The topic of emotional development is gaining popularity as researchers, child development professionals and parents are paying increasingly more attention to its role in children’s wellbeing and future success in all areas of life. The Harvard University Center on the Developing Child published a report stressing that the first 5 years of a child’s life are crucial for emotional development, which starts at birth!
Are Babies Born with Emotions?
Pinning down exactly what a baby is feeling is difficult, simply because they can’t explain it to us. Still, researchers have used observation and interpretation to study infant emotions and most agree that babies are born with the basic emotions of pleasure and distress, but not an understanding of them. Varied emotions and understanding what they mean evolve as the child’s memory and cognitive abilities develop and their experiences become more complex.
How Does Emotion Evolve During Your Baby’s First Year?
Just as in every area of development, babies’ emotions may not follow this timeline exactly. Emotional development may also appear more intense or subdued depending on a baby’s temperament or whether his environment is nurturing or stressful.
For the first 6 months, your baby will express emotion based on how he is feeling in the moment, without understanding why. At first his emotions are simple: Pleasure and displeasure. When he is content he may coo, or when he hears your voice he may wave his arms and breathe heavily. If he’s wet, cold, tired or hungry, he will cry. His face will reflect his mood as he moves his mouth, eyebrows and forehead depending on how he’s feeling.
By month 3, he’ll be smiling, showing pleasure in response to you or toys, and by 4 months his shows of positive and negative emotion intensify as he starts laughing or crying in response to your actions (you tickle him, he laughs or you stop playing with him, he cries).
As he nears 6 months, he’ll likely be moody, jumping from pleasure to displeasure from one minute to the next.
At 7 months a shift occurs with a leap in cognitive development. Baby realizes for the first time that he is separate from you. This leads to a new emotion: Fear. He may express fear in the presence of strangers, or when he’s away from you or other caregivers. Another new emotion emerges as well: Anger. Until now, if he appeared angry, it was simply an expression of displeasure with no meaning behind it. Now that he has an understanding of cause and effect, he learns that anger can be useful: He drops a toy, you don’t pick it up, he gets angry, you respond.
“Social referencing” also appears, as your baby gains the ability to recognize others’ emotions and consciously react to them. He may see something on the floor that interests him, and look at you to gauge from your expression whether it’s okay to touch it. Or he may see you laughing and start laughing too.
From 8-11 months, your baby’s awareness of and ability to express a variety of emotions will increase. He’ll become more sensitive to approval and disapproval of others, including feeling guilty when he does something he’s not supposed to. Separation anxiety usually peaks now, and may remain for the next several months.
At 12 months your baby’s emotional development enters a new phase as his expressive language becomes dotted with true words and he can label how he is feeling.
How to Support Your Baby’s Emotional Development
The evolution of emotions is a complex interplay of temperament, cognitive development, and direct experiences. This last area is where you play an important role.
According to the report we mentioned above, “Emotional development is actually built into the architecture of young children’s brains in response to their individual personal experiences and the influences of the environments in which they live.”
This means that building a healthy attachment, responding to your baby’s cues to interact, and having conversations with him—long before his first word, are all crucial ways to teach him about expressing and reading emotions.
To read about what’s next, see our articles about how your baby’s emotions continue to evolve during his second year and how to help him learn to cope with emotions.