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How Babies Learn About Feelings

As the plane lurched toward the airport, my husband clutched our 13-month-old daughter, Harper, on his lap while I clutched two airsickness bags. Suddenly, I felt a tiny hand against my cheek and opened my eyes to see my daughter offering me her beloved stuffed dog. Harper wanted to soothe me.

Even in my airsick stupor, I wondered how she'd been able to process that Mommy was feeling yucky and that her stuffed toy might make me feel better. (Or did she just want to play?)

From birth, babies can feel pleasure, distress, and even fear. And by the time they've reached 2, say experts, they've developed some pretty complex emotions like empathy and shame. Along the way, they pick up emotional cues and responses, first from you, then from others in their lives. Here's what you can expect to happen:

Birth to 3 months
It may seem as if your baby isn't interacting much with you, but don't be fooled  -- he's actually paying very close attention and can figure out what you're feeling. When her 7-week-old twin girls burst into tears on a walk, Jenn Kriz of San Francisco was taken aback. "I was talking to someone and getting really mad. I wondered if they were actually picking up on the fact that I was angry."

They probably were, says Alison Gopnik, Ph.D., coauthor of The Scientist in the Crib and a mom of three. "Babies this age are capable of recognizing a happy or sad expression."

But don't worry if you're not bubbling over with happiness all the time. Having an occasional fight or crying jag in front of your infant actually teaches him that anger, frustration, and sadness are normal. What's more important is the way you help him regulate his emotions  -- by soothing him when he cries. "We know that babies imitate emotional expressions, so if you smile a lot, your baby may smile a lot, and that may generate the feeling of happiness," says Gopnik.

Lauren Barack writes for Variety and The New York Post.

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