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Child development: 0-3 months

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At birth a baby does not know or understand anything. It quickly learns to recognise the smell and voice of the person who feeds them and holds them most often but they do not know this is their 'mother'.

However, even from birth, they start to communicate with you and give you little signals when they are tired or hungry, or awake and alert. 

They are learning all the time.

The Raising Children Network website has a lot of information about babies, including information about development, behaviour, fitness, health and daily care. As well as articles there are several videos. The Raising Children Network site has been funded by the Australian Government.


Coming into the world is a very big adventure for babies.  They do not know or understand anything. At first they don't know that you are there to comfort them and feed them and care for them.  They can feel comfortable or uncomfortable, but they don't know that this is because they are full, or safe, or afraid, or hungry. 

They quickly learn to recognise the smell and voice of the person who feeds them and holds them most often (possibly the smell of their mother's milk) but they do not know this is their 'mother'.

However, even from birth, they start to communicate with you and give you little signals when they are tired or hungry, or awake and alert.  

They are learning all the time, and the job of parents is to help them to know that the world is a welcoming place for them to be in, where their needs will be met and they will learn to feel safe and loved. Remember that for a new baby everything is new and may be scary at first, even a nappy change.

Social and emotional development

  • Newborn babies can not understand what is happening to them.
  • They do not know that they are people.
  • They do not know who helps when they cry.
  • They feel happy when they feed, but they do not know what 'happy' is.
  • They cry when they are hungry or need to sleep, but they do not know that they are being cared for.
    The first and perhaps most important thing to understand about newborn babies is that they do not have any understanding of being a separate person inside their own skin, and certainly not a person in relationship with other people.
  • Newborn babies do not cry 'for attention' or to 'get at' their parents.
    A new baby in the first three months cannot decide to cry. They cry because of something that is happening inside them. They don't understand what is happening and they don't understand that you might be able to help them feel better. 

     They like the feelings they have when they feed successfully or hear your soothing voice or are cuddled, and they don't like feeling hungry or frightened - but they don't actually know that the feeling is caused by a full tummy or hunger.
  • Because babies feel but are not yet able to think, they may pick up your feelings and be calm when you are calm, and unhappy if you are unhappy.
    If you feel upset it will be impossible to hide it from your baby - she will think it's her feeling and respond as if it was! So, when you are tired and frazzled your baby may be hard to settle!'
  • Each baby is different, and each grows and develops in the way that is right for this baby.
    Every baby is very different. You have heard that before but it is really true. Each baby has a different personality. They may be easygoing and placid, or shy and worried, or easily upset, and you will get to know this over the early months.
  • The human face is the first and most important shape that they learn, and the sounds of human voices are very important to them, even though they do not understand them.
    Your baby is interested in you - especially in your voice and your face. Looking into someone's eyes is a necessity for 'falling in love' and forming a close and warm relationship. Show them your face and talk to them soothingly right from the start. Don't feel rejected if they sometimes turn away; tiny babies often get tired when they interact and need a rest.

  • Babies need to feel safe, that someone is looking after them. They often begin to smile at a familiar face by around 4 to 6 weeks, and will look at you carefully from around the same time.

Physical development

  • Although babies are ready to exist and grow out side of their mother's womb, most parts of their bodies are still immature.

    baby in prone position
    All new babies are very busy with their body. All brand new and never been used before - it takes the first three months to get the digestive system cranked up and running smoothly. You can tell by your baby's face that she is preoccupied a lot of the time with whatever is going on inside herself.
  • Since babies do not understand anything about what is happening around them they can become upset if they are given too much to see or do.

    They can easily feel overwhelmed by sounds, colours, shapes and touch in the world outside the womb. Sometimes it's just too much! Loud noises will frighten most babies in their first months but they are soothed by crooning and the sound of gentle voices and sometimes even music they heard before they were born.


  • Many babies who are under three months old cry a lot, especially in the late afternoon or evening.
  • This crying, often called colic, seems in part due to being overwhelmed by all that is happening inside their body as well as outside (their environment).
  • Have a look at the topics Crying baby and Colic in babies for more ideas about how to help them settle.

Note: "Jiggling" babies is not a good way to help them settle and can be very scary or even painful for the baby even if he stops crying. 

It is important to never shake a baby. Have a look at the topic Never shake a baby.

Hearing and seeing

  • Newborn babies can see but they can only clearly see things that are close by.
  • They can hear, and they have been hearing noises from well before they were born.
    Newborns do not understand what they see. In the first three months they are attracted by faces, bright light, primary colours, stripes, dots and patterns.

    he human face is the first 'object' they recognise by learning that the shapes of eyes, nose and mouth form a face. Over the first three months they begin to recognise particular faces and other things [like their teddy bear] in their world. Hanging pictures of faces and simple toys above their cot will give them practice at looking and learning.

Using their bodies

  • New babies move their bodies while they are awake, but they do not yet know how to make each part of their body move, or even that all the bits belong to them.

    baby in supine position
    Infants in the first eight weeks have no control over their movements and all their physical activity is involuntary or reflex. Sucking, grasping (holding something tight in their hand), and startling ('jumping' when there is a loud noise or they are suddenly moved) are all reflexes. In their third month they will begin to watch their hands and feet wave in the air and also begin to wave their fist towards your face or some other desired object. They are beginning to get the idea that they have a body that moves, feels, has skin all round it and that they have some influence over what it does!
  • They start to work out how to lift their heads when lying on the tummy, and kick their legs by about eight weeks.

Speech and language

  • Babies show how they feel by what their face, voice and body does.
  • For the newborn, crying is the main way your baby has to let you know something is wrong, and soon your baby may start having different cries for different things - hunger, pain, wet, cold, fear and loneliness.
  • You will begin to recognise these different cries in the first few weeks. Babies have no understanding about time so all their needs are immediate and urgent. 

    It is important to respond to your tiny baby as quickly as you can so he begins to understand that you will be there for him when he calls out for you. This develops a feeling of security, which is very important. 

  • By 7 or 8 weeks babies will begin to discover their voice and make cooing noises and vowel sounds.
  • Even by about 8 weeks they will listen to what you say, then make noises back as they 'talk' to you.

Activities for young babies

  • make a face mobile and hang it, facing them, above their cot
  • stroke different parts of their body to see how they like to be touched (see 'Baby massage')
  • speak to them gently and use their name
  • play them music
  • sing to them
  • hold them a lot
  • let them look at your face as you talk to them
  • copy their little gestures
  • rock them gently
  • lots of feeding and hopefully sleeping.


Summary of development of a baby 0 to 3 months


  • Watches parent's face when being talked to, average 6 weeks, range 4 to 8 weeks.
  • Smiles by 5-7 weeks.
  • By 3 months baby is gurgling and laughing aloud.

Have a talk with your doctor or child health nurse if:

    • you feel unable to meet your baby's needs most of the time
    • you see your baby in a negative way (as difficult), or are disappointed with your child
    • you do not feel able to respond to the baby
    • your baby does not usually calm at least momentarily most of the time when picked up
    • your baby has a high pitched cry
    • no social smile by 8 weeks

Motor skills, vision and hearing

  • When cheek touched, turns to same side to suckle (from birth)
  • Lifts head when prone (on tummy) average 6 weeks (4 to 8 weeks)
  • Kicks legs vigorously by 2 months
  • Arms, fingers and legs move freely
  • Follows a moving light with eyes for a couple of seconds by 1 month
  • Watches a moving face by 2-3 months
  • Eyes are lined up most of the time by 6 weeks.

Talk with your doctor or child health nurse if:

    • child unusually 'floppy' or stiff
    • arm and leg on one side stiffer, floppier, stronger or weaker than on the other. One side moving more than the other 
    • unusually 'good' head control (neck and back muscles stiff)
    • fingers always held in tight fist
    • not watching faces by 2-3 months
    • not startling to noise
    • not chuckling and smiling at 3 months

Daily activities

  • Usually feeds well after a couple of weeks
  • Often has no clear day and night pattern of wakeful and sleep times

Talk with your doctor or child health nurse if:

    • your baby is still having problems with feeding after a couple of weeks
    • your baby is crying for long times each day,
    • it is hard to settle your baby
    • your baby seems quite different to other babies (too tense, too calm).

Speech and Language

  • Startled by loud sounds by 1 month
  • Makes sounds other than crying by 2 months
  • Begins listening to voices and making sounds when talked to by 7-8 weeks

Talk with your doctor or child health nurse if:

    • your baby is not watching your face when being spoken to by 2-3 months
    • seems not to react to sounds

Note: Children are different and may develop at different rates. So if your child does not do all the things in this topic, it may be because your child is working on some different area of his learning and development at present. 

However, if your baby is very different from other babies, if you are worried about your baby's development or if it seems to go backwards, you should talk with your doctor or child health nurse.  If there is anything wrong, getting in early will help.  Otherwise it is good to have reassurance that your baby is developing normally in her own unique way and to remember that what matters is to support her on moving forward from where she is now.


Cullen K, "Child psychology - a practical guide" Allen and Unwin 2011

Griffiths R, Huntley M, 'The Griffiths Mental Development Scales' The Test Agency, 1996

Raising Children Network - 'Babies 3-12 months'

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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