OK, so your infant isn't ready to build out his own posse of friends just yet, but social play starts long before your child is old enough for playdates. Each day, your baby is experiencing social development, from talking in babbles to observing adult reactions to waving "bye-bye" when it's time to go. While these small and simple make great party tricks, these new skills prove that your little one's growing in his social abilities.
Renowned development psychologist Erik Erikson believed that a child's social personality develops over the course of the first eight years. During the first year of life, your baby's social identity revolves around your response to his social cues, both verbal and nonverbal—a concept that Erikson referred to as the trust vs. mistrust stage. Responding quickly and playing with your tiny tot often will establish trust between you two, since he knows that his caregiver's always present. If your baby's neglected until he screams or cries, he develops a natural mistrust social identity. This results in a baby with "separation anxiety" because he generally mistrusts caregivers and other adults.
With that concept in mind, it's clear that you hold the responsibility for your little one's earliest social development. Building up your baby's social trust now helps to create healthy building blocks for further social development. Since kids at this age don't yet have the abilities to play with another child, most of social play happens in the home until your baby's old enough to include more children in the game. Here are some tricks, games and activities to help you foster proper development, and eventually bring your tiny social butterfly out of his cocoon.
- Action/reaction. Even a baby as young as 6 months understands that for various actions, there are different reactions. For instance, when he cries in the night, he knows you'll come stumbling into his room to see what's wrong. This is a vital social concept that you can foster through play. Sit your baby next to some blocks and stack up a small tower. He'll probably reach to knock it over and you can then make noises, say "uh-oh!" and laugh to show a reaction. Your budding brainiac will soon learn to trust that when he takes certain actions, he gets your response as a reward. Eventually he'll start trying to get an animated face or a giggle from you on purpose.
- Pull faces. Your baby uses facial expressions to discern your moods. He's still getting a better grasp on language and might even be able to say a few words, but it's really a smile or a frown he's looking for. Pull some faces during playtime, and reward new tricks—such a blown kiss or high-five—with a smile. This helps teach him the connection between basic social skills and facial expressions over language.
- Social classes. Itching to get your baby bonding with his tiny peers? A class is a great way to get out of the house. Music, swimming and movement classes or reading time at the library exposes your little one to other kids, from the safety of your arms. Elizabeth Moser, a pediatric occupational therapist, notes that "All these types of classes encourage parents to participate along with their babies, which allow babies to experience new faces and activities within the security of mom or dad's presence." While 6 to 9-month-olds are haven't yet become "stranger shy" like toddlers sometimes are, it's still helpful to stay nearby as your baby learns to interact with other people—if you do leave your child at a social class, stay nearby and make sure he can see you, to ease any separation anxiety that may arise. Added bonus: you'll score some mommy social time, too.
- Take turns. Play a game that alternates players, to get your little gamer in on the action. Since your baby isn't exactly ready to play a rousing game of "Duck, Duck, Goose," choose activities that give you a turn and then encourage your baby to repeat the action. Moser suggests the old standby of peek-a-boo; it's simple and your child will want to play again and again.
- Playdates. Even though your baby isn't yet old enough to engage in play with another child, schedule a few playdates to get him used to the idea. As he nears the one year mark, he'll play contentedly beside another baby, even if they never actually build block towers together. It's important to remember that when playing with another kid, your baby doesn't have the social skills to share toys and take turns, so be ready to diffuse pint-sized squabbles by distracting one of the kids or removing your child to another area. Even if he never plays with the other child, it's great practice for your budding social butterfly.
As you come to the end of your baby's first year, don't expect him to blossom from a solitary baby to learning perfect social graces overnight. Ignoring other kids, fighting over one toy or screeching when having to share aren't warning signs that your baby's going to be a complete introvert, it's just age-appropriate behavior. While it might not seem like your efforts are helping, you're creating a well-rounded baby who can continue down the road of social development in the coming years. Plus, don't you just hate it when someone steals your teddy? You really can't blame him.