There are few things in life more gripping than your child's development. From their earliest moments, we parents obsess about what our children are thinking, seeing, hearing and feeling, marking the milestones with a combination of fascination, uncertainty and delight. After all, what parent hasn't agonised over whether an early smile was a sign of genuine contentment or the result of some digestive process?
Baby milestones: Here's what to expect at each stage of your child's development:
Child development tips from an expert
Dr Robert Winston, presenter of a number of BBC documentaries including Child of our time, Super Human and the award-winning 'Human Body', joined us for a webchat on all things child development, and how you can help your child in their first few years. Here are his answers to your questions:
Q: Do you think learning a second language from a young age is beneficial and aids children in their longer-term development? Also, do you think learning a musical instrument from a young age helps them develop further in the long term?
A: Both learning languages and learning musical instruments are very beneficial in all sorts of ways. I would encourage children – if they show an interest – to do both.
Q: Do you think a traumatic birth can shape a child's personality?
A: There really is very little evidence that a traumatic birth has a long-standing effect on personality.
Q: What are the societal effects of risk-averse parenting, and what effects do you envisage for the generation born to parents who had risk-minimised upbringings?
A: I think our society is ludicrous in its attitude towards risk. Children have to learn how to keep themselves safe – to some extent – needing, of course, parental guidance.
Q: What do you think parents can do to ensure raising well-rounded children?
A: We can never absolutely ensure a well-rounded child, but encouraging questions, listening, explaining things at every opportunity, and saying you don't know when you don't know will always be helpful.
Q: Does watching TV for an hour a day have a negative effect on a child's brain development? If a young child never watched TV would they be more advanced than one who watched TV a little bit each day or one who watched TV constantly?
A: I would have thought that watching TV for an hour a day is more valuable than staring through a dining room window, but I would add that, in general, prolonged TV-watching without parental supervision is not a good idea for any child of a young age.
Q: How much impact do you think stress in pregnancy has?
A: There is some evidence that stress in early pregnancy – around 20 – 26 weeks – may be associated with some difficulties as some children grow up. But I suspect that a good postnatal environment helps to ensure that these effects are not serious in most cases.
Q: What is your view of controlled crying? And what developmental benefits (if any) do babies get from breastfeeding?
A: There is evidence that babies left to cry experience stress and have raised cortisol levels, even after their crying ceases. Breastfeeding provides a good balance of fats that are important for brain development. There are emotional benefits to the close act of breastfeeding a baby, and it is possible to feed your baby with a bottle in a similar way – with eye contact, skin to skin contact, parent feeding etc.
Q: I would be very interested in your view on social skills development in children. My DS is an only child and has grown up in quite an adult world pre-school. I know that his social skills are behind his intellectual development. Generally, do social skills catch up once at school?
A: We are social animals and social skills are an important part of development. It's very important that children get to spend time with other children as they learn to cope with frustration, sharing, making friends and of course having fun with peers. School helps with all these social skills but playing with cousins, children on your street and parties all help. Daydreaming and concentrating are both important parts of being a child and an adult. Different children will concentrate and daydream in different situations, some children will spend a long time concentrating on a jigsaw but might not concentrate on a physical task. Learning to concentrate and having the freedom to daydream are both important to development and children generally get the opportunity for both.
Q: Can you teach a child happiness? If you continually model what it means to be happy, and encourage them to laugh, will their brain wire itself in favour of an optimistic outlook to life as they grow up?
A: Children who develop a strong and loving attachment with a warm, patient and consistent parent are more likely to be happy and resilient. Early nurture and bonding have profound and long-term effects on a child's happiness and optimism.
Q: Do you think parents are supported enough to, in turn, support their child's development now that health visitor support seems scarce and early years provision such as Sure Start is reduced?
A: Supporting children and their parents in those first few years is a vital moral duty that we have as a nation. One of the reasons I support and endorse the Essential Baby Care Guides is that they have been designed to help new and expectant parents to love, nurture and care for their babies.
We've been thrilled by the response from the expert organisations we've worked with, as well as the children's centres, the Department of Health and healthcare professionals. There is a strong will to try and support parents and babies in the community. However, it is frustrating that as a rich nation we still see so much need for support of babies and their parents in our society.
Q: I wonder what you think about the impact of so-called 'helicopter' parenting on children?
A: Children need to be kept safe but micromanaging their every utterance, interaction and decision is not a good idea. Within a safe environment, children need to be thwarted by peers, climb trees and learn to negotiate and get on with their friends.
Q: Are some parenting styles better for your baby's brain development than others?
A: As long as the baby is experiencing love, warmth, plenty of skin to skin contact, and common sense when it comes to basic care issues such as feeding and sleep, then you will be doing the best you can as a parent. Remember to talk a lot to your baby, and give them time to gurgle a response.
Q: Is intelligence fixed by genetics or malleable? How much difference does parenting/effort by the child actually make to academic achievement?
A: Both are important. Parenting is extremely important in academic achievement.
A word about our development calendar
Please remember, not all babies and children develop at the same time and in the same way, so our development calendar may not always match your child. Development milestones vary widely. It's not uncommon to have isolated pockets of late development, such as late walkers and talkers, and some babies are slower to develop because they were born prematurely or because they're twins (or triplets). But a minority of babies and children do have delays in development that may need specialist help. If you are at all concerned, go and see your GP. No health professional should ever trivialise a worry you have about your child.
Professor Amanda Kirby, an expert in child development, with over 25 years' specialist experience under her belt says: “It is always useful to remember that development can vary from child to child. For most developmental tasks, there is no average but a range of milestone times.”
If your child has special needs, you can get advice from other parents in our special needs Talk boards.