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Birth to 18 months

Understanding How Your Infant Develops

developmentInfant development takes place in different consecutive orders for different children. This article will teach parents and teachers about age appropriate development for children from birth to 18 months.

Every parent wants their child to be successful. We want our children to grow up to be happy, to achieve, to make our world a better place. While these are good and worthy intentions, parents need more than good intentions to achieve the goal of raising a successful child. Parents need a plan to transform the intentions into reality. Part of the plan is to understand that while children are genetically programmed to grow, they also need parents who will provide them with the right nurturing environment. Parents optimise their child’s potential when they understand and provide for the needs of their child.

Parents need more than good intentions to achieve the goal of raising a successful child.

Why is parenting so complicated?

It is becoming more difficult to understand infant needs today, because our society is losing a sense of community; we’re becoming more fragmented. Fifty years ago people were surrounded by families with babies, so they basically understood how children develop. But for many parents today the first baby they hold is their own. Not knowing what to expect can cause parents anxiety. The purpose of this article is to provide parents with basic information about how their infant develops and what they really need to be their very best. It’s easier to parent when you know what to expect.

Infant Life Cycle Stages

Like the seasons in nature, families pass through certain predictable events, called the life cycle. The life cycle begins at birth and ends at death. Between these two events are different periods, or stages of development. For all children, these changes occur in a specific sequence called developmental stages. Although each infant is unique and has their own growth timetable, all children follow a similar pattern of development. By understanding these stages parents become more effective at meeting their child’s needs.

Your infant is genetically programmed to grow physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, and in language. Your role as parent is to provide them with the right nurturing environment.

Parents #1 job is to provide their children with the right nurturing environment.

Child development is usually categorized into five different areas:

  1. Physical development
  2. Cognitive (intellectual) development
  3. Language development
  4. Emotional development
  5. Social development
This article describes the average child and is only intended as a guide, not an absolute timetable. Your child may develop quicker or later and still be perfectly normal.

Physical Development

Physical development describes the structure of the body, how each aspect of the body relates to each other, how the body grows and develops. Your infant grows physically faster over the first 18 months than at any other time after birth. At birth, your child’s brain is closer to its adult size than any other physical structure. During the first 18 months it continues to grow at an amazing pace.
Significant physical developments and when they occur:

Physical SkillWhen 50% of all babies master the skill (months)When 90% of all babies master the skill (months)
Looks around22
Lifts head 90 degrees when lying on stomach2.23.2
Rolls over2.84.7
Sits propped up2.94.2
Sits without support5.57.8
Stands holding on5.810
Crawls 711
Walks holding on9.212.7
Stands momentarily 9.813
Stands alone well11.513.9
Walks well12.114.3
Walks backwards14.321.5
Walks up steps with help1722

Cognitive Development

Cognitive development describes solving problems, memory, concentration, imagination and working things out.
Your infant learns through their senses: touching, tasting, seeing, hearing and smelling.

During the first 18 months they development through five stages:


Newborns use their reflexes to discover their world: sucking, grasping, staring and listening


Child can now adapt their reflexes. They suck their thumbs and open and close their hands. They can also change their response to different things – they suck a pacifier differently than a nipple


Infants try to repeat interesting events caused by their own actions


Infants now begin to organize their thinking. They can now engage in intentional or goal directed activity. When you hide a toy behind your back, your child will find it. At this age, children begin to attain a sense of object permanence – they understand objects continue to exist when out of sight


Children now actively experiment to learn about objects. Toddlers will look in several places to find a hidden object. Can now imitate many more behaviors like stacking blocks, scribbling on paper

Language Development

Language development describes reading, writing, listening, talking. Even though infants can’t talk much, they are developing crucial language skills from the moment they are born.

Means of communication
New-born       Reflexive communication: crying, facial expressions
2 months       Meaningful noises: cooing, fussing, crying and laughing
3-6 months       New sounds: growls, croons, vowel sounds
6-10 months       Babbling sounds
10-12 months       Understands simple words; responds to own name
13 months       First spoken words
13-18 months       Slow growth of vocabulary, up to about 50 words
18 months       Vocabulary spurt – 3 or more words learned a day

Social-Emotional Development

Social-Emotional development describes feelings, developing feelings towards other people, self identity, getting on with other people, making friends and developing social skills. Your infant develops trust when her needs are met and mistrust when her needs are not met.


  • Children from a very early age show signs of almost all basic emotions (happiness, interest, surprise, fear, anger sadness, and disgust)
  • Begins to show temperament: easy baby, difficult baby, slow to warm up baby
  • The I-self emerges
  • Not confident with strangers
  • Matches adults emotional expressions during face to face interactions

7 – 12 MONTHS

  • Separation anxiety emerges at about 8 to 9 months, peaking at around 14 months – child likes being with familiar people
  • Shy with strangers. May cling to familiar adult when in strange surroundings
  • Emotions change from quite basic reactions to complex, self conscious responses
  • Learns to gauge whether something is right or wrong by the reactions of the important adults in his life
  • Anger and fear increase in frequency and intensity. Gets angry because they cannot do what they want to
  • Watches and follows other children

13 – 18 MONTHS

  • Happy to play on their own
  • Are developing a sense of identity.
  • Recognizes image of self in a mirror and on video
  • Shows signs of empathy
  • Complies with simple directives

Helping Your Infant Flourish

For the first 18 months your baby is totally dependent. During this stage your baby is bonding with you and learning that her needs will be met.

The key parental task is to form a strong attachment with your child. Recent research has identified what children need for healthy development. Amazingly, it’s not teaching, but nurturing emotional care, that’s most important.

Dr’s Brazelton and Greenspan, America’s foremost child researchers state, ”Nurturing emotional relationships are the most crucial primary foundation for both intellectual and social growth.” They further add, “The most important learning in the early years is provided by human interaction. Objects and learning devices do not compare.” The quality of your emotional interaction with your child determines their ‘smartness’!

The key parental task is to form a strong attachment with your child.

Five ways to help your infant thrive:
  1. Provide consistent support and encouragement. Be available to meet your child’s physical needs (baby is warm, dry and fed), and emotional needs (talk gently, soothing tone, smile).
  2. Use non-verbals to communicate with your child. Babies understand non-verbals much earlier than they understand language. Talk to your child using the same sounds and expressions they use. You build strong attachments when you mirror your child’s behaviour.
  3. Create an environment that’s safe and comfortable for your child.
  4. Instruct your child which actions are unsafe: touching knives, being too close to the fire.
  5. Teach your child they live in a world with others. Co-operation and care are virtues. Tell your child, “No” when they hurt others.
The paradox of infant’s needs

This stage is somewhat paradoxical; when a parent has to be the most attentive and responsible in providing appropriate nurturing care, their baby is the hardest to understand. By providing your child with warm, consistent and attentive care, he or she will develop a strong sense of attachment. A sense of attachment allows them to develop to the next stage, the stage of exploration.

For advice in building and maintaining a strong relationship with your child

Visit our attachment tutorial page.

Children are like plants. All they need to become the most beautiful thriving plant is already present at birth in their genetic material. What they need from you is a nurturing environment in order to blossom. Dr. Francine Beauvoir

Further Reading
. Berk, L.E. (2003). Development Through The Lifespan. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
. Brazelton, T.B. (2002). Touchpoints: Your Child’s Emotional and Behavioral Development. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books.
. Brazelton, T.B. & Greenspan, S.I. (2001). The Irreducible Needs of Children. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing.
. Eisenberg,A., Murkoff, H & Hathaway, S. (1989). What to Expect the First Year. Sydney: Angus & Robertson.
. Green,C. (1995). Toddler Taming: The guide to your child from one to four. Sydney: Doubleday.
. Sanders, M.R. (1992). Every Parent: A positive approach to children’s behaviour. Sydney: Addison- Wesley Publishing Company.


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