain, and close parent-child relationships.

  • Imitating will also show up in the form of pretend play: Play is a critical teacher: find opportunities for your child to play with everything in their environment. Help them serve up a make-believe dinner, pretend to make a purchase or set your child to “work” with a paper and crayons. Parents can see development happening during these times, and they are a good excuse to make learning fun.

Children’s social development happens at very different rates. But if parents are concerned and their baby does not seem to be making progress in their development and meeting developmental milestones, it’s best that these concerns are shared with a specialist sooner rather than later.


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