Child Care: Personal, Social and Cognitive Milestone Developments

The first milestone and a very important milestone that shows that your baby is a social being, is the “social smile” which comes at 1-2 months. The baby smiles “back” when the parents talk to him, smile at him or caress him. Actually this smile is more of a reflex smile, because the baby doesn’t understand what the parents are saying. For all one knows the parents may be saying (out of pleasure) that he is the biggest idiot that they have ever come across! Their “truly idiotic” child acknowledges this and smiles back!

Yet his smiling back proves to the world that he is not an idiot. For the social smile is a very powerful objective evidence that the baby’s mental faculties are all right and he will develop into a normal human being without being mentally handicapped. In fact so much value is laid on the social smile by the doctors that if a baby doesn’t smile “back” by the age of 2 months, one suspects that there is something seriously wrong with the baby’s development and most likely he will lag behind developmentally. And why not to attach such importance to the social smile? For it is the first way of the baby to show objectively to the parents and to the world that he is also a social being like them capable of social interaction.

At about the same age i.e. 2 months, the baby stares intently at the person carrying him and talking to him. It appears as if the baby is trying hard to decipher what is being said and trying to make some sense out of it. In between he may give the hint of a smile. However for the parents, this eye contact and the smile give them the feeling of being loved back, which is very satisfying for them.

At about 3 months, the child recognizes his mother and maybe the father (if he is also involved intimately in the care of the baby), as his primary caretakers and learns to differentiate them on a more intimate basis than other human beings.

The 4 month age is a very loveable age, maybe the most loveable one. The child becomes interested in a wider world and thus even if he is in his mother’s lap and being fed, even a small noise can distract him so much that he may literally turn around to locate the source of distraction. At the same time, he also starts exploring his own body, which plays an important role in the emergence of “self” in the mind of a child as a concrete and objective thing. The baby starts showing the primary emotions of anger, joy, interest, fear, disgust and surprise as distinct facial expressions.

Face to face with a trusted adult, the infant and adult match affective expressionsabout 30% of the time, the intensity of their smiling, eye widening and lip puckering rising and falling together in cadence. Every few seconds, as the excitement builds to a level that the infant cannot stomach, he will turn away, settle down and then again return back to the interaction, thoroughly enjoying it. While if the parents turn away, the infant leans forward, reaches, or in other ways tries to get the adult involved again. If it fails, the infant starts bawling, i.e. the child at this age shows an overt displeasure on a sustained and pleasurable social contact being broken.

At the same time, the child learns to laugh out aloud and if for some reason, he thinks something as funny, he may burst out laughing aloud at times taking everyone by surprise, because in reality nothing funny was said or done! For most parents, this is a happy period. They are excited that they can hold “conversations” with their little ones, taking turns vocalizing and then listening to the baby vocalize in response.

At about 5-6 months, the child enjoys seeing his own image in the mirror and smiles back at it, without understanding that what he is seeing is a “virtual image” and not a real thing. So he may thump the mirror to “catch” the image, without grasping anything concrete.

At about 7-8 months, comes another important concept in the overall development of the child called “object permanence.” Earlier if an object like a ball rolls out of his sight, say under the table, the child is not bothered about it, as he doesn’t understand that the ball is a permanent object. So if it has disappeared, fine! But at this age of about 7 months, the child knows that an object exists on a permanent basis. Therefore he will start looking for it by craning his neck or by going under the table and if by chance, he doesn’t find it, he will bear a puzzled look on his face.

From the age of 6 to 12 months, (some children develop it earlier, some do so later), comes what is known as “separation anxiety.” Before this, the child will go to any stranger and joyfully interact with him. For him at that stage, anyone who loves him can play with him, hours on together. But once this anxiety develops the child clings to the caretaker and views anybody who is a stranger with wariness and suspicion, anxiety writ on his face.

The child resists a toy or an object being pulled out of his hands at 7 months. At the same age, the child responds to changes in emotional context of the social contact. Therefore if the child commits some mischief, then an angry stare or a stern voice makes the child realize that the caretaker is not pleased with his deeds and thus quietens down.

At 9 months, when the child can crawl and hence is mobile, he makes determined efforts to reach and grasp a toy or an object kept out of his reach.

The child begins to show interest in interactive games at 10-12 months and “plays” with other human beings simple games like “peek-a-boo” or “pat-a cake.” At about 10 months, the child responds to sound of name i.e. if you call out his name, he understands that he is being called and therefore responds to it. He also starts waving “bye-bye”, something which all parents enjoy and urge him to repeat. At about 1 year, the child mimics any performance, which evokes appreciative laughter.

Alas for the parents, this is also the time when the issue of autonomy arises. The infant now no longer wants to be spoon fed, literally and figuratively. Now he wants to hold the spoon and to self-feed. In other day to day routines also, the infant starts challenging the parental control and wants to do things himself, in the way that he wants and not in the way that the parents want him to do. He may make a complete mess in doing so (which the parents were doing so far and the child was docilely letting it being done).

The parents may react angrily to it and are often helpless as to why the child need to meddle so much and take matters in his own hands, when his abilities to accomplish the particular task are so limited. The parents should be aware that this is a part of growing up; it happens with all the children and is nothing else but a manifestation of the child’s desire for autonomy and self-control. Therefore it is best for the parents to bear it with fortitude and patience. At the same time, tantrums make their first appearance. The child’s drive for autonomy clashes with the parental controls and ideas as to how things should be done, leading to tantrums and sulkiness by the child.

The next important milestone comes at 18-24 months and that is “problem solving.” For example, the child uses a stick to reach for a toy out of his reach or figures out how to wind a mechanical toy. These examples show that when faced with a problem, he is able to use his intellect to try to figure a way out.

At the same time, the child starts becoming self-conscious. The child who used to respond freely and without any inhibitions earlier now appears a bit embarrassed, particularly if too much attention is paid to him. If some familiar person calls the child and tries to have eye to eye contact with the child, the child may simply look askance and turn his head away, as if not interested, while actually he is most interested and curious! After some moments of your looking at him and he looking somewhere else, his level of embarrassment may become too much and he will suddenly break the silence by pointing with his fingers towards an object and naming it loudly (e.g. flower) or uttering something. You may say something like, “ah flower, very good” in response and the ice is broken between you two.

At the same time, toddlers looking in a mirror will, for the first time, reach for their own face rather than for the face in the mirror. If they see for example a “bindi” or a coloured dot on their face in the mirror image, they will reach out for the same on their face.

Internalized standards of evaluation also appear at the same time. When tempted to touch a forbidden object, they will say “no, no” to themselves, evidence of internalization of the standards of behavior. That finally they do reach out and touch the toy demonstrates the relative strength of the internalized inhibitions versus their curiosity and desire for autonomy.

At 2 years, the child narrates immediate experiences; e.g. he went to his friend’s house where such and such thing happened. He may also do vice-versa i.e. start telling home secrets to others. So beware of this “Vibhishan” in your house at this age!

At 30 months, i.e. two and a half years, the child knows his full name and also refers to self by the pronoun “I”. Before that he refers to his own self in the third person e.g. if the child’s name is Astha, she will say “Astha plays with ball” rather than “I play with ball.”

At 3 years, come 3 important things.

1. He knows his age and sex.
2. He can count 3 objects and can also repeat 3 numbers or a sentence of 6 syllables.
3. Handedness is usually established by the age of 3 years and an attempt by parents to change it may result in frustration.

“FANTASY LAND”: Till the age of 5 years, the child is involved in “magical” thinking e.g. if it rains, the child may believe that it is the tears of the clouds; the sun goes down because it is “tired” etc. Fears, sometimes intense, like that of ghosts, monsters etc. can be generated during this time and parents should be aware of them. Attempts to demonstrate that there are no monsters in the closet often fail, as the fear is due to pre-rational thinking. Rather reassurances that the parents will use their “great power” (e.g. a mystic stick to beat and drive away the monster) to ensure the child’s safety are more effective because they appeal to the child’s magical thinking. Only after the age of 5 years is the child able to distinguish fantasy from reality.

PLAY: It is an integral & enjoyable part of development of a child. The child’s earliest concept of play starts at 10 months, when he starts playing “peek-a-boo” or “pat-a-cake.”

At 1 year, the child’s “make-believe play” centers on himself, e.g. pretending to drink from an empty cup. At 18 months, symbolic transformations in play are no longer tied to one’s own body, so that a doll (rather than itself) can be “fed” from an empty cup!

A type of play called “pretend or symbolic” play starts at about 18 months and lasts till the age of 5 years. In it, the child pretends to play with an inanimate object e.g. a doll. Thus she may dress it up, comb its hair, talk to it and even scold it as if the doll was a living baby.

A child of 1-2 years involves in “parallel play.” The child plays parallel to older children but doesn’t join them. Rather in a space of his own in a corner of the playground, the child will try to imitate what the older children are playing e.g. if they run, he will also run in parallel with them; if they laugh, he will also start laughing in concordance with them etc.

At 3-4 years of age, the children increasingly becomes involved in “co-operative play” like building a tower of cubes together or playing hide and seek, simple ball games etc. with the other children i.e. he now starts participating actively in the game with others.

A little later, comes the concept of “organized group play” that becomes increasingly rule governed, e.g. playing “house-house” with distinct role assignments to the various children and certain rules and norms to be followed.

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