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7 Things Every Parent Should Know About the Early Stages of Child Development

A baby is playing with Moonkie toys

Babies are incredible! They build 1 million neural connections every second until they are 3 years old (source). And by 5 years old, your baby will have created 90% of all the neural connections he or she will ever make (source). So, what can parents do to keep up?


Every parent should know about the early stages of child development to inform their parenting, lifestyle choices, environment styling, discipline tactics, toy selection, and education decisions. The more parents know, the better equipped they are to give their child the best start.


In this article, we will list seven things you should know about your baby's development and provide some actionable steps to actually put that knowledge into practice.


1. Babies Are Born With an Innate Ability to Learn

 

Babies, even newborn babies, can learn and retain information (source). From the moment they are born, babies absorb information about their environment and the people around them like a sponge!


Since babies learn through their senses of sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell, it is crucial to show your little one a variety of sights, sounds, and experiences. However, it is easy to overdo it! 


In those first weeks, your newborn will learn a ton just by being cared for and interacting with parents and family. As your little one's sensory skills improve, she will begin fixating on objects further away, react to your tone of voice, and seek to be held or comforted by select people.


However, as your infant grows in body and skill, she will need you to provide things to explore. Otherwise, she will get herself into trouble! 


We talk extensively about how you can educate your little one in the way she is able to learn at each developmental step in Early Childhood Skills and Montessori Education: What You Should Know.


2. Social Interactions are Crucial for Development

 

We all know babies and young children need social interaction to develop social, emotional, and cognitive skills. However, many parents are not aware of how crucial their role is in helping their child develop crucial language skills, all-important emotional intelligence, and useful problem-solving abilities.


Your little one needs you to talk to him, play with him, and interact with him to learn. Of course, interacting with others is necessary, too, but that connection with parents is by far the most vital connection for babies to learn social, emotional, and language skills.


By spending a part of your day or smaller blocks of time throughout your day playing with your little one away from devices and distractions, you will work wonders for your baby's social development. Add playdates outside, at friends' houses, in the library, or in any other group setting to add more social interactions.


3. Play is Essential for Brain Development

 

Play is not just a way for children to have fun; it's also fundamental for their brain development and starts from birth! Play helps little ones develop their imagination, creativity, and problem-solving skills. It also helps them learn how to regulate their own emotions and interact with others (source).


Playing is all about sensory exploration and social connection at first. Giggling at your silly sounds and faces, grasping random things within reach, chewing on whatever is in hand, babbling to that other baby in the mirror, and all the other activities your baby does for play are integral to building foundational skills.


As your little one progresses through rolling over, pushing up, rocking, crawling, pulling up, cruising, and walking, new areas of your home come within reach, and new abilities allow further exploration.


As such, you will find that your little one will not stick to one area, fascination, or pattern for long--she will move on to figure out new things constantly! 


Have you ever heard an adult look at a child and say, "I wish I had half your energy." With that little brain growing and learning exponentially, it's no wonder your little busy bee keeps going!


4. Every Child Develops at Their Own Pace

 

With all we know today about babies and child development, researchers have developed growth charts, percentiles, development patterns, and lists of milestones to look for at each step in a child's development. However, you must remember that every child develops at their own pace.


Your little one is unique with his own personality, genetic makeup, and gut microbiome. In fact, your host genome is 99.9% identical to your child's (and that of other humans), but your gut microbiome can be 80 - 90% different (source).


Add to biological diversity the difference in environment, parenting, discipline, resources, nutrition, and countless other factors, and then you can see why every child develops differently!


Should I Worry If My Baby Doesn't Meet a Developmental Milestone?


Milestones like rolling over, crawling, and walking are essential, but not every child reaches them at the same time. Your pediatrician is well aware of this, so you will find that your pediatrician will not worry about one skill being a bit "late."


Instead, your pediatrician will express concern if your little one is "behind" in multiple skills. To give you a basic idea of what pediatricians look for and ask about at each checkup in the first year, here is a chart compiled from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) milestone lists (source).


Skill Age in Months

Social and Emotional Milestones

2

4

6

9

12

She calms down when you speak to her or pick her up.

       
She looks at your face.

       
She seems happy to see you when you walk near her.

       
She smiles when you talk to or smile at her.

       
He smiles to get your attention.  

     
He giggles when you try to make him laugh.  

     
He looks at you, moves, or makes sounds to get or keep your attention.  

     
She knows familiar people.    

   
She likes to look at herself in a mirror.    

   
She laughs fully.    

   
He becomes shy, scared, or clingy around strangers.      

 
He shows lots of facial expressions for common emotions.      

 
He looks at you when you call his name.      

 
He reacts when you leave (searches, cries, reaches, etc.).      

 
He smiles or laughs when you play peek-a-boo.      

 
She plays simple social games with you.        

Language and Communication Milestones

2

4

6

9

12

He makes sounds other than crying (exhaling, gurgling, whining, etc.)

       
He reacts to loud sounds.

       
She makes cooing sounds like "oooo" and "aahh."  

     
She makes sounds when you talk to her.  

     
She turns her head to the sound of your voice.  

     
He takes turns making sounds with you (babble conversations).    

   
He sticks his tongue out and blows.    

   
He makes squealing noises.    

   
She makes a variety of sounds like "mamama" and "dadadada."      

 
She lifts her arms up to be picked up.      

 
He waves bye.        

He calls a parent "mama" or "dada" (or a different name) regularly.        

He understands "no" and hesitates briefly or stops when you say it.        

Cognitive Milestones

2

4

6

9

12

She watches you when you move.

       
She looks at a toy or object (like the ceiling fan) for several seconds.

       
He opens his mouth when he is hungry and sees his mom's breast or bottle.  

     
He looks at his own hands with interest.  

     
She reaches to grab a toy she wants.    

   
She puts things into her mouth to figure them out.    

   
She purses her lips to show that she doesn't want any more food.    

   
He bangs two things together purposefully.      

 
He looks for objects when they are dropped out of sight.      

 
She looks for things she saw you hide, like a toy behind the couch.        

She puts things into a container, like a ball in a box.        

Movement and Physical Development Milestones

2

4

6

9

12

He holds his head up when he's on his tummy.

       
He moves both arms and both legs.

       
He opens his hands briefly.

       
When you are holding her, she holds her head steady without your support.  

     
She holds a toy when you put it in her hand.  

     
She uses her arms to swing at objects or toys.  

     
She pushes up onto her elbows when lying on her belly.  

     
She brings her hands to her mouth.  

     
He rolls from belly to back on his own.    

   
He pushes up with straight arms when on his belly.    

   
He leans on his hands for support when sitting.    

   
She sits up on her own.      

 
She can sit without support.      

 
She moves things from one hand to the other.      

 
She uses her fingers to scrape food toward herself.      

 
He pulls up to stand.        

He cruises (walks by holding onto things).        

He drinks from a cup without a lid with your help holding the cup.        

He picks tiny things up with his thumb and pointer finger.        


You can go to the CDC's "Milestones" page for lists of milestones through to five years old. If you have any questions or concerns about your little one's development, ask your pediatrician.


Don't worry if your baby skips crawling entirely or begins babbling syllables at 10 months instead of 9 months. As long as your wee one is thriving, eating and sleeping well, and taking an interest in exploring and communicating with you, he's fine. He's just marching to the beat of his own drum!


5. Sleep Is Important for Development

 

Sleep is vital for your baby's growth and development. Babies and young children need A LOT of sleep---up to 17 hours a day for newborns! With so much growth going on in your little one's mind and body, sleep functions as the "consolidator" for all that a baby learns throughout her waking hours.


Sleeping newborn baby girl

Sleep, specifically deep sleep, is known to help with brain growth and memory consolidation. In a deep sleep, brain waves slow down, which allows your little one's memories of social interactions, sounds, learned skills, and such to be transformed into a long-lasting form that will serve as a foundation for related information later (source).


If a baby doesn't get enough sleep (cholic, sickness, caffeine through mom's milk, etc.), then she may try to eat more, fuss more often, or struggle to concentrate on something at hand.


How Much Sleep Do Babies and Toddlers Need?


According to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), the hours of sleep a little one needs is determined by age and health, but it is not an exact science (source). Everyone is different!


Here are the NSF's guidelines on sleep for the early years. Use these as a guide rather than a strict rule.


Age Suggested Hours of Sleep
Newborns (0 - 3 months) 14 - 17 hours total (night and naps)
Babies (4 - 11 months) 12 - 15 hours total (night and naps)
Toddlers (12 - 24 months) 11 - 14 hours of sleep (night and naps)
Preschoolers (3 - 5 years) 10 - 13 hours of sleep (night)

6. Proper Nutrition is Crucial for Baby's Growth and Development

 

You've probably heard the saying, "What goes in is what comes out," in reference to the media content we consume daily. You can apply this principle to nutrition, too, though not in the obvious sense. The quality of the food you feed your child matters because it feeds your little one's rapidly building cells.


In the first six months, breast milk or formula provides adequate nutrients for your baby to grow. However, around six months old, your little one will need more iron than milk provides, so you will need to start introducing solids. For a guide on how to do that, read Introducing Baby to Solid Food: When to Start, What to Try, and How to Begin.


As your little one grows, expand his taste by introducing a good variety of healthy foods to make sure he gets all the nutrients he needs. Remember: the quality of the calories your little one eats is far more crucial than the calorie quantity.


For example, a burger and fries give a lot of calories, but they are not serving your child's body like veggies and chicken would. Initially, you won't have to worry about convincing your baby to eat quality calories, especially if he sees you eating them, too. Later on, you can explain how the body works better with healthy food.


Generally speaking, you want to put 30 plant-based foods in your little one's diet (and yours) each week. Yeah, that many! This way, you and your little one's gut microbiome will have a variety of nutrients to pull from to build a healthy mind and body while staving off disease (source).


Don't know where to start on a budget? Check out our guide: The Ultimate Guide to Simple Fresh Baby Food Recipes You Can Store in the Freezer.


7. You Play a Key Role in Your Child's Development

 

Not to be cheesy, but you are your little one's key to healthy physical, emotional, social, and cognitive development. As the parent, you are responsible for the quality and quantity of input your little one gets in exploration, discovery, nutrition, sleep, play, and social interaction.


A young family bonding with their baby boy at home

Your love, attention, and guidance can help your child grow into a happy, healthy, and well-adjusted adult. And yes, that means taking care of yourself too! You bring your little one joy, but you also bring her other emotions to reflect.


Whether you like it or not, you are being watched and studied by that brilliant baby. And you may not realize just how much until that mini you starts walking and talking just like you do now. You set the standard and the rules, so be mindful and intentional.


And one more thing, don't miss out on this miracle growing in front of you. I know it's hard and long and full of ungratefulness, but the seeds you plant now will turn to fruit years from now, and you may miss this time dearly. Enjoy the journey! These are the longest yet shortest years you'll ever live.


In a Nutshell

 

Understanding the early stages of child development is crucial for parenting, guiding, and caring for your little one. Laying a solid foundation for a happy, healthy life in the first few years will help your little one reach for the stars and beyond. Cherish every moment--they grow up so fast!

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