Many parents (especially those with babies born during the pandemic) may be wondering when their babies need to start socializing with others. And what that even looks like. Is there a “right time?”
Socializing is critical to babies’ healthy development. But it’s not just about playing with other kids their age. Have you ever seen two babies “play” with each other? It can involve them staring at each other, screaming excitedly back and forth, or ignoring each other altogether while they play on their own. It seems silly (and pretty adorable), but all of that is an important part of socialization. Here’s what else you need to know about to socialize your baby.
What does socialization mean for babies?
Socialization (including learning the norms of society) happens through any human interaction we have. And for babies it starts with, you guessed it, the parents.
It begins at home
“All of those things you just kind of automatically do when you're loving your child sets the stage for relationships with others later. Strong nurturing relationships with caregivers [are] really critical to healthy brain development. That's how they're learning,” said Dionne Dobbins, Ph.D., the vice president of research and evaluation at Start Early, a nonprofit that focuses on early childhood learning and care.
Even babies as young as 2 months can react to a parent’s voice. They can also follow people as they move and smile at their parents (and melt your heart every time).
Socialization with other kids
There’s no wrong or right age to start interacting with other kids. But experts say, the earlier, the better (and it’s never too late).
“Around six to eight weeks, I would just start having opportunities for them to be around other people. Children love to watch others' interactions. That's another way that they're learning. Even very young children, they might not be able to [talk] with each other, but even the babbling back and forth is a way for them to understand that when I'm sharing something, I'm taking turns,” said Dobbins.
FYI: Don’t stress about getting your newborn out into the world if you’re not comfortable with that. Some parents like to wait until their babies have received routine shots at 2 or 4 months. Or the COVID-19 vaccine starting at six months. And if there’s a surge in respiratory illnesses going around in kids (ahem, RSV), then it could make sense to hold off on letting others near your baby.
The benefits of socialization
Socialization impacts many different aspects of your child’s growth. Think: communication, emotional, cognitive, and physical development.
“Engaging in conversation with babies [will allow them] to see our lips moving, and that helps with communication and being able to express themselves in different ways. Obviously, a 3-month-old baby is not gonna be able to talk and hold a conversation, but they're gonna start moving their lips too and making different sounds,” said Dr. Audrey Brewer, a pediatrician at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and pediatrics instructor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
Research shows children’s development is closely tied to their environments and the interactions they experience around them (from parents, caregivers, and others). Socialization helps babies develop necessary skills. Think: Talking, taking a first step, or waving “bye-bye.” Those are all developmental milestones. Your pediatrician will check to see if your kid is on track to hit age-appropriate milestones. But parents can also monitor development by following checklists or using the CDC’s milestones app.
PSA: Kids develop at their own pace. And milestones have a range. So don’t start Googling what’s wrong with your 2-year-old just because they don’t have Rory Gilmore’s vocabulary. If you’re concerned, talk to your pediatrician.
How can parents encourage socialization outside the home?
Any interaction with other kids (of any age) is necessary and beneficial for your baby or toddler. And the sooner you can get them to socialize with others, the better. Note: It doesn't have to be at daycare. Interacting with other family members, neighbors, or at playgroups are all great places to start.
Age 0-24 months
For babies and toddlers, find ways to expose them to different environments and people. It can be taking them to the neighborhood park, a music class, a playdate, event at your community center, or the library. The point is to get them around other kids (even if that just means your 9-month-old staring at older kids in awe).
“You’ll start to notice different cues and how they're starting to show interest in different things, whether they're curious about another child or they're very observant and watching other kids. So [you want to] encourage that,” said Dr. Brewer.
Age 2-3 years old
Around 2 or 3 years old, experts encourage parents to put their kids in a high-quality, more structured care setting, like daycare or a childcare center. Children at this age are more mobile, and they start playing and sharing with each other. Daycare can help prepare them for preschool, pre-K, and going into grade school.
“It's a great time because they become more aware about who they are separate from other people. They really become really excited about being around other kids,” said Dr. Brewer.
Real talk: Daycare isn’t an option for everyone (whether it’s for financial, health, or other personal reasons). And it’s certainly not the only way to expose your child to socialization. Remember: Socializing with parents, siblings, cousins, or neighbors is just as important.
Your baby begins to socialize on day one just by interacting with you. And you’ve probably been doing all the right things to encourage their social development (yes, keep the baby talk going). Experts say when it comes to socializing with other kids, it’s not so much about the “when.” It’s about the “how.” And for those pandemic babies, it’s not too late. Remember: If you have questions about your child’s social skills, talk to your pediatrician.
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