Did you know that a baby’s brain is developing the most rapidly during the first three years of life? During this critical period of development, a baby’s brain is producing more than a million neural connections each second. The experiences a child has during this time will shape the architecture of her brain and build the connections that allow her to develop lifelong skills like problem-solving, relationship building and language or communication - skills that will allow her to thrive in her family, school and community.

Good communication development starts in the first year of life and goes far beyond learning how to talk. Before a toddler utters her first word, she learns to socially interact, through key social communication milestones, with parents and other caregivers during everyday activities.  

Most parents and professionals know the early motor milestones - that children should be sitting up at around 6 months, crawling at 9 months and walking at 12 months. However, few parents or professionals know the key early social communication milestones. These milestones offer a critical window into the well-being of infants and toddlers and are the earliest signs of healthy development and school readiness.

Social Communication Milestones

These key social communication milestones develop between 9 and 16 months and they provide the foundation needed to launch language and learning:

  • use eye gaze and facial expression to share emotion - both enjoyment/interest and frustration/distress
  • use eye gaze and communication to share attention, interests and ideas
  • communicate at an increasing rate with gestures, sounds and a few words sprinkled here and there
  • use a variety of actions with objects in play and other everyday activities
  • understand the meaning of spoken words

If these early social communication milestones are not solidly in place, it is likely that a child will be delayed in learning to talk. It is important to keep in mind that delays in these social communication milestones may indicate risk for developmental delays, including autism (more on this topic in November’s blog). By detecting small gaps in early social communication skills, parents can get extra help to support their child’s development before significant delays are evident.

Where to Find Help?

There are a number of resources available to help parents and caregivers monitor social communication milestones:

  • FIRST WORDS® Project:  This website offers a wide array of resources and information, including the 16 by 16 series, which demonstrates these early social communication milestones via pictures in their “Lookbooks”. There are a number of downloadable handouts and info sheets that further describe and explain the social communication milestones. They also offer free online screening and additional resources for screening participants, including the Social Communication Growth Charts. To access website, click the picture or First Words website link.
  • Learn the Signs. Act Early.:  CDC’s “Learn the Signs. Act Early.” program encourages parents and providers to learn the signs of healthy development, monitor every child’s early development and take action when there is a concern. The program offers free checklists and other tools to make developmental monitoring practical and easy. They also provide video clips demonstrating various milestones (including language and social-emotional milestones) and have a mobile app available as well called the Milestone Tracker App. They also provide a section for early care providers with tips on how to talk with parents about their child’s development.  Act Early website link.
  • ZERO TO THREE:  ZERO TO THREE’S mission is “to ensure that all babies and toddlers have a strong start in life. At ZERO TO THREE, we envision a society that has the knowledge and will to support all infants and toddlers in reaching their full potential.” Their website provides a plethora of resources for caring adults and professionals to help them support healthy early development. “At ZERO TO THREE, we are here to help you. As you explore our website, you will find the resources you need to build healthy relationships with infants and toddlers, grow your skills as a professional and become an advocate for change.” Zero to Three website link.


Children develop at their own pace, so it’s impossible to tell exactly when a child will learn a given skill. However, attending to these key social communication milestones can give us a general idea of the changes to expect as a child gets older. And help us recognize when they are not on target.

If a child is not meeting the milestones for his or her age, or if you think there could be a problem with a child’s development, I urge you to talk with the child’s parents and share your concerns. Don’t wait. Encourage them to talk with their doctor or contact their Area Education Agency (AEA) and pursue early evaluation and intervention. For children younger than three years old, referrals to Early ACCESS can be submitted via the website here. For children three years and older, visit the AEA website here. This sensitive time of brain development is too important to take the “wait and see” approach. We need to change our thinking to “let’s just see” and evaluate any child who might be falling behind so that they can benefit from additional support if needed. We need to ensure that our infants and toddlers have a strong start in life and the support they need to reach their maximum potential. Do your part. #Let’sJustSee


Tags: brain development , social-emotional skills , First Words Project , Learn the Signs , Act Early , Zero to Three , Iowa Family Support Network , AEA , Early ACCESS

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