The baby – Mental development

Although we were all a baby once, it is difficult for an adult to comprehend the magnitude of the developments that take place in a baby’s mind. During the first year the advances are enormous, and come rapidly. The baby’s emotions become increasingly varied and complex: he (or she) learns love and fear. He begins to work things out for himself and learn that certain causes have particular effects. He recognizes that his mother is separate from himself and that there are other people in the world as well. A baby’s psychosexual development is influenced during this first year by how his parents answer his needs for food and for emotional and physical contact. Some babies appear to develop faster than others during the first year, either physically or mentally, or both. Some learn to talk sooner, others demand more attention bacause they become bored easily. This rate of development should not be seen as a sign of ‘cleverness’ or intellectual slowness, because each individual develops at his own pace, and the pace can change in subsequent years.

Emotional life

A child’s future emotional well-being, including his sense of worth, may depend upon these early ex- riini / y periences. A contented adult is likely to have been treated as an important individual during this formative first years, not just as ‘a baby’ without personality. Meeting a baby’s physical and emotional needs lovingly teaches him how to trust, respond and love. A baby’s first emotional bond is with his mother – or, in her absence, with the person who spends the most time looking after him. By about six months he recognizes her as separate from himself, and loves her intensely.

His father may become almost as important, if he spends much time with the child; but the baby turns to his mother when he is upset. He may also become attached to other members of the family. Every child should have at least one person on whom he can depend. Babies brought up in institutions may experience changes of ‘care-taker’ and have little one-to-one contact. Although they may be well cared for physically, they lack the close relationship with another person, the “mother figure’, that is the basis for normal development.


Babies are often anxious and miserable when separated from their mothers, even if briefly. This separation anxiety becomes apparent when the baby is old enough to understand that his mother is another individual, not an extension of himself. A baby of 6 to 12 months may try to keep his mother in sight all the time, because it does not yet understand that even if its mother is in another room, she is still there. Many younger babies respond to strangers with friendly curiosity. By six months of age, however, they often become wary of them, particularly in unfamiliar surroundings. This anxiety can last until about two years of age, although children who have met many different people from an early age are likely to worry less about meeting strangers.

When a baby cries

A baby who has not yet learned to talk has only one effective way of making his needs known: crying. Babies have a variety of cries that differ in pitch, rhythm and intensity. Some mothers soon learn to recognize the different cries that signify hunger, pain. Complaining, loneliness or boredom. Particularly distinctive are the frantic screaming of a baby with colic and the frustrated cry of a hungry, sucking baby when a nipple or teat is delivering milk too slowly. A crying baby needs help and attention. Parents may worry that by attending to him immediately – by picking him up and cuddling him – they risk spoiling him. They may feel he should learn to wait, but he is too young to understand this lesson. If help is delayed he will become anxious and redouble his efforts for attention, because he is no longer sure it will come. On the other hand, a quick and calm response to his needs reinforces his trust and encourages him towards confident independence.

Speech and play

The age at which normal children produce their first word varies considerably. However, all babies go through the same stages. At about two months, the baby coos and gurgles. A while later he may discover the pleasure of high-pitched shouts. Then, for several months, he may babble almost incessantly, even when alone.

By six to nine months, this stream of largely unintelligible sounds has slowed down; he will be producing monosyllables such as ‘ba’ and “da’, an activity known to child psychologists by the rather forbidding term ‘experimental vocalization’. By one year, most babies can speak a recognizable word or two that they delight in practising.

Even the youngest baby plays, feeling the nipple or patting the breast as he feeds. An older baby will gaze at a mobile above his cot and, in time, explore new objects by putting them in his mouth or feeling them with his hands. He may play with his food, dabbling his fingers in it and smearing it over his high chair. Babies’ play is about learning: how things feel, taste and work. If he has no toys, a baby will play with his hands, with a wooden spoon, or with anything else within reach. As he gets older and more mobile he will seek out his own playthings. This can be annoying for parents – and possibly dangerous for the child; but once unsafe and breakable objects are put out of reach, the more he can explore the better.