By Talaris Institute
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Even very young babies can recognise and respond to some emotions on their parents’ faces. This suggests that emotional development begins very early. You can encourage your baby’s emotional development by showing your feelings in your face.

Toddler crying

Did you knowQuestion mark symbol

Fear is one of the basic emotions all children have. It begins to show up at around 7-8 months. That's the age when your baby might start to get upset when you leave the room.

 

For example ...

It’s a beautiful summer day. Dad and his 10-week-old baby, Ryan, are relaxing on a blanket outside. Dad leans over Ryan and smiles and coos happily as his baby looks up at him. Baby smiles and dad is thrilled. Suddenly, the family dog bounds into this perfect world, disturbing the moment and knocking over a glass of lemonade.

Not pleased, dad immediately turns to the dog, shouts at him, and shoos him away. As he turns back to his baby, an expression of anger is still on his face. Ryan looks at his dad’s face and begins to cry. Dad immediately senses his baby’s reaction. He scoops him up, cuddles him and soothes away his tears.

What happened there? Was Ryan’s smile a real expression of contentment or was he simply mirroring his dad’s facial expression? Was Ryan’s response to his dad’s anger a real emotional reaction? What do babies feel and when do they start to feel it?

Emotions start early

Babies are emotional beings right from birth. From several different experiments, we know that babies respond to emotional expressions, like a big smile on your face, within the first few weeks of life. Many researchers now think that within three months babies can react to and express five ‘basic’ emotions:

  •  joy 
  •  interest 
  •  anger 
  •  sadness 
  •  disgust.

Most think babies are born with these emotional abilities to help them form strong bonds with their caregivers, thus helping them survive. That really is quite amazing, considering it wasn’t long ago an infant’s smile was considered to be relatively meaningless. Now we know better.

Although their emotions are not fully developed, infants are already beginning to show hints of an emotional life.

Finding out about babies’ emotions

Infants can’t talk about their emotions – at least not yet! So to find out about young children’s emotions, researchers created experiments that looked at how babies responded to the emotional expressions they could see and hear. Would they react at all? Would they simply copy the emotions they saw?

In one experiment, researchers wanted to know if 10-week-old babies would respond to their mothers’ expressions of happiness, sadness and anger with emotional expressions of their own. When the babies were calm, their mothers would show them an emotion, like happiness, and the babies’ responses were recorded on videotape.

How babies respond to emotions

Here are some of researchers’ observations:

  • The babies responded differently to each of the three expressions their mothers presented, showing that they could tell the difference between happiness, sadness and anger.
  • The babies’ reactions changed as their mothers repeated their expressions, showing that they weren’t simply copying the emotions that they saw.
  • The babies first reflected back their mothers’ joyful expressions. But as the mothers repeated this expression, the babies’ reactions changed to interest and excitement.
  • The mothers’ angry expression caused some infants such distress they could not complete the experiment. Other babies responded with expressions of anger, and then stopped reacting at all.
  • When the mothers exhibited a sad expression, some babies responded by sucking their tongues and lips, something they had not done at any other time.
From these results, researchers concluded that babies are able to perceive and respond to a range of emotional expressions. Babies only 10 weeks old are doing more than just copying the emotions they see.

Another experiment focused on how often babies showed four different expressions (interest, joy, sadness and anger). They found that more than half of the time, babies as young as 2 ½ months old responded to their mothers with their own expression of interest. Babies showed sadness the least often.

These results fit well with what we know – babies are wonderfully inquisitive and it’s their job to learn how to interact with the people around them. These researchers also believe that babies’ expressions of interest and joy could have a positive effect on their mothers. This last observation comes as no surprise to those parents who have spent any time playing peekaboo with their babies.

Helpful parenting tips

  • Spend lots of time interacting with your baby and enjoying these precious responses. You and your baby are discovering more about each other every day. It’s an exciting adventure.
  • Smile, laugh and play facial games. Be aware that your angry or sad face will affect how your baby reacts.
  • Take your baby’s emotional expressions seriously and respond to them.
  • Watch and learn how your baby’s emotions develop over time.
  • Most of all, have fun … it will show on your face.
Despite these fascinating experiments, we can only assume that babies’ expressions reflect their inner emotions or feelings. After all, we can’t ask them. But even if we don’t know for sure what babies are feeling, we know that they are watching and responding to our emotions.
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  • Diego, M. A., Field, T., Hart, S., Hernandez-Reif, M., Jones, N., Cullen, C., Schanberg, S., & Kuhn, C., (2002). Facial expressions and EEG in infants of intrusive and withdrawn mothers with depressive symptoms. Depression and Anxiety, 15, 10-17.

    Lewis, M. (2000). The emergence of human emotions. In M. Lewis & J. M. Haviland-Jones (Eds.), Handbook of emotions, 2nd ed., 265-280. New York: The Guilford Press.

    Lewis, M., Alessandri, S., M. & Sullivan, M. W. (1990). Violation of expectancy, loss of control, and anger expressions in young infants. Developmental Psychology, 26(5), 745-751.

    Haviland, J. M., & Lelwica, M. (1987). The induced affect response: 10-week-old infants' responses to three emotion expressions. Developmental Psychology, 23(1), 97-104.

    Izard, C. E., Fantauzzo, C. A., Castle, J. M., Haynes, O. M., Rayias, M. F., & Putnam, P. H. (1995). The ontogeny and significance of infants' facial expressions in the first 9 months of life. Developmental Psychology, 31(6), 997-1013.