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The Early Months

California Infant/Toddler Learning & Development Foundations.

With regard to very young infants, Magda Gerber commented:

Everything they see, they hear, they feel, they touch is new. . . . They are adapting to all that newness, adapting to their inner physiological needs, which are plenty. . . . A very young baby is busy being a very young baby. (Respectfully Yours 1988, 5)

During the first four months of life, babies begin to engage the world and the people in it (Advances in Applied Developmental Psychology 1995). Infants’ motivation to explore and communicate drives them to move their bodies, focus their attention, and send and receive signals—the basis for development and learning in all domains. These early behaviors mark the start of a child’s developmental progress (Emde 1990).

Young babies seek relationships and build knowledge. They actively explore what they can do with their bodies, people close to them, and the environment. They are not empty vessels waiting to be filled with information, but rather “active participants in their own development, reflecting the intrinsic human drive to explore and master one’s environment” (National Research Council and Institute of Medicine 2000, 1). Their active engagement with the social and physical world works hand in hand with the care they receive from adults, especially when the adults are responsive to them.

The Newborn

From birth babies learn to connect internal sensory experiences to movements of their bodies. They repeatedly attend to sensory experiences and explore movements they can make. In doing so, they make discoveries about their bodies—how to use their head, eyes, mouth, arms, and legs. Young babies also use their senses to learn about people and things.

Much of the earliest learning of typically developing infants comes through their use of vision. Even very young babies watch their mothers’ and other adults’ faces intently, and what they see influences their behavior (Schore 1994). Babies also seek eye-to-eye connection with adults. They use their eyes to both send messages and to gain information. In the first months of life, babies are aroused by social engagement and quieted by mutual gazing experiences (Stern 1977). Both the arousal and the calming positively affect the development of the child’s brain and stimulate the onset of self-regulation (Emde 1988). Reading and understanding babies’ gazes and showing interest and warmth by gazing in return benefit the children greatly.

Babies develop quickly by extending their abilities in all domains and by creating more complex ways of relating to people and things. They send messages to adults in various ways and come to expect responses from adults. For example, when looking into the faces of adults, infants may see enlarged dilated pupils—a common sign of interest and pleasure—and, in response, they smile more (Hess 1975). Spitz and Wolfe (1946) observed that newborns exhibit three distinct reactions to internal and external stimuli:

  • Quiescence (a calm state)
  • Undifferentiated excitement (a general response to pleasurable stimuli)
  • “Unpleasure”

By the end of the first month the “unpleasure” differentiates or branches out into signs of displeasure and signs of distress.1 One-month-olds show signs of displeasure when they dislike an experience and signs of distress when they experience discomfort or pain. By the second or third month, undifferentiated excitement also differentiates or branches out into two types of distinct responses: (1) clear signs of pleasure and (2) positive social responses to people, including the above-mentioned smiling, increased vocalizations, and bodily activity.

The Three- to Four-Month-Old Infant

By three months of age, pathways of hearing and sight are actively shaping in the brain. The developing brain adapts to the messages it receives from the eyes and the ears by either pruning (weakening) or making robust synaptic connections for future functioning.

Pruning of some synaptic connections and strengthening of others can be seen in early language development. Newborns are responsive to the sounds of all human languages. By the age of three to four months, babies are increasingly sensitive and alert to the sounds of the language(s) spoken by adults who care for them and become less attuned to the sounds of other languages.

As infants approach four months, they become increasingly skilled at using a variety of ways to understand and relate to the world around them. They create basic categories, such as things that move and things that do not (Mandler 2004), and start to treat things differently according to attributes such as “hard,” “soft,” or “sticky.” For example, they may change how they hold and grasp things based on the attributes of the objects held. Young infants also try to prolong interesting experiences; then, after doing the same activity for a while and mastering it, they experiment in search of novelty.

Children in the three- to four-month range also show highly differentiated social-emotional behavior. By three months, babies have already learned to alter their responses to adults according to how the adults respond to them. For example, when adults acknowledge babies’ vocalizations with a smile, a vocal response, or light touch, children increase their vocalizations. The interest of others stimulates the interest of the baby (Crick 1984).

The power children have in relation-ships, by four months of age, is clearly evident, as is the power that relationships have over them. They are becoming more skilled at reading others’ behavior and adapting their own behavior. They are also gaining skills to make themselves increasingly engaging and effective socially. Four-month-olds will:

  • Send clear messages.
  • Become quiet in anticipation as someone comes near to care for them.
  • Seek adults’ attention with smiles and laughter.
  • Participate in extended back and forth interaction with others.
  • Engage in simple social imitation.

Emotionally, infants grow just as rapidly as they grow socially. Compared with younger babies, babies at around four months send clearer emotional messages through varying cries, movements, and facial expressions. They also show pleasure when mastering simple motor tasks such as when they successfully position their bodies for exploration. Positive emotional experiences motivate infants to keep practicing new skills, exploring new possibilities, and learning.

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Interpreting and Responding to Early Development

In the first few months, amazing advances occur in infants’ development. Starting with basic responses, newborns reach out to the world. Within weeks they come to expect and depend on appropriate responses from those who care for them.

Noticing and responding to key aspects of growth during this rapid developmental period can be challenging. Early behaviors in one developmental domain are often coupled with behaviors in other domains. In addition, many early behaviors may mean several things at the same time. For example, a young baby’s cry may simultaneously represent the beginning of communication (language development), a tool for getting needs met (intellectual development), and a way of relating to others (social-emotional development). Or behaviors that look almost identical may have a different meaning at different times. For example, at one time prolonged focus on a person may be an emerging strategy to deepen emotional connections. At another time, this same behavior may be a way to increase understanding of how people move in space. To be in tune with young babies, adults need to know both when a baby wants a social response and when a baby is making a discovery through individual exploration and observation.

Because major changes that occur during the first few months of life are sometimes difficult to identify, one can easily miss them. Yet the advances of the early months are just as important to a young child’s healthy development as are the more obvious advances of the eight-month-old and older infant. When adults understand the sucking, clinging, body position, smiling, crying, and gazes of the young baby, they are better able to respond to the baby’s needs.

By recognizing and giving appropriate responses to a baby’s early developmental achievements, adults offer an incredible gift. Adults communicate that the path the baby is progressively moving along is understood and supported. This communication lays the foundation for the young baby’s emerging emotional security and attachment relationships, which are essential for all learning and development throughout the early years.


Advances in Applied Developmental Psychology: Mastery Motivation: Origins, Conceptualizations, and Applications (Vol. 12). 1995. Edited by R. H. MacTurk and G. A. Morgan. Norwood, NJ: Greenwood Publishing Group.

Crick, F. 1984. “Function of the Thalamic Reticular Complex: The Searchlight Hypothesis,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Vol. 81, 4586–90.

Emde, R. N. 1988. “Development Terminable and Interminable. I. Innate and Motivational Factors from Infancy,” International Journal of Psychoanalysis, Vol. 69, 23–42.

Hess, E. H. 1975. “The Role of Pupil Size in Communication,” Scientific American, Vol. 233,110–19.

Mandler, J. M. 2004. The Foundations of the Mind: Origins of Conceptual Thought. New York: Oxford University Press.

National Research Council and Institute of Medicine. 2000. From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development. Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood. Edited by J. Shonkoff and D. Phillips. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Respectfully Yours: Magda Gerber’s Approach to Professional Infant/Toddler Care (Video magazine). 1988. Sacramento: California Department of Education in collaboration with WestEd Center for Child and Family Studies.

Schore, A. N. 1994. The Neurobiology of Emotional Development. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Spitz, R. A., and K. M. Wolfe. 1946. “The Smiling Response: A Contribution to the Ontogenesis of Social Relation,” Genetic Psychology Monographs, Vol. 34, 57–125.

Stern, D. N. 1977. The First Relationship: Infant and Mother. Cambridge, UK: Harvard University Press.

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Last Reviewed: Tuesday, January 23, 2024
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