For a long time, experts have contended that infants have no real emotions. But now we know that as a baby grows, he becomes capable of increasingly complex feelings, and is able to express them in increasingly complex ways. A child's healthy emotional development forms a foundation for his physical and intellectual advances, and vice versa. Here's how, age by age:
0 - 6 months: Happy little campers
Expressing innate preferences is one of the earliest ways a baby asserts her individuality. Whether it's how tightly or often she wants to be held or how much noise she can tolerate, even a newborn will make her likes and dislikes known. For example, mere minutes after birth, a baby will curl up on her mother's chest. "Some of that is reflex," says Steven P. Shelov, M.D., chairman of pediatrics at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York, "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. It's been shown that blind babies will begin to smile at this age when they hear the voice of a familiar person or feel his or her touch.
Over time, babies become more and more social. They add little 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 2½, 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 "Peekaboo!"
"It's not like she understood that he was her brother," says Hubler, who lives in Denver, "but she seemed to know that he was significant in her life. It was just a completely emotional response."
Language skills begin to develop at around 3 months of age. Babies coo and gurgle, and imitate the sounds made by those they love the most. As with smiling, reciprocity is key to making the most of this development. If your child "talks" to you, imitate the sounds that she's making: She will be delighted and continue the "conversation" -- good practice for future language development.
Anger also emerges during a baby's early months. The frustration she feels when she can't reach a toy will serve her well: She'll try harder to get the coveted plaything, exercising her developing strength and motor control.
Jenny Deam is a mother of three and writes for The Denver Post.
6 - 12 months: Fear and lovingEllen Lauro, of Babylon, New York, remembers having a difficult time with her 7-month-old son, John, and her doting family. "John would only let his father, me, and one aunt hold him," says Lauro. "We have a large, close family, and people would be over here all the time. Everyone wanted to hold him, because he was the first baby in the family. He wouldn't have it. He would just cry and cry in anyone else's arms."
John's reaction has a name: stranger anxiety. Like other babies his age, his understanding of the world had become so sophisticated that he feared the introduction of someone new would throw the order off.
Separation anxiety is the 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 to go out or Dad jingles his car keys, this phenomenon marks a turning point: His 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 the joy with others. They learn to point to things which delight them, and to tug at us to make sure that we, too, see the doggy. 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 - 18 months: Temper, temper!Where did your tiny 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 he can go from all smiles to tears in a matter of minutes. 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 a role in a child's emotional, physical, and intellectual development, says Gay MacDonald, executive director of Early Care and Education at the University of California, Los Angeles. "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 an 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 child's plight or is merely imitating an adult's reaction. Either way, this begins healthy social development.
In fact, no matter what stage of emotional development your child is at, it's important that you pay attention to the signals he sends, and respond appropriately. Simple, natural reactions will go far toward encouraging your child's emerging emotional maturity.