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Getting a Good Start: Expectations, Challenges and Fostering Growth in the Child's First Year of Life Part 3: Fostering Growth in the Child's First Year of Life

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.

Parents and caregivers are the best resource and teachers for children. There are numerous simple, everyday activities that help infants develop basic behaviors necessary for later development. The following are suggestions for helping the child acquire the basic building blocks of life.

Supporting social and emotional development

From birth 0-5 months

  • Be playful and encourage social games by engaging in face-to-face nonverbal imitative interactions with the baby, encouraging him to imitate expressions such as raising his eyebrows, sticking out his tongue, mirroring voice tone, coughing.
  • Tune in to the baby's cues as to when and how much stimulation he needs. If the baby suddenly seems uninterested in interaction, provide some quiet time. This helps the baby learn how to regulate his emotional state by soothing himself.

From 6 to 8 months

  • As the child becomes more able to explore her environment, she picks up cues from the reactions of her parents; she learns to interpret signals such as facial expression, body language and tone of voice.
  • Use words and facial expressions to reflect her feelings.
  • Provide assurance and support in new and possibly frightening situations.

From 9 to 12 months

Help the child feel secure by expressing your understanding of her thoughts and feelings. As she acquires more words, teach her to label feelings.

Encouraging communication

Language is built in to the biological makeup of humans; babies’ brains and bodies are prepared to respond to and use vocalizations in a meaningful way. Babies quickly learn that vocalizations result in attention and interaction. Most caregivers respond to infants in a form of language called ‘motherese’ or ‘parentese’ using a special vocabulary, higher pitch, exaggerated tones, and short, simple sentences

Remember to be involved in the three main parts of communication:

  • Nonverbal Aspects: facial expression, turn taking, and changing the tone and pace of speech
  • Verbal Expression: encouraging verbal expression of any kind, including silly noises
  • Receptive Information: presenting words and information for the baby to listen to

At young ages, teach with three basic techniques:

1. Demonstration – show things and say things
2. Imitation – copy what your child says and does
3. Animation – smile, play, and react with pleasure

0 – 4 months

  • Provide experiences that will help the baby learn that making sounds and responding to the sounds that others make is pleasurable and results in a response and social interaction from others
  • Filter out distracting noises such as radios
  • Stimulating activities should be done when the baby is ready; that is, when the baby is content and alert.
  • Tune in to the baby’s rhythm and level of interest and response. Discontinue when the baby signals that she has had enough.
  • Watch for signals such as the baby turning away or avoiding eye contact, becoming fussy, squirming.Talk face-to-face with the baby. Look into his eyes from a distance of about l0 to 12 inches.
  • Raise your pitch. (You probably have done this without thinking.) Most babies prefer a high-pitched voice. Speaking in an animated voice tone helps the baby attend to acoustic patterns.
  • Keep up a running commentary. Talk to the baby during daily routines such as bathing, dressing, changing diapers. Describe what you are doing and what you are using. These activities build the baby’s recognition of names.
  • Listen to the sounds the baby makes; encourage them and imitate them.
  • Make different kinds of sounds – whistle, sing, clap.
  • Repeat the sounds that get a positive reaction from the baby.
  • Provide musical toys.
  • When your baby is alert, prop her up so she is facing you. Hold a baby-sound “conversation” by talking to the baby in a pleasant voice, waiting for her t make a noise, repeating the noise, and playing with the sounds. Take turns.
  • Help the baby learn that making a sound results in an action. Come to him or pay attention to him when he makes a noise.

5 – 8 months

  • Listen to the baby’s coos and babbles and don’t interrupt. In this way she’ll learn that what she has to say is important.
  • Make a series of sounds in one breath, such as “ba-ba-ba.” Encourage the baby if he imitates you. In this way he’ll learn about connected speech.
  • Make different sounds in different tones and loudness
  • Teach the baby her name. Use her name frequently when playing and talking. Play games using her name.
  • Call the baby and when he recognizes his name, go to him and play.
  • Sing children’s songs or say common rhymes. Then change the worlds to include her name. Tickle her when you say her name.
  • Play games in which you ask “Where’s Clair?” and then hug her and say “There you are.” Show him a mirror and show him his reflection and say “There’s Michael.”

9 – 12 months

  • Make distinct sounds for the baby to imitate. Say words one at a time have her repeat them.
  • Show pleasure when the baby imitates a sound you have made.
  • Talk to others and the baby and use familiar words. When she seems to recognize a word, build her learning by smiling and saying something like “That’s right, we’re going bye-bye. We are leaving.”
  • Show him familiar things around the house and elsewhere and name them while pointing to them.
  • When she gets into something dangerous say “NO!” firmly without scaring her. Then shake your head, scowl, and take her away from the dangerous situation. When she says “no,” agree with her and shake your head.
  • Make a big deal over first words. Repeat any word that he says which has a meaning and smile. Don’t worry that others might not understand the word. If you know what it means, repeat the word and smile while pointing to the object.
  • Use the names of people in the family over and over again. Point to each person and repeat his or her name. Play hiding and peek-a-boo games and ask the baby where the different people are.
  • Always keep a running commentary going. Allow for responses in words or word sounds and smile or play with the baby when she reacts with word sounds or words. Don’t worry about correct pronunciation or baby talk. Improvements in pronunciation and maturity of word forms will occur on their own.

Activities and toys

Infants are more likely to respond to and benefit from different activities and toys that are compatible with different developmental goals. The following are some suggestions that should easily fit into everyday life.

0 – 4 months


  • Hold a brightly colored toy 9 to l0 inches from his face and move it slowly from side to side.
  • Move toys in circles and in an up-and-down motion.
  • Place baby in a safe place where he can watch household activities.
  • Provide choke-proof toys for her to examine and taste. Laugh, clap and smile and talk about what she did.
  • Let baby touch your face and faces of family members. Play games using names of family members.


  • Books or images with high contrast patterns
  • Bright mobiles with moving parts (within eye range of 8 – 12 in)
  • Rattles
  • Music
  • Unbreakable mirror attached to crib
  • Stuffed toys with black and white patterns
  • Crib gym after 3 months

5 – 8 months


  • Look for hidden objects Get his attention to a toy, then hide it, first partially, then entirely.
  • Teach how to use a string or object to get a toy – Demonstrate how to use one thing to get another.
  • Encourage the ability to hold more than one toy – Help her realize she doesn’t have to drop one thing to hold another.
  • Help her explore toys – Show her how to explore by shaking, rolling, listening.
  • Help with body-exploration– Encourage him to pat, grab, touch parts of his body, bicycle his legs and move arms over head, across chest, etc.
  • Encourage alertness to cause/effect relationships- Demonstrate and talk about situations such as: turning knob causes door to open; sound of running water means bath; doorbell means visitors. Let child turn on light switch or faucet to see what happens.


  • Mirror attached to crib
  • Soft balls
  • Textured toys that make sounds
  • Toys that have fingerholds
  • Musical toys; bath toys
  • See-through rattles
  • Stacked rings on a spindle
  • Baby books with pictures

9 – 12 months


  • Increase motor ability – Gradually increase the number of toys to be held
  • Use containers – Demonstrate concepts such as in, out, etc.
  • Encourage imitating actions – Play games such as pat-a-cake, bye-bye, shaking rattles, ring-a-bell, push-a-button, and encourage him to imitate


  • Nesting toys in different shapes, sizes, color
  • Household objects, such as cups, pails, and other unbreakable containers
  • Unbreakable mirrors of various sizes
  • Large building blocks
  • Toys that push, open, move, make noise or music
  • Large dolls and puppets
  • Cars, trucks and other vehicle toys of flexible plastic; toy telephones
  • Cardboard books with large pictures

Fostering Growth in the Child's First Year of Life is the third of the three-part series Getting 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.