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First Feelings

Three years later, Katherine Adair still remembers clearly one of those defining moments of motherhood: She was gently rocking her week-old son, Miles, sunlight streaming through the nursery window. He'd just finished nursing and was nestled peacefully in her arms, still awake. As Adair gazed down at him, the corners of his mouth spread into what looked like a blissful grin. "My mother was there and she said, 'Look at that. He's smiling,'" remembers Adair, who lives in Arlington, VA. "But I had read all the child-rearing books, and I said, 'No, he's not smiling. That's just gas.'"

As it turns out, Adair's mother might have known best. For a long time, experts contended that newborns and young infants had no real or true emotions  -- only random and solely reactive responses to their environment. Now many have come to believe that the part of the brain that controls emotions is much more sophisticated in babies than that.

By its very nature, the emotional development of a baby seems a daunting mystery. You can see a 4-month-old roll over for the first time. You can hear the beginning babbles of language development. You can't, however, observe an infant's feelings of fear, or anger, or love.

Or can you? Maybe it's simply a matter of paying attention. Could that full-body wriggle be an expression of joy? That particular cry an indication of fright?

Lise Eliot, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Chicago Medical School's department of cell biology and anatomy, thinks so. When a baby is born, he's already wired with about half of his emotional hardware, she writes in What's Going On in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life. This means he experiences his emotions in physical ways  -- like increased heart rate or motor activity. He's even able to exhibit recognizable facial expressions, explains Eliot  -- like the smile on tiny Miles Adair's face.

As a baby grows, he becomes capable of increasingly complex feelings, and he is able to express them in increasingly complex ways. This element of development is every bit as important as the first step or first word  -- and is intricately intertwined with such milestones: A child's healthy emotional development forms a foundation for his physical and intellectual advances, and vice versa. Here's how, age by age:

Jenny Deam writes about health for the Denver Rocky Mountain News.

Birth to 6 Months: Happy Little Campers

Expressing innate preferences is one of the earliest ways a baby asserts his individuality. Whether it's how tightly or how often he wants to be held, how bright his room should be, or how much noise he can tolerate, a newborn will make his likes and dislikes known. Mere minutes after birth, a baby will curl up in contentment on his mother's chest. "Some of that is reflex," says Steven Shelov, M.D., chairman of pediatrics at Maimonides Medical Center, in Brooklyn, "but some of it is pure emotion. There's intense love going on there."

A big emotional milestone is the social smile, which tends to arrive when an infant is between 4 and 8 weeks old, and differs from the early grins of general contentment. Most likely, it's triggered by a specific person, usually a parent. Even blind babies will begin to smile at this age when they hear the voice of a familiar person or feel their touch.

For many parents, the arrival of that smile comes just in time to boost their confidence and help them feel more attached to the child, especially if they have a fussy baby. The delightful show of gums says, "Mom, Dad, I'm happy! And you're doing fine." The payoff for baby: When his parents relax and smile back, he's encouraged to do the same, and also begins to learn that his actions can get a response. Feeling that others are tuned in to him is vitally important to his emerging sense of self.

With time, babies become more and more social. They add giggles and wiggles to their repertoire of happy expressions, and even begin to anticipate pleasurable activities. When Karen Hubler's daughter, Madeleine, was only 5 months old, her older brother, Noah, who was 2 1/2, would sneak into her room and hide behind her crib. Madeleine couldn't see him but she could hear him, and would get excited and start wriggling in anticipation of his next move: popping up to say "Peek-a-boo!" The trick wouldn't work if anyone else tried it.

"It's not like she understood that he was her brother," says Hubler, who lives in Denver, "but she seemed to know he was significant in her life. It was a completely emotional response."

Language skills begin to develop at around age 3 months. Babies coo and gurgle, and imitate the sounds made by those they love the most  -- another way to express what they feel inside. As with smiling, reciprocity is key to making the most of this development. If your child "talks" to you, imitate the sounds that he's making: He'll be delighted and continue the "conversation"  -- which is good practice for future language development.

Anger also emerges during a baby's early months. Take a toy away from a 6-month-old and his wail will be very different from the one he uses for hunger. But the frustration he feels when he can't, say, reach an attractive toy will serve him well: He'll try harder to get the coveted plaything, and so exercise his developing strength and motor control.

6 to 12 Months: Fear and Loving

Diana Dawson, of Austin, TX, remembers when her 9-month-old daughter, Grace, came face to face with two costumed cartoon characters in the grocery store. "She didn't cry, but she put a death grip on my arm with one hand and her other hand trembled," says Dawson. "She stared at the characters but kept looking at me for reassurance. When they walked away she let out an audible sigh."

Grace's reaction has a name: stranger anxiety. Like other babies her age, her understanding of the world had become so sophisticated that she feared the introduction of someone new would throw that order off.

A baby in the second half of her first year is also keenly aware of who's most important in her life. Now able to crawl and cruise, she deeply desires independence, but still needs that home base of Mom or Dad or other caregivers. "Babies want to stick close to the people they know will take care of them," says Eliot.

With that knowledge comes a new emotion  -- separation anxiety, a feeling of despair when a beloved person leaves. What if she never comes back? As difficult as it can be to see a baby go into hysterics when Mom gets dressed or Dad jingles car keys, this universal phenomenon marks a turning point: Her brain is now developed enough to anticipate loss.

Of course, at this age babies also experience great joy in the world around them, and they begin to want to share that with others. They learn to point to things that delight them, and to tug at us to make sure that we too see the doggy. They'll bring us favorite toys and lay them in our lap to show us what they've discovered. Often it's near the end of this time that they will say their first words. These early words usually refer to loved ones, such as parents, siblings, and pets.

12 to 24 Months: Temper! Temper!

Where did your baby go? Suddenly he's a little person with a mind of his own. His world has opened up in so many ways, thanks to rapid gains in mobility and language development, and his emotions have kept pace.

Anger and frustration emerge as he waffles between dependence and independence, and like a tiny teenager, he can go from all smiles to hysterics in a matter of minutes. If you haven't already, now you'll no doubt begin to get a good sense of your child's built-in temperament. A toddler "pre-wired" to be mellow will probably be less frustrated and less likely to fall apart when things don't go his way. For others, a restriction of some sort can set off a reaction like a tornado touching down.

The meltdowns typical of this age play an important role in a child's emotional, physical, and intellectual development, says Gay Macdonald, executive director of the University of California-Los Angeles Child Care Services.

"Tantrums are an outward sign of a drive to master new skills," she says. "Some of the difficult behaviors associated with the toddler spring from his desire to do things that he can't yet. They're a very important component of motivation."

A more positive emotion that shows up at around 18 months is empathy. When a child seems to feel sorry for someone, it's unclear whether he understands the other's plight or is merely imitating an adult's reaction. Either way, the groundwork is being laid for healthy social development.

"We see young toddlers come over and look concerned, and maybe offer a pat, if another child falls down and hurts herself. Or when someone becomes upset when his mother leaves, another kid might find a toy and shove it at him," says Macdonald. She believes these are early attempts to console, and should be acknowledged.

In fact, no matter what stage of emotional development your child is in, it's vitally important that you pay attention to the signals he sends, and respond appropriately. Smile back at your newborn, chat with your older baby, commiserate with your frustrated toddler. Such simple, natural reactions will go far toward encouraging your child's emerging emotional maturity.