From the intimate exchanges of the family world they first encounter, to the gradual exposures to the world at large, babies live and learn by the relationships reflected to them and their sense of belonging.
Socialisation is essentially how we bring infants into a culture of finding “rewarding engagements” with another person, Professor Marc de Rosnay, Head of Wollongong University’s Early Start program, says.
My Parent, My Compass
For babies, this occurs initially in ‘the dyad’, as researchers call it, or between two people, an infant’s social world pivoting around the face-to-face, interactive, emotionally-laden, gestural communication with a parent, Prof de Rosnay explains.
A newborn’s instant recognition of a parent’s voice or preference for their parents’ faces is seen as evidence of their social preparedness for life.
“It’s a social world that we join when we’re born, and so from birth, we’re learning to be social,” Linda Harrison, Professor of Early Childhood Education at Charles Sturt University, says.
Whether innate or learnt, babies quickly develop - normally by about eight weeks - different expectations of a person than they do of any object they explore: they expect a response.
“In that interpersonal space, they learn all sorts of rich things about other human beings … about their emotions, about their expressions, about the sorts of pleasure you can get from interaction, about limits,” Prof De Rosnay says.
Jesting, tickles, facial expressions, affection, all help a baby gain fluency in communicating and connecting, triggering their own impulse, by about three months’ old, to initiate ‘conversation’, and by about four months, the principle of taking turns.
Reciprocating - being attuned together - is critical to social connection, and the comfort with which a baby faces the world, Prof Harrison says.
“If you imagine what it’s like as a baby to be born into a world that’s all sorts of strange sights and sounds and things going on, and how you then get your sense of yourself as a person, is that you can make a difference … I can do something and then someone does something back,” she says.
If those signals go ignored over time, babies stop trying, experts say, with detrimental effects on their development and well-being.
“It rewires their brains so they are less communicative, and they will only communicate to really just get attention, rather than communicate to share something, to share enjoyment, to share interest and curiosity,” says Macquarie University early childhood expert, Sheila Degotardi.
Prof de Rosnay says babies need responsive, engaged people, who understand them, to thrive and the earlier that this occurs: “the more confidently they’re going to be able to take those next steps in their evolution as a social agent.”
Do Babies Seek Friends?
Although parents are the pinnacle in the first 12 months, experts say babies are attracted to other babies and they will watch, imitate and, in some cases, make overtures to one another from a young age.
“There’s this appreciation that another baby is a bit more like me,” Prof Harrison says.
While parent-child relationships are still prime, especially between six and nine months when babies’ attachment behaviours sharpen, Prof de Rosnay says special relationships - rather than ‘friendships’ necessarily - can happen from very, very early.
“In terms of broader socialisation, it is wise to introduce them [infants] to other little people; they start to explore and test limits and feel people pushing back against them and all that sort of stuff,” he says.
Dr Degotardi says a child’s sense of security in their home relationships will set the foundation for relating to their peers, and the opportunity to be with other children is an important experience for practising principles like give and take and sharing.
“We certainly know that they [babies] have the ability to reach out and be interested in their peers, and certainly by the time they get into toddlerhood, you’re getting firm friendships that are starting to happen,” she says.
Why Playgroup Matters: Social Play 101
Intrinsic to socialisation, play gives babies a living laboratory to test out their evolving skills, observations and interests.
Playgroup NSW chief executive Karen Bevan says in their first year, children are really alongside other children in play but they start to get a sense of “where they end and other people begin”.
“Children don’t necessarily make friends at six months’ old but they do start to engage with other kids around them and test things out; so, they experience what it’s like to be beside someone else,” Ms Bevan says.
Playgroup: A social slow reveal
Playgroups enable children in that transition, introducing them to a range of new experiences in a safe, low-key environment, where they’re close to the person they trust, she says.
“It introduces children to that social world, it creates a focus on children and their play, and it also gives children some of that early introduction to socialisation, which is really important in the bigger picture of social and emotional development,” she says.
Educators say social experiences like playgroups are invaluable in expanding a baby’s world and providing exploration time, where they can feel secure and stimulated to investigate their own interests, observing as much as they’re ‘doing’, learning from being among other children.
“There’s so much to learn, and that’s really the role of parents to introduce children to the world in its widest possible way,” Prof Harrison says.
A pivotal time: parents gain, too
For parents, it’s also an opportunity to try things out, get ideas and access resources, while learning in tandem with other children and parents.
As a community that families participate in, rather than a service delivered to them, playgroup creates a special space at an often, pivotal time for families with young children, when they are looking for social avenues, Ms Bevan says.
“Everything changes when a baby is born, and we’ve got an opportunity in those first 12 months to really scaffold family strengths by helping them create supportive communities,” she says.
Childhood emotional development expert Prof de Rosnay says babies need time to master social learning, and often that means exercising patience as parents.
“It’s important to understand your baby and learn to function at their pace, which often, for an adult, means slowing down and modifying your expectation.”
Through its new Play Baby initiative, Playgroup NSW is offering free membership to families with a child under 12 months old. Learn more.