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Getting a Good Start: Expectations, Challenges and Fostering Growth in the Child's First Year of Life Part 2: Common Challenges

by Anita Gurian, PhD


In the first year of life wonderful and dramatic things happen. The baby usually triples her birth weight; she moves from being totally dependent to crawling or walking. She is soon able to communicate and to understand language, and by six months she knows her name and understands that she is a person in her own right. During the first year the baby probably accomplishes more than in any other year of her life. Each area of growth occurs in tandem with others - e.g. social and emotional with motor, communication with thinking. Milestones are flexible; they are approximate times when certain abilities are observable. There is no strict timetable for acquiring abilities or confronting different challenges, and there's a wide range for what's considered normal. Every child grows and adjusts to the world at his or her own pace. This article explores the evolving world of the child and her self discovery. Particular issues that confront parents and children such as separation anxiety and bedtime difficulties, and ways to foster growth through play and activity, should be understood in light of the developing child.

Separation anxiety

Henry, aged 7 months, became accustomed to his mother’s leaving for work every day at about 1 P.M. She had a ritual in which she fed him, changed him, played his favorite jack-in-the-box game with him and then left, leaving him with his usual babysitter. When she returned home she greeted him with a broad smile and hugs.

Sylvie, aged 7 months, had always been cared for by her mother and became distressed if her mother left for even a short while. When her mother decided to return to work, she instituted a series of practice separations for Sylvie. Every other day the same babysitter came to the house to spend a short time with Sylvie while her mother stayed in another room. As Sylvie became accustomed to the situation, her mother then left the house for a short time. Sylvie gradually became accustomed to her absences and understood that she would return.

Over the course of the early months the baby becomes very attached to his mother (or principal caregiver). By about 6 or 7 months of age he comes to realize he is a separate being, and can become distressed when his mother leaves. His emotional response is called separation anxiety. When some babies become distressed they may cry or become agitated. At the same time the baby’s growing abilities in motor and vision will enable him to become more independent and to explore the world in new ways, which also results in gradual physical separation from his parents. Some babies adapt easily but for those who show some distress, practice in gradual separations will be helpful. .A brief time spent with a friend or relative will ease him into accepting separation without distress. Try not to appear anxious but gently firm at parting, reassure him that you will return, and show delight in reunion.

Stranger anxiety

When Jenna started to crawl and suddenly found herself confronting an unfamiliar person she started to wail and to look around frantically for her mother.

At about 6 or 7 months, some babies, previously friendly to new people, suddenly respond by turning away, crying or clinging to their mothers. They are learning to distinguish differences among the people they encounter. If the mother is relaxed with the new person, the baby will get the message that he can trust this new person. A gradual approach which permits the baby to get accustomed to a strange person generally helps until the stage of fear is overcome.


Matthew, now 7 months old, was an easy baby who cried only when he was hungry or physically uncomfortable. As he became more active physically, he developed a new kind of cry, with a whiny tone. His caregiver, sensitive to changes in Matthew, accurately interpreted the cry as a need for social interaction, and responded by talking and playing with him.

A cry is a signal – the I’m hungry cry sounds different from the It hurts cry and from the I’m fussy cry, which is lower in pitch and less insistent. The I need attention cry may follow: It’s typically long and loud, each cry followed by a breathless pause. Thegrumble cry is lower in pitch and volume, often sounding whiny. It’s a sign that the child is getting restless. Cries are biologically effective; they get results; research shows that adults experience an increase in blood pressure and heart rate when they hear a baby cry. You can’t spoil a baby of 1 or 2 months, so indulge her during the first few months. The primary job of the baby at this age is to develop a sense of trust and confidence that her needs will be met, so if she cries pick her up and soothe her. By 4 months of age the baby takes a giant step forward in terms of being her own person; she may discover that she can draw attention to herself by crying, but it’s still not possible to spoil her. Some babies develop an evening fussy time during their 2nd or 3rd month. Try to soothe her; if that doesn’t work let her cry for l0 minutes, then try again to comfort her. This period will pass.


Mike,18 months old, has never been able to settle into a consistent sleep routine. His parents have tried many approaches – they tried letting him sleep in their bed, carrying him round, letting him cry for a long time, leaving music playing, massaging his back, teaching him to soothe himself – nothing seemed to work. Then one night he just stopped resisting and hasn’t had a sleeping problem since.

Experts disagree on how to help children develop healthy sleep habits. To help a child get to sleep, it is suggested that a bedtime ritual be used for the purpose of establishing a pattern, with consistent expectations on the child’s part. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggests that parents try to make sure that the child falls asleep on her own. Soothing songs, gentle rocking motions and the calm of a parent’s presence can be helpful. It may be necessary to allow periods of fussiness that can last up to 20 minutes. Helping the child to comfort herself will usually help her go back to sleep without parental intervention.

For middle of the night wakings, the AAP advises that parents reassure a child and check on needs quietly and quickly. It is not advisable to provide playtime or a snack. Whether to allow the child to sleep in a parents’ bed is an area of controversy, that is best decided upon individually by each family. Parents should be aware that a child who is having sleep difficulties may be having some separation problems and that with reassurance the child will overcome these worries. They should also be aware that allowing the child to fall asleep on her own will not cause harm.

Common Challenges and What to Do is the second of the three-part seriesGetting a Good Start on the evolving world of the child and her self discovery.

This series is based in part on a curriculum developed by Anita Gurian, Ph.D. and Richard Gallagher, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, NYU School of Medicine, Director of the Parenting Institute, NYU Child Study Center.

References and Related Books

The Scientist in the Crib : What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind
Alison Gopnik, Andrew N. Meltzoff, and Patricia K. Kuhl
Perennial, 2000

Your Child : Emotional, Behavioral, and Cognitive Development from Birth through Preadolescence
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP),
David Pruitt, M.D., editor-in-chief
HarperResource, 2000