Social and emotional development in babies

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Read about social and emotional development in babies. A sharp incline in alertness and response to environment is to be expected.

Key points

  • In their first year, babies will reach several milestones including becoming interested in conversation, developing ways to communicate with you, imitating others and showing jealousy.

Your baby will go through many changes in terms of social and emotional development during their first year of life. Although they started out as a sleepy newborn baby, they will soon be alert, responsive, and interested in interacting with the people around them. Each month, you will notice your baby reaching social milestones such as becoming interested in conversation, breaking into their first social smile, developing ways to communicate with you, imitating others, showing jealousy if you give attention to another baby and eventually anxiety around strangers.

This page describes development of the healthy baby who was born at full term. A baby who was born prematurely would meet these milestones a bit later than a full-term baby.

Month one

When your baby was a newborn, they spent much of their time sleeping. However, now they are becoming more socially responsive. They like it when you pick them up, and they may become quite excited when you cuddle them.

Babies go through a number of different states of alertness. The quiet alert state is when your baby is cuddly and still, when they can look into your eyes, listen to your voice, take in their surroundings, and get used to their environment. The active alert state is when your baby moves frequently, looks around, and makes sounds. The other states of alertness are crying, drowsiness, and sleeping. Your baby will cycle through these states over and over again throughout the day.

As your baby gets older, you will be able to help regulate their states of alertness. For example, if your baby started out with their days and nights mixed up, you can provide less stimulation at night by feeding them in a dark room and putting them to bed once they are done feeding. And you can provide more stimulation during the day by playing with them.

Crying is your baby’s only way of communicating at first, and it is important to realize that they will do a fair bit of crying this month. Your baby’s crying will gradually increase in the first weeks of life, peaking at about six weeks.

Month two

This month, babies start to show joy, interest, and distress through their facial expressions. They do this by moving their mouth, eyebrows, and forehead muscles in different ways. Your baby’s facial expressions reflect the emotions they are feeling in the moment, and are not intentional. Emotional expressions communicate in a universal language.

Beginning in the first couple of months, your baby will show great interest in your face and in the faces of their other caregivers. Their ability to maintain eye contact with you will increase steadily. They have a marked preference for looking at faces as opposed to inanimate objects.

Your baby may try to imitate their caregivers’ facial gestures such as sticking out their tongue or opening their mouth very wide, but not those of inanimate objects like dolls that make similar gestures. This means that your baby realizes there are similarities between them and the other people around them. As they get older, your baby will use imitation as a crucial tool for learning new behaviours. They will watch you and their other caregivers, and learn from what they do.

Your baby is starting to become interested in people’s conversations, and how people take turns listening and talking. They will make sounds if you talk to them, and they will wait for you to respond. In fact, if your baby is crying, sometimes you can distract them by simply talking to them.

This is an exciting month on the social scene for your baby, because it is likely to be the time that they break into their first "real" smile! Before this time, your baby’s smiling appeared randomly and most often when they were dreaming or not fully awake. Now, your baby’s smile is more social, meaning that they will smile in response to your smile. This ushers in a new era of face-to-face communication. You can reinforce one another through smiling. Your baby will become better able to soothe them around this time, making them – and you – happier all around.

When you play with your baby, keep in mind that a real live social partner is much better than a toy or video. Interact with your baby, and try not to leave them to watch so-called "educational" videos.

Month three

By about three months of age, your baby’s crying should start to fade.

Smiling sessions with your baby will become increasingly animated and joyful. When things get too emotionally intense for your baby, they will stop gazing at you, and they will look away for a few moments. This is called gaze aversion, and it shows that your baby’s level of arousal is too high. Try to respect your baby’s need for a break or a slower pace.

Your baby will continue to be fascinated by their voice. They will practice making sounds whenever they are happy and content. They will enjoy imitating you and having you imitate them.

Month four

Your baby is getting better at communicating what they need. For example, they will throw their arms up in the air to let you know when they want to be picked up. You, in turn, are getting better at figuring out what their cries mean. Both you and your baby will be happier because of this.

Around this time, your baby will notice your displays of emotion, such as your tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. They may imitate the displays of emotion that they see. If you display negative emotions, they might react in different ways. For example, if you show anger, they might become upset; if you show sadness, they might look away and interact less with you; and if you show fear, they may become fearful. If people around the baby are arguing or fighting, they are likely to pick up on the distressing emotions around them.

Month five

Another lovely social milestone might occur this month: your baby’s first laugh. It is a magical sound, and one that you will do anything to hear.

Although your baby has not yet developed stranger anxiety, they may start to show a difference in the way they react to unfamiliar people. They may tolerate a stranger, but act very quiet and sober around that person. They much prefer being around people that they know, especially you.

Around this time, your baby is able to show anger and frustration through their facial expressions. Remember that they are angry "in the moment" and not angry at you. Try not to take their anger personally or feel that you are inadequate.

They are also starting to let you know what they like and don’t like. If they are eating solids and you offer them something to eat that they don't want, they will turn their head away with a disgusted look on their face. Also, if they want to do something but have not yet learned how to do it, they will let you know how frustrated they feel.

Keep in mind that your baby is communicating with you when they show you how they are feeling. Try to treat your baby’s feelings with respect, and do not downplay them. If your baby is communicating sadness or frustration, try to solve the problem for them. If you are becoming frustrated with their distress, try to calm yourself first, and then you can soothe your baby more effectively. If you are reaching the end of your rope, find a trusted friend or family member to watch your baby so you can cool down. If you are sensitive to your baby’s feelings, in the long run they will be better able to cope with negative emotions, behave more cooperatively, and be mentally healthier. Remember that this is the time to enjoy your baby!

Month six

Your little one may begin to imitate your actions and emotions. If you do something like cough or bang a drum, they may try to do it too. If you smile, they may smile. If you frown, they may look sad, or they may even start to cry. One thing they may particularly enjoy is sticking out their tongue when you do so.

Around this time, your baby may start to turn their head when you call their name. They may begin to follow your gaze and pay attention to what you are looking at. This is the beginning of joint attention, which is your baby’s ability to coordinate their attention with yours or that of another caregiver or friend.

When things get too emotionally intense for your baby, they may do a number of actions in addition to looking away. They may turn their head, arch their back, close their eyes, startle, look at something else, turn to you, start sucking, yawn, sign, or start crying. These are clues that your baby is overstimulated. If you respond by giving your baby a break and a slower pace, they will show less distress overall.

Month seven

In this month, your baby may start to show another important emotion: fear. They may become upset if they see a stranger approaching, if they are given a frightening toy, or if they hear a sudden, loud noise. You, in turn, may become quite protective and tender toward your baby if you see them becoming afraid. Continue to respond in a reassuring way and respect your baby’s feelings, and introduce new things slowly and sensitively.

Your little one likes attention, and they will do what it takes to get it! A good way for them to get your attention is to make a fake cough or some other sound. Peek-a-boo and patty cake are great social games to play with your baby, and by this time, they will thoroughly enjoy them.

Months eight to 10

Around this time, babies show facial expressions that correspond to all of the basic emotions: interest, joy, surprise, anger, sadness, disgust, and fear. These emotions can be experienced one at a time, but more often they blend into many different combinations. For example, with a jack-in-the-box, your baby may show surprise, interest, and joy by laughing. On the other hand, if they hear a loud and sudden noise, they may show surprise and fear by startling and looking scared.

Up to about eight months of age, your baby can feel anger but they generally cannot be "angry at someone" because they do not understand when someone is deliberately thwarting their goal. Around nine months, they're just beginning to be able to interpret people’s actions and whether they are intentionally trying to stop them from doing what they want.

Your baby has become very in tune with other people's emotions. They are adept at reading their faces and figuring out how they are feeling. They continue to enjoy copying other people’s gestures and emotions. Their joint attention continually improves, and by now they can point to an object and make sure you or another caregiver looks at what they are pointing to. Joint attention is crucial for social development and language learning.

They are starting to respond more and more differently to strangers compared to how they respond to familiar people. Some babies may just seem a little bit more serious or less relaxed with strangers, and other babies show very apparent discomfort. Stranger anxiety develops because now your baby can not only tell the difference between familiar and unfamiliar people, but has also developed that sense of fear. Your baby much prefers being around people they are familiar with, and they save most of this affection for you. If you need to leave your baby with someone they don't know, you can help to ease their discomfort by giving them time to get used to the stranger. Let them know that you are comfortable around the new person, and it will help reduce your baby's anxiety.

Fear may activate your baby's system of attachment, and they will show this by trying to stay physically close to you and their other familiar caregivers. They will show a strong preference for you and other very familiar caregivers when they feel afraid, and also if they are distressed, sad, frustrated, or in pain. They will not be as easily consoled by anyone else. Although this may be frustrating for you, showing a preferential attachment is a healthy sign of your baby's social and emotional development.

Throughout this time, your baby will look to you more and more for signals of your emotional reactions, to know if something is safe or not. If they are unsure of what they are doing, they will look to you for reassurance. For example, if you really dislike a certain food and you show this while trying to feed it to your baby, they are likely to start to dislike that food too. As another example, if you are very emotional when dropping off your child at daycare, they will pick up on your fears and become upset. This is what psychologists like to call social referencing.

Months 11 to 12

Towards the end of your baby’s first year, they will become more independent. They will want to feed themselves and do other things on their own such as brushing their teeth. Although it will take patience on your part, try to encourage them to do things for themselves. It will make feeding time and self-care easier in the long run.

At 12 months, your baby still experiences emotions fully and with great intensity. However, as they get older, they will learn to regulate their emotions. This means that they will start to experience their emotions in a milder way. They will find ways to cope constructively with their feelings. For example, if they are fearful, they might not cry and become overwhelmed as they would have when they were younger. Instead, they will turn to you or a familiar caregiver for reassurance.

You can help your baby to regulate their emotions by respecting their communication signals and responding in a soothing manner when they are distressed. Try to tone things down when they become too overexcited.

At some point in these last two months, your baby is likely to say their first words. No doubt, when your baby reaches this milestone, it will be exciting for both you and your baby. As time goes on, and into their second and subsequent years, you will be able to hold a dialogue. This is a new level of communication, with words, but remember that you have been communicating with your baby throughout their entire first year of life!

Last updated: September 21st 2009