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Getting a Good Start: Expectations, Challenges and Fostering Growth in the Child's First Year of Life Part 1: Expectations

by Anita Gurian, PhD

Infants undergo more growth and change in the first year of their life than in any subsequent year.  From tripling in weight, moving from crawling to walking, and beginning to communicate and understand language, the changes are dramatic and exciting.  There are three general areas in which infants experience this major growth: social/emotional, motor, and communication, and each area grows in tandem with the others.  While there are many milestones to watch out for, it is important to remember that these milestones are flexible and will occur at different times for different children; every child grows and adjusts to the world at his/her own pace.  This article explores the evolving world of the child and his/her self-discovery through the first year.

Welcome to the world

Newborns arrive ready and eager for contact, spending the first forty minutes of their lives paying close attention to the sounds and objects around them.  They have amazing capacities to adjust to new surroundings, with a remarkable set of instincts - including sucking, snuggling, and gazing at the caregiver's face - that enable them to survive.  Many of these reflexes serve simply to evoke attention and care from others, especially as infants learn to send signals when they need something, are unhappy or uncomfortable, or want attention or social interaction.  These signals draw the caregiver's attention, and very quickly a deep attachment between caregiver and infant begins to form.  In the way a caregiver responds to an infant, he/she immediately impacts the infant's psychological development and trust in the world.  Though development is often thought of in specific areas, it is important to remember that development in real life is a complicated series of interactions across areas, and that complex networks are continually forming in the brain of a new child.

Social and Emotional Development

Every infant has his/her own temperament right from the start.  Some cry a lot, some are quiet, some sleep and eat regularly, and some are more fussy.  Temperaments, which refer to individuals' preferred and most natural moods and responses to the world, vary tremendously, but researchers have created three broad categories: easy, difficult, and slow-to-warm-up.  Easy children (40%) are calm, happy, stick to regular schedules, and not easily upset.  Difficult children (10%) are fussy, irregular in their schedules, fearful of new people and situations, and intense in their reactions.  Slow-to-warm-up children (15%) are relatively inactive and fussy, tend to withdraw or react negatively to novelty, but gradually become more positive with experience.  In addition to the babies that fall clearly into one of these three categories, about 35% show a mix of the three. 

No matter what temperament a child has, his/her emotional and social growth is most greatly impacted by his/her attachment to the caregiver.  Furthermore, this attachment is a reciprocal relationship and both the infant's and caregiver's behaviors impact one another.  It is therefore essential that every caregiver pays close attention the unique needs and behavior of the child in their care; not every child indicates needs or wants in the same way, but it is always important to learn to interpret a given child's signals and to allow for individuality in temperament and personality.  When the attachment between caregiver and infant is solid, the child will have a secure base from which to continue growing and developing.

Motor development

While newborns have very little control over their movements, many have begun to push themselves up and develop a sense of their body in the world (called proprioception) in the first four months; are crawling, moving around purposefully, and using their hands by the eighth month; and are walking and standing by the time their first birthday rolls around.  This rapidly developing intentional mobility enables children to continually experience the world in new ways. 


The newborn communicates through cries, coos and babbles; by one year she is able to indicate what she means or wants through gestures, facial expressions and words. Brains are wired for the child to master language, and children of all countries acquire language on the same general schedule. Increasingly complex language enables her social interactions to become more complex.

The senses

Sensory growth is an additional area of development that undergoes major change in the first year of life.  Infants arrive into the world blinking in response to the brightness, and by the end of the first year vision is well-developed, which in turn enriches learning and social skills development.  The senses of smell, taste, and touch are also in place from the very beginning.  Infants can distinguish the smell of their mothers from that of others, and they show preference for sweet tastes and soft fabrics.  Furthermore, babies use their sense of touch to discern moods and feelings, responding better to gentle stroking than to rough handling.  All of these sensory experiences impact the way an infant understands the world as he/she expands his exploratory techniques.  Throughout the first year of life, the infant is establishing a base understanding of the world and how to exist within it, from which increasingly complex cognitive accomplishments will arise.