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Understanding How Children Mature

A Child's Interactions, Four to Five Months

Special smiles just for parents begin appearing at four months.
Special smiles just for parents begin appearing at four months.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.

Babies at four and five months begin to take their first steps toward speech. Here's how the process begins.

Special Smiles

Special smiles just for parents begin appearing at four months. A smile spreads across your baby's face when he sees you but not when he sees anyone else. This behavior implies not only recognition of you -- a cognitive skill -- but also recognition of your specialness -- a social skill. This, of course, produces an incredibly strong emotional response from you. It makes it more fun for you to be with your baby and play with him. In fact, it may be hard for you to pull yourself away to do household chores or return to work. This, in turn, brings great benefits to your baby, providing him with two ready playmates to teach him what he needs to learn.


Babbling and Cooing

Isn't it wonderful to hear a baby beginning to make sounds, to coo and babble as you play with and talk to her? Your baby's babbling and cooing evoke a strong response from you, just as her smiling does. Your play begins to take on a real conversational quality. Now, each of you is more likely to take a turn -- you respond to your baby's cooing with words and funny faces, and your baby answers with more cooing and babbling.


Some babies begin to laugh even before they are four months old, some as early as five weeks. Laughing occurs about a month after your baby first smiles. A sudden, intense (perhaps surprising) stimulus can make a baby laugh.

But you may notice sometimes your baby is not sure whether to laugh or cry. Laughter appears to be an emotion on the cutting edge of fear. Theories regarding laughter suggest babies laugh at objects and events that are almost, but not entirely, understandable to them. Objects and events that are too confusing, however, make them cry. Four to six month olds tend to laugh more from a touch stimulus (such as tickling) and when you talk in a silly way to them.

Your baby's laughing helps form an emotional link between you, making your play a lot of fun. We like to see babies laugh, so we repeat whatever we did to get them to laugh again and again. By doing this, your baby is learning to gain some control over his environment. Through laughing, babies can also learn the kind of effect they have on other people.

Feeding and Sucking

By four months of age, in all probability, either your baby has found his fingers or thumb to suck on between feedings or you have offered him a pacifier. Several factors may influence the amount of time your baby spends sucking just for fun. More sucking is likely to occur, particularly with breast-fed babies, when you begin to wean your baby. (Oftentimes, weaning is more difficult for the mother than the baby. That special dependency relationship may be difficult to leave behind.)

When teeth begin to erupt, you may see your baby chew more on hands, fingers, and any available toys. Weaning and teething frequently take place simultaneously because of baby's biting.

Most babies like to suck on something between and during meals. If babies have the good fortune to find their own thumbs -- some do this as early as three weeks of age -- they may be able to calm themselves down. Nonnutritive sucking (sucking for pleasure and not for nutrition) is one of your baby's first means of exploration. Babies use their mouths for exploring the world by touching and tasting objects.

People used to believe the amount of sucking babies did would have lasting effects on their personalities and behavioral patterns. For example, some thought babies who didn't suck enough because of bottle-feeding (or because the holes in the nipples were running too fast) would grow up to have "oral personalities" and would be thumb-sucking school-age children and smoking adolescents.

©2006 Publications International, Ltd.                              Contrary to the old wive's tale, excessive                                            sucking will not negatively affect a baby.                                                     
©2006 Publications International, Ltd. Contrary to the old wive's tale, excessive sucking will not negatively affect a baby.  

These early theories have not been upheld. How babies were fed or weaned makes little difference in their later personality development. Frequent sucking also doesn't seem to have any effect on emotional development (or on dental development, until the permanent teeth start coming in), so you don't need to continually remove your baby's thumb from his mouth or deny him a pacifier. In fact, it is impossible to keep babies from sucking when they want to; some babies suck even when they have nothing in their mouths.

The upshot of professional studies is that a child's emotional development and stability are not related to how he was fed. Also, weaning has not been found to have long-term, resounding ill effects, either psychological or physical, on well-fed babies. Rather, such issues as parental warmth, maternal responsiveness, and the level of conflict in the home are related to development of secure relationships.

Problems in Interaction

By as early as four months of age, your baby begins to develop a specific relationship with you. Your patterns of play help you to form a lasting bond. But, in rare instances, problems can occur in parent-baby play.

Problems in interaction can best be viewed as a breakdown in the play sequence -- a misstep in the dance -- that inhibits mutuality (a back-and-forth togetherness) and turn-taking. Sometimes, the break is obvious to all concerned -- as in child neglect and abuse. More often, problems may be very subtle and can be identified only through frame-by-frame analysis of videotapes of parents with their babies. Some babies and parents show a beautiful rhythmicity and dance in their play, while others appear out of step. The misstep appears when what you expect to happen next just doesn't happen.

An example of this kind of misstep is seen with a mother who turns away just as her baby starts to smile at her. Problems can arise because the baby isn't learning that he can control his mother's behavior through appropriate social behaviors of his own. Psychologists would say the partners in such an interaction are noncontingent -- that is, one partner's response has nothing to do with the other partner's signal. Babies experiencing this type of interaction can "learn helplessness": No matter what their signal is, they are unable to adequately control their environment (in the example, the mother's response). For this reason, it is essential that all parents react sensitively to their babies' signals.

Another problem can occur if one partner in the interaction is overwhelming. Some parents "turn off" their babies by working too hard to sustain their attention. If, for example, a mother continues to intrude on her baby, moving closer and trying to coax a smile, even while the baby signals that he doesn't want to play, the mother is dominating the interaction by not allowing her baby a chance to be an equal partner.

There can also be a problem with the match between the personality style of the parent and the activity level of the baby.

Unfortunately, there are no set rules or easy answers for the right way to play with your baby,except to be sensitive to your baby's particular characteristics. Some babies are far more difficult to parent than others. Sometimes, just knowing why babies respond in the way they do is enough to free parents from any misgivings they may have and help them get back on the right track. But again, problems of this sort are rare. So, the best advice you may ever receive as first-time parents is to relax, have fun, and enjoy your baby!

Recognizing Your Child's Uniqueness

Every baby is different. Some of these differences come from you and the kind of environment you provide. But some of these differences seem to come with the baby at birth. One of these inborn differences is in his temperament, or behavioral style -- that is, whether a child is "easy" or "difficult" or "slow to warm up." Considering temperament is important because, unfortunately, gross mismatches occur occasionally between the temperaments of parents and their infants. These parents are bound, therefore, to go against the grain when trying to set limits for their children.

An "easy" baby shows biological regularity (in feeding, sleeping, and eliminating), predictable behavior, and adaptability. Almost any parent finds this kind of baby easy to get along with because she quickly adjusts to parental routines and expectations.

The "difficult" child, on the other hand, withdraws from new situations, has negative and intense moods, and adapts slowly. Although some parents take great pleasure in this type of baby, describing their baby's difficultness as "vigor" and "lustiness," more frequently, parents and teachers of "difficult" children feel threatened, anxious, and inept. If yours is such a child, it is important to keep in mind that your baby's personality is probably not your fault. A difficult baby's temperament often exists independent of parental attitudes and of management techniques.

Although the "slow-to-warm-up" child is somewhere in the middle, this baby sometimes causes more confusion for parents than either the "easy" or the "difficult" baby. Parents find these babies frustrating because their behavior is often so unpredictable. At times, they are a joy to be with, but changes in routine seem to throw them, causing great difficulty for their parents.

Parents are all different, too, so keep in mind that these assessments are subjective to a certain extent. Depending on personality and past experience, what is an "easy" baby for one parent may be a "difficult" baby for another parent and vice versa. Also, temperament is not necessarily stable, especially during the first months of life. Therefore, it is important to avoid allowing a label to become a "self-fulfilling prophecy." In particular, a baby who is regarded as "difficult" may be routinely treated in a way that reinforces this assessment. And as a result, he develops according to the expectations of those caring for him and not necessarily according to his true potential.

Your child's temperament influences the behavior and attitudes of peers, siblings, parents, and teachers. How your child fits with these significant people in her daily life dictates her patterns of adjustment to new situations. If you think that what appears to be a poor fit may detract from your baby's opportunities for growth and development, you might ask your baby's doctor about parent-infant programs available in your community. Parent-infant educators can help you understand your child's temperament and suggest some techniques to help make parenting easier.

Of course parenting is never easy. And, if you think you have it hard now, just wait until your baby can move around on his own. In the next section, we will learn about the developmental changes that accompany learning how to crawl.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.