Developmental Milestones: Understanding words, behavior, and concepts

Newborns are like visitors from a foreign country: they can’t speak our language or understand fully what we’re saying to them. But they’re fast learners. Research shows babies start listening to their parents’ voices in the womb. Once born, they begin tuning in to your words and sentence patterns to figure out what you’re saying. They also use their powers of observation to learn more complicated things about the physical and emotional world such as love, trust, time, and cause and effect.

Developmental Milestones:

When it develops
Learning to understand what others are saying and doing starts before your baby is born. In the beginning, he won’t know the meaning of the words you use, but he’ll pick up on your emotions (such as love, concern, anxiety, and anger). By the time he’s four months old, he’ll recognize his own name, and by eight to 12 months he’ll understand simple requests such as “No” or “Don’t touch.” Around 27 months he’ll be able to follow two-step commands such as “Go in the kitchen and get your shoes.” By three, he’ll have a vocabulary of several hundred words and a pretty good sense of the more complicated aspects of everyday life such as food shopping, telling time, and house-cleaning.

How it develops
Newborn to one month
Every waking moment, babies are taking in new information about the world they find themselves in, using their senses to figure out what’s happening around them. They don’t have the information that adults and older children use to make sense of what they take in — they are building that store of information every day. Many experts say babies understand more than most parents think they do.

Babies are emotionally attuned to the people around them as one of their survival skills and can understand how you feel and what you’re thinking by the tone of your voice, the set of your mouth, the pace of your breathing, the feel of your skin, and the glint in your eye. Your baby will form his version of reality from the way you respond to him — deciding he’s worthwhile because you pick him up 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, he will also understand more.

Two to three months
Your baby continues to soak up everything in his environment. His favorite activity is watching what goes on around him, and he understands now that you will soothe, feed, and play with him when he needs you. His first genuine smile pops up about this time, bringing you joy. He understands that this is one way to let you know he’s satisfied. He’ll also enjoy the response he elicits with his grin. By three months, he’ll add some gurgling sounds to his smile, initiating a primitive form of conversation with you.

Four to seven months
Your baby knows his name now and understands that you are calling him when you say it. He’ll even respond by turning towards you. He’s becoming more attuned to your tone of voice, too. When you sound friendly, he’ll react joyfully, and if you speak to him sharply, he’ll probably cry. He’s also beginning to tell the difference between strangers and familiar faces, and he may cry when you put him in the arms of someone he doesn’t recognize.

Eight to 12 months
Your baby’s beginning to understand simple requests. Say “No” when he tries to touch the electric socket, 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. He’ll throw food on the floor just to see what you’ll do, and then file your response in his memory bank. Later he’ll test the waters again to see whether you react the same way.

12 to 18 months
By 18 months, your baby should be able to understand and use at least 50 words. 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 necessarily converge with 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 beginning to understand simple concepts such as space and dimension. He can probably put together a basic puzzle now, and he knows the difference between a triangle and a square and can place each shape in its appropriate spot in a shape-sorter when asked.

He’s also figuring out cause and effect — he’ll know 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 when he’s ready to toilet train.

24 to 36 months
By now your child has a pretty good understanding of language. Development experts say most two-year-olds understand at least 150 words and add ten new ones to their vocabulary nearly every day. Since language acquisition has become practically second nature, your child can now turn his attention to more complicated concepts that involve his emotions.

Between the ages of two and three, 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. Your showering him with affection, responding to his needs, and keeping him safe have helped him become a secure and basically optimistic child.

He’s beginning to comprehend more complicated aspects of everyday life, too, such as food shopping, telling time, and housecleaning, by watching you in your day-to-day activities. He’s also gaining a deeper understanding of how he should treat others (also by watching you). The easiest way to ensure he grows up to become a kind and helpful person is to make sure you treat others, especially him, that way.

What comes next
The number of words your child can understand and say will continue to grow rapidly. By the age of six, most children have a vocabulary of nearly 13,000 words. In the next few years, he will begin to comprehend ever more complex ideas and situations, such as basic maths, telling right from wrong, and what will happen in the future.

Your role
Talking and reading to your child will help him learn good communication skills. In general he’ll understand a word before he is able to say it himself.

Playing with him will help him learn more about the way the world works. Challenge him with age-appropriate toys and games to encourage his mental and physical development.

Be affectionate, and show your child how much you love and care for him. That’s the best way to teach him about important emotional concepts such as empathy.

When to be concerned
If, by the age of three, your child seems to have problems understanding the simplest directions and suggestions, talk to your doctor. You may also want to consult your doctor if your child seems genuinely perplexed when you ask him do something simple. For example, if you’ve shown your toddler how to open a box countless times and he still doesn’t seem to understand how to do it, he may have a cognitive delay. 


When you all were babies, one special memory I have of each of you is…