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Children demonstrate the ability to engage with and maintain communication with others.

Children are born with the ability and need to be social. Social communication begins at birth through interactions between caregivers and children. Social interaction occurs with children expressing their needs through sounds, cries, and body language. Caregivers, in turn, respond to these signals. These simple interactions provide the first model for back-and-forth communication used in conversations.

At two months of age, there is an important shift with the emergence of the social smile. The social smile marks the beginning of a very intense social period for children. This period is often referred as the “social baby.”1 While children are communicating their needs prior to the social smile, it is the first behavior up to this point that is socially intentional.

In infancy, children use their social smile, eye contact, sounds, and facial expressions to initiate communication with caregivers. They participate in back-and-forth communication by babbling in response to something a caregiver has said, or engage in interactions that follow-turn taking, such as “peek-a-boo.” These interactions become more complex as children acquire language and an increased understanding of words. Children use words or signs to express ideas in order to engage in short back-and-forth communication with caregivers. Eventually, children will be able to answer adult-directed questions. By 36 months of age, children ask their own questions, use repetition to maintain and extend conversations, and initiate their own conversations.

The Two-Month Shift

Smiles that children express in the first few weeks of life are often spontaneous and reflexive.2 At approximately two months of age, children begin to intentionally smile. For caregivers who have been spending all their time feeding, changing, and rocking their new bundle of joy, this is a momentous occasion! The emergence of the social smile marks the start of an intense, social period.3 Children are now interactively communicating and become more responsive and purposeful in their interactions with their caregivers. Eventually, coos, smiles, and giggles are common in their everyday interactions. These pleasant and loving interactions positively influence children’s attachment relationships and further build children’s language and communication skills.

Birth to 9 months

Children demonstrate effort in engaging others in both verbal and nonverbal communication and interactions.

Indicators for children include:

  • Uses sounds, cries, facial expressions, and body language to convey needs
  • Attempts to engage in early forms of turn-taking with caregiver, e.g., coos and stares at caregiver
  • Smiles and uses other facial expressions to initiate interactions with caregiver
  • Participates in back-and-forth communication, e.g., babbles back and forth and/or plays peek-a-boo with caregiver

Strategies for interaction

  • Communicate with the child from the very beginning, e.g., narrate what is happening throughout the day
  • Pay close attention to the child’s nonverbal cues and respond thoughtfully
  • Provide opportunities for uninterrupted play with the child
  • Acknowledge and respond to the child’s communication attempts

7 months to 18 months

Children are participating in interactions with familiar others. Children also begin to demonstrate simple turn-taking skills while interacting.

Indicators for children include:

  • Communicates and responds by grunting, nodding, and pointing
  • Demonstrates understanding of a familiar sound or word, e.g., looks toward a caregiver after hearing name
  • Responds with “yes” or “no,” using sounds, words, and/or gestures to answer simple questions
  • Uses facial expressions, vocalizations, and gestures to initiate interactions with others
  • Participates in simple back-and-forth communication, using words and/or gestures

Strategies for interaction

  • Name objects in the child’s environment
  • Use words that are found in the child’s context and culture
  • Respond thoughtfully to the child’s attempts to interact, e.g., physically move closer to a child who is holding out his arms, smile and nod to the child who is smiling and clapping
  • Provide opportunities for the child to communicate with other children and adults

16 months to 24 months

Children increase their capacity for complex interactions as they use a greater number of words and actions, in addition to better understanding the rules of conversational turn-taking.

Indicators for children include:

  • Engages in short back-and-forth interactions with familiar others using verbal and nonverbal communication, e.g., says or signs “more” after each time a caregiver completes an action the child is enjoying
  • Initiates and engages in social interaction with simple words and actions
  • Connects gestures and/or sounds to comment about a familiar object, e.g., makes a crying sound after the caregiver hugs a baby doll and says, “Hush, baby”
  • Pays attention to the person communicating for a brief period of time
  • Demonstrates an understanding of turn-taking in conversations, e.g., asks and answers simple questions

Strategies for interaction

  • Engage in conversations with the child during the day; follow the child’s lead in order to inform the conversations
  • Describe the child’s play, e.g., “You are pushing that car so fast!”
  • Respond thoughtfully while interacting and communicating with child, e.g., say “You did it” and clap after the child shares an accomplishment
  • Listen and respond to what the child is communicating
  • Model turn-taking through everyday interactions

21 months to 36 months

Children maintain social interactions through the pattern of turn-taking, and are able to build upon ideas and thoughts conveyed.

Indicators for children include:

  • Responds verbally to an adult’s questions or comments
  • Begins to make formal requests or responses based on his or her context and culture
  • Uses repetition to maintain the conversation and obtain responses from familiar others
  • Communicates related ideas when in interactions with others
  • Uses “w” questions to initiate and expand conversations, e.g., “who,” “what,” “why”
  • Initiates and engages others using meaningful objects or ideas, e.g., points out his/her artwork or favorite toy to a caregiver to begin conversing

Strategies for interaction

  • Engage in conversations with the child every day; model appropriate turn-taking
  • Listen carefully to the child and follow his/her lead when communicating
  • Pick conversation topics that are meaningful to the child
  • Use open-ended questions to build upon what the child is saying

Real World Story

Connor is 28 months old and attends full-time childcare while his mom and dad are at work. He is a bright, energetic little boy who loves to play wrestle with his dad. At school, Connor approaches a young peer and begins to tickle him. The other child, Kyle, stands up quickly and moves away from Connor. Connor looks up, disappointed, and attempts to hug and tackle Kyle once again. Kyle calls for their caregiver, Allie. Allie separates the boys and kneels in front of Connor. “Connor, you must respect Kyle’s space. He does not want to be tickled. You must keep your hands to yourself.” Connor walks away, upset, and sits down in the reading corner.

At the end of the day, Connor’s father arrives to pick him up. Allie pulls Connor’s father aside and tells him what occurred with Kyle earlier in the day. Connor’s father listens and says, “I believe he was doing what we do at home. Tickling and playfully wrestling are some of the things he loves to do when I am home.”

Allie smiles and nods. They continue to discuss; once they are finished, Connor’s father kneels in front of Connor and says, “Connor, I am sad to hear you had a hard day. I know you love to tickle Daddy and play. That is something that we can do at home when Daddy and Mommy are home, but not when we are with Ms. Allie.” Connor frowns, but nods his head and takes his father’s hand to leave.

Discover how this Real World Story is related to:

THIS EXAMPLE HIGHLIGHTS how children begin to learn what behaviors are socially acceptable in different settings. In Connor’s home, he is encouraged to engage in physical play with his father. It is a special time for them, when they can express joy. However, at school, it is not allowed. Connor is not intentionally misbehaving; instead he is trying to engage with his peer in what he perceives as a fun manner, as it is for him when he is home. Connor is learning how to interact within two different cultural contexts: home and school. At age two it may be difficult for Connor to control the impulse to engage in this kind of play. With the support of his parents and caregivers, Connor will learn to modify his behavior based on which social and cultural setting he is in.


  1. Stern, Daniel (1985). The interpersonal world of the infant. New York: Basic Books.
  2. Stern, Daniel (1985). The interpersonal world of the infant. New York: Basic Books.
  3. Stern, Daniel (1985). The interpersonal world of the infant. New York: Basic Books.
Reviewed: 2012