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How does your baby learn about his connection to other people? When does he start making friends? It all starts with you.
You are your child's first playmate, his favorite person. He delights in the sound of your voice, the sight of your face, and the touch of your hands.
With your help, your baby will become familiar with others and begin to enjoy their company too. This is the beginning of the development of your child's social skills.
When it develops
From the moment she's born, your baby will respond to others. Her ability to socialize is limited to mostly you during her first year, as she focuses most of her efforts on discovering what she can do on her own – like grabbing and picking up objects, walking, and other skills.
Even before your baby can babble, you'll give her language skills a boost whenever you talk to her. While it may seem like you're doing a monologue, your baby benefits from the interaction she has with you when you read or speak to her.
Around the time she turns 2, your child will begin to enjoy playing side-by-side with other children. As with any other skill, her social skills will need some fine-tuning through trial and error.
At first, she'll be unable to share toys, but as she learns to empathize with others she'll become a better playmate. By age 3, she'll be well on her way to making friends.
When will your baby smile, laugh, and make friends? Get up to speed on the major social milestones from birth to age 8.
How it develops
Your baby is a social creature from the get-go. He loves to be touched, held, talked to, and cooed and smiled at.
As early as the first month, your child will begin to experiment with making faces at you. He'll enjoy watching your face and may even mimic some of your gestures. Stick out your tongue and watch as he does the same.
He's also listening and learning from the sounds you make. Eye contact is important, so when you talk to him look in his eyes. Soon he'll graduate from crying and cooing to babbling, all necessary steps in language development.
Now your baby spends many of his waking hours watching what goes on around him. He'll even flash his first genuine smile, a momentous event for most parents. Soon he'll be an expert at "smile talk," starting an interaction with you by sending a smile your way and gurgling at the same time.
Your baby is becoming more open to new people at this age, greeting them with squeals of glee. Still, no one comes close to Mom or Dad. Your baby will reserve his most enthusiastic reaction for you, a sure sign that you've bonded.
Your baby may start babbling at this age and you'll probably see a jump in his ability to interact with you. To encourage this, talk to him whenever you can, even when you're doing simple chores or activities around the house.
For the most part, your little guy is far too busy honing his skills to really engage with another child. When two babies under 1 are put next to each other with a set of toys, they usually play alone and not with each other.
Your baby may start to take a fleeting interest in other babies now that he's more mobile. Most of the interaction will be limited to a glance and a grab, but once in a while he'll smile and coo or imitate another baby's sounds.
He still prefers his immediate family to all others. In another couple of months he may even begin to be afraid of unfamiliar people and struggle with separation anxiety.
Toward the end of his first year, your child may begin to seem antisocial – crying when you leave his side or anxious when he's in the arms of someone other than you or your partner. Many kids go through separation anxiety, which peaks sometime between 10 and 18 months.
Your child prefers you to the exclusion of others and may be distressed when you're not around. Sometimes only your presence will calm him.
13 to 23 months
Your toddler is interested in the world – in particular, how everything in it relates to him. As he learns to talk and communicate with others, he'll also learn to make friends. He'll enjoy the company of other kids now, both his age and older.
Between ages 1 and 2, however, he'll be fiercely protective of his toys, which can be hard for parents who think their child should be learning to share.
You may notice your child imitating his friends and spending lots of time watching what they do. He'll also want to assert his independence – by refusing to hold your hand when you walk down a street, for example, or by throwing a tantrum when you tell him he can't carry grape juice into his bedroom.
24 to 36 months
Between the ages of 2 and 3, your child is likely to be pretty self-centered. He's not very interested in putting himself in other people's shoes, and he assumes that everyone feels the way he does.
Don't worry. As he gets older – and with some guidance from you – he'll learn how to share and take turns, and he may even end up with one or two special friends.
What comes next
As your child grows, she'll enjoy and gravitate toward other people, especially other children. She'll learn more about how to respond to others in social situations, and her enjoyment of her playmates will grow. She'll gain a tremendous amount from watching and interacting with other children.
Once she learns how to empathize with other children and how much fun it is to have playmates, she'll develop true, lasting friendships.
Spend plenty of face-to-face time with your baby, especially in the first few months. He'll love the attention and will enjoy making faces with you.
Invite friends and relatives over. Children (particularly toddlers) love visitors, young and old alike, especially when they're all making a fuss over him.
Don't be upset or embarrassed if your child develops stranger anxiety. It's perfectly normal, beginning as early as 7 months.
If your baby cries when you put him in a relative's arms, take him back and try a slow desensitization process. Let him be comfortable in your arms while the other person is around. Then, have the individual talk and play with your child while you hold him.
Then, hand him over to the other person for a short time and stay close. Finally, try to leave the room for a few minutes and see how it goes. If your child bawls, try again later.
"Go in and out of the room, and eventually your child will be secure in the knowledge that even though you're not around at the moment, you'll always return shortly," says pediatrician David Geller.
Your toddler can benefit from having peers around, so arrange regular playdates with other kids – especially non-family members. Make sure you have plenty of toys for everyone, though, because they might not be up for sharing with one another.
While being self-centered is perfectly natural for your 2- or 3-year-old, it's not too soon to set an example of good social behavior for him. Let him hear you say "please" and "thank you" and compliment someone on a job well done. Let him see you share your dessert or your magazine.
Sign your child up for playgroups or classes so he gets a chance to be with other kids. Soon he'll learn how to make and keep friends.
When to be concerned
If your baby seems uninterested in relating to anyone except you and your partner by the time she's 1, no matter how much effort you put into drawing her out, or if she doesn't even want to interact with you, talk to her doctor.
Your toddler (1 to 3 years old) may become unfriendly to other children, especially over toys. (She may even become a mini Count Dracula, biting her playmate as she explores what she can do with her teeth.)
If she seems overly aggressive and is incapable of spending time with other children without biting, hitting, or pushing them, discuss these behaviors with her doctor. (Behavior like this often arises out of fears or insecurities.) While all kids become unfriendly occasionally, it's unusual for them to be aggressive all the time.