Your newborn can’t yet speak your language or fully understand what you’re saying to him, but he’s a fast learner. Research shows that babies start listening to their parents’ voices while still in the womb. Once born, your baby begins tuning in to your words and sentence patterns to figure out what you’re saying. He also uses his powers of observation to learn about some of the more complicated things – like love, trust, time, and cause and effect – that exist in his physical and emotional world.
Your baby starts to learn what others are saying and doing even before she’s born. As a newborn, she doesn’t know the precise meaning of the words you use, but she picks up on your emotions – such as happiness, sadness, love, concern, anxiety, and anger. By the time she’s 7 months old, she’ll respond to her own name, and by 8 to 12 months she’ll understand simple directives such as “No” or “Don’t touch.” Around 24 months, she’ll be able to talk to you in two- or three-word phrases. About the age of 3, she’ll have a vocabulary of a couple hundred words and a pretty good sense of some of the rituals and activities of everyday life, such as food shopping, housecleaning, and knowing night means bedtime.
Newborn to 1 month
Every waking moment, your baby is using his senses to take in new information about the world around him. He doesn’t yet have the information that adults and older children use to interpret what they take in, but he’s building that store of knowledge every day.
Your baby stays emotionally attuned to the people closest to him. He responds to the tone of your voice, your smile, and the comfort of your touch when you feed him. Your baby forms his version of reality from the way you respond to him – feeling secure because you come to him when he cries, stare lovingly into his eyes, and feed him when he’s hungry.
As your baby’s motor skills advance, his memory gets better, his attention span lengthens, his ability to speak improves, and his social skills become more polished.
2 to 3 months
Your baby continues to soak up everything in his environment. His favorite activity is watching what goes on around him. He now understands that you will soothe, feed, and play with him when he needs you. He’ll delight you with his first genuine smile. Your baby enjoys the response he elicits with his grin and comes to understand that smiling is one way to let you know he’s satisfied. By 3 months, he’ll add some cooing and gurgling sounds to his smile, initiating a primitive form of conversation with you.
4 to 7 months
Your baby knows his name now and understands that you’re speaking to him when you say it. He’ll even respond by turning toward you. He’s becoming more attuned to your tone of voice, too. When you sound happy, he’ll react joyfully, and if you speak to him sharply he’ll become distressed and may cry. He’s also beginning to tell the difference between strangers and people he knows, and he may cry when you put him in the arms of someone he doesn’t recognize.
8 to 12 months
Your baby’s beginning to understand simple requests. Say “no” when he tries to touch an electrical outlet, for example, and he’ll pause and look at your face – maybe even shake his head “no” in return.
He’s also testing your responses to his behavior – not to be naughty, but to better understand how the world works around him. He throws food on the floor just to see what you’ll do, and then files your response in his memory bank. Later he’ll test the waters again to see whether you react the same way.
And he’s beginning to associate gestures with certain actions and words, such as waving goodbye when someone leaves the room or shaking his head back and forth to refuse something to eat.
12 to 18 months
By 18 months, your toddler should be able to understand and use some words. (In general he’ll understand a word before he’s able to say it himself.) And he’ll be able to follow your directions, even if they involve two separate actions – for example, “Pick up those building blocks and put them in the toy chest.”
19 to 23 months
Your child is beginning to understand that his wants may not match yours. He’ll try to assert himself – folding his arms resolutely under his armpits when you want him to hold your hand, for example.
He’s also starting to understand simple concepts such as space and dimension. This means he can probably put together a basic puzzle now, and he knows the difference between a circle and a square and can place each shape in its appropriate spot in a shape-sorter.
He’s also figuring out how things work: He knows that when he pulls the lever on his jack-in-the-box, for example, a clown pops out. This new skill will come in handy down the road when he’s ready to toilet train.
Before your child can give up his diapers for good, he has to make the connection between the need to empty his bowels and using the potty. He’ll also understand that when he pulls the handle to flush, his urine and bowel movements will disappear down the drain. At this age, your child is just beginning to learn about this process.
24 to 36 months
By now your child has a pretty good understanding of language and comprehends a lot more than he can say. Development experts say most 2-year-olds have a vocabulary of at least 50 words, and that by age 3 they’ll have about 200. Since language acquisition is well under way, your child can now turn his attention to more complicated concepts that involve emotions.
Between the ages of 2 and 3, your child will understand the basic building blocks of relationships: Love and trust. He knows that you and the rest of the family care for him and are on his side. He’s learned these important concepts by the way you’ve treated him in the first few years of his life. By showering him with affection, responding to his needs, and keeping him safe, you’ve helped him become a secure and optimistic child.
By watching you go about your day, your child begins to comprehend some of the more complicated aspects of everyday life, too, such as food shopping, telling time, and housecleaning. He’s also gaining a deeper understanding of how he should treat other people. If you want him to grow up to become a kind and helpful person, make sure you treat him and others that way.