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When will my baby sit up, crawl and walk? What is considered “normal” when it comes to reaching milestones? What I tell new parents about their baby’s development is this: Infants’ growth once was viewed as a sort of developmental elevator. Baby went from floor to floor, stopping at each level to learn a new skill. But there’s more to that story. Babies build their skills based on the environment they find on each floor. If the interaction with you or other caregivers is responsive and enriching, she gets back on the elevator with even more skills, and the ride to the next stage is much smoother. Knowing how your baby acquires new cognitive and motor skills not only teaches you about him, it’s also a worthwhile reminder that every infant is a little different (and it may even help you avoid the neighborhood race to see whose baby sits or crawls or walks first). Here are the average time frames and descriptions of some of the most important first-year accomplishments.
Birth to 3 months
• Lifts and turns head
• Stretches out arms and legs
• Opens hands and swipes at things
• Holds eye contact and studies faces
Makes first sounds
During the first year, motor development simply means that baby is learning to lift more of his body off the ground. When you place him on his stomach soon after birth, he gradually inches his head off the floor—from barely clearing the surface during the first month to raising it an inch or two the next. By 3 months of age, most babies can lift their heads higher than their bottoms.
His limbs soon learn new tricks. In the first month, a baby’s arms mostly lie curled up around his body, but by the end of the third month, he stretches out both his arms and legs and begins to move them around more freely.
Then baby’s hands start to explore. Newborns tend to keep their tiny fists tightly closed, but during their second month they begin to unfold them partially and swipe aimlessly. By the third month, the hands remain half-open most of the time. It’s at this stage that babies realize their hands are wonderful toys and—most important—a part of themselves. Your baby will play with his hands in front of his face, exploring one hand with the other and sucking on his fingers and fists.
His sight is improving as well. Early on, infants see best when objects are 8 to 15 inches away. For the first month, their eyes are crossed and can hold a fixed gaze only briefly. But sometime during the second month, your baby makes genuine eye contact and studies you, at least for a few seconds. Once he can see you clearly, you’ll soon be charmed by his smiles as he begins to hold your gaze. Around 2 or 3 months, coos, squeals and gurgles expand to include more drawn-out vowel sounds such as “aaah,” “eee” and “oooh.” Sounds become louder, and screeching and laughing start.
At the end of 3 months, you’ve survived the fitting-in period. Baby’s fussiness while adjusting to life outside the womb has subsided (somewhat!), and he knows to whom he belongs. Because his needs have been consistently responded to, he has developed trust—the most powerful stimulator of infant development and the foundation of your child’s self-esteem. Most parents now feel more comfortable with the two R’s of parenting: reading their baby’s cues and responding in a way that works.
4 to 6 months
• Develops binocular vision
• Accurately tracks moving objects and people
• Reaches with both hands and can hold onto toys and people
• Begins learning to sit
• Cries less, babbles more
Each stage of learning has one important skill that, once mastered, sets the scene for the development of others. Binocular vision is the master skill of the fourth month. It means that baby can now use both eyes together, giving her better depth perception. After swiping at (and missing) various targets for the first three months, she now gets a visual fix on a toy and can grab it. It’s as if her hands and eyes are finally saying, “Let’s work together to improve our aim.”
Your baby is also improving her ability to track objects moving from side to side. If you want to see if she has mastered this skill, try the mutual gazing game: When your baby is quiet but alert, capture her attention. Slowly tilt your head, then watch her tilt hers. Rotate her body, and notice that she’ll turn her head to keep you in view.
Sitting up is the master skill of the sixth month for many infants, and how your baby learns to do this is one of the most fascinating parts of her early development. At 4 or 5 months, baby still slumps or topples sideways when trying to sit, but she eventually begins using her arms as props to keep herself up. Between 5 and 6 months—around the time her back muscles are strong enough to support her when sitting upright—baby may let go sometimes, but will still use her hands as props. Then at about 6 months, she learns to let go, first with one hand, then the other and begins to hold her back straight, leaning forward at a 45-degree angle. As back-muscle strength and balance improve, a baby can sit completely erect.
Infants’ first attempts at language are another highlight of this stage. They cry less, “talk” more and begin to combine sounds and body language to make their point. A major breakthrough in speech development occurs at around 6 months, when infants learn they can alter the sounds they make by changing the shape of the tongue and mouth. They begin to babble—creating long, repetitive strings of syllables containing a vowel and a consonant. Between 6 and 9 months, a baby learns to change “ba-ba,” a sound made with the lips, to “da-da,” a sound made with the tongue.
7 to 12 months
• Picks up objects with thumb and forefinger
• Uses gestures to communicate
• Moves from crawling to cruising to walking
You now have a real explorer on your hands as baby’s motor development allows him to get up and get around. From 6 to 7 months, two important skills (crawling and learning to pick up objects with the thumb and forefinger) make it possible for him to move to the next stage of infant development.
Between 6 and 9 months, babies begin gesturing, an important predecessor to language, as gestures are later replaced by their equivalents in words. Instead of crying to be picked up, baby extends his arms and raises his eyes to you, or he gives you the sign to put him down: pointing his hands toward the floor and squirming in your arms until you lower him.
Between 12 and 13 months, most babies are getting ready to take those first tentative steps on their own, if they haven’t started already. But before he begins to walk, a baby has to move from crawling to standing to “cruising”—walking from place to place, using furniture or other objects for balance, which he begins to learn at 8 or 9 months.
Of all the first-year milestones, walking is perhaps the one parents worry most about. Many babies walk by their first birthday, but there is a wide range of what’s considered normal: anywhere from 9 to 16 months. Temperament seems to play a role in when a child takes on major developmental milestones. A baby with an easygoing disposition may approach walking more cautiously. But when the later walker does finally walk, he walks well. The early walker, on the other hand, may be an impulsive baby who raced through each motor milestone before his parents could get the camera ready.
It’s perhaps most important to keep in mind one of the first facts of child development: When an infant does something is not as important as the fact that he’s moving through a sequence of milestones. Your baby may accomplish these milestones at different ages than the baby next door, but both will follow a similar progression. Try to compare your baby only with himself, never underestimating the role your love and nurturing play in keeping your child climbing the elevator, moving from milestone to milestone.