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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.

3 to 6 months

You and your baby are really clicking after the fog of the first few sleep-deprived months. She's more alert and capable of showing a wider range of feelings  -- fear when the music's too loud or delight when you blow bubbles. She can even babble in a way that sounds like a conversation.

And that's a relief. Janet Byron remembers how tired she felt when her daughter, now 19 months, turned 4 months old. "You're really wigged out and you haven't been getting too much feedback," says Byron, who lives in Berkeley, California. "So the first time I saw Julia laugh and enjoy herself, I thought, Wow, thank you."

You'll also notice that your baby responds one way to you  -- and a totally different way to your husband.

Lila Snodgrass, now 11 months old, goes to her mom when she's upset or tired and to her dad when she wants to play. "She's been doing that since she was about five months old," says her mom, Maddie, of Pittsburgh. "I read and talk to her more, and he's the one who dances with her."

"Babies catch on from an early age that dads tend to do more of the physical playing," says Arlene Walker-Andrews, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Montana in Missoula. "And they form expectations about each parent's emotional style."

8 to 12 months

Once your baby becomes more mobile, she'll see a new connection between herself and objects. Earlier, she was happy to look at something; now she wants to explore it. And before she does, she'll probably look to you for approval.

Walker-Andrews calls this "social referencing." Think of it as role modeling. "Babies start checking out the expressions of people around them to learn how to react," she says. "If he sees something unfamiliar  -- say, a toy robot or a person  -- he'll often look to his mom. If she seems happy, he may approach it. If she seems concerned, he won't."

Another way to think of it is, well, manipulation. But that can work in your favor. What mom hasn't smiled just a little too broadly and rubbed her stomach when trying to navigate a forkful of green beans into her baby's mouth? Or frowned when she crawls too near the stove?

Kids learn how to feel about things from their parents for a reason  -- after all, it's appropriate to be a little wary of a hot stove or a barking dog. And with any luck, she'll believe you when you tell her how yummy it is to eat her vegetables  -- at least for now.

12 to 18 months

At this stage, babies are continuing to work out what their relationship is to the people around them. "And the more they realize who the important people in their lives are, the less they want them to leave. It's as if they're saying, 'The person I feel comfortable with is now going away, and I don't want this to happen,'" says Gopnik. Her eldest son used to wail every time she'd leave for work. "I'd call five minutes later and he'd be laughing and playing with his toys," she says.

Your child will eventually grow out of this stage. The key is to try to calm his anxiety. Start a ritual  -- butterfly kisses when you say goodbye at the door, say. As for the goodbye itself? "I would just try to be quick and no-nonsense about it," says Gopnik. Of course, not every emotional milestone is so gut-wrenching. Empathy starts around this age. Kate Shanahan, a mom of two who lives in London, says her eldest has been soothing her since she was about 1. "She'd kiss me whenever I hurt myself," says Shanahan. "She started doing this with other kids, too."

Experts aren't sure if a child this age is just copying his parents' behavior or if he truly knows his actions will help. For Gopnik, empathy is also a sign of a toddler's growing awareness of his relationship to you. "He's learning that you may feel one way, but he doesn't necessarily have to feel that way, too," she says.

All these early expressions are your child's emotional training wheels. It's heady for him to realize he has some power, and you'll see him give voice to his anger, joy, and frustration with enthusiasm (which in turn may send you searching for some relief). But you've got power, too. It's up to you to set limits. After all, without them, there's nothing for him to push up against, and nothing for him to achieve.

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