bond with baby

Develop & Learn

Social & Emotional Development

Babies are born as social and emotional beings already 'programmed' to absorb the interactions of loving parents. With every moment of interacting, babies are learning to anticipate parents' consistent and predictable actions, which build on the their sense of security and self-confidence, and ultimately their secure attachment (see Bonding and Beyond → Infant Attachment). So parents' sensitivity and gradual introduction to the world in which they live support babies' emotional and social well-being.

With such nurturing babies also develop a sense of trust within the first year as described in the theory of psychosocial development devised by Erik Erikson. Without parents' qualities of sensitivity and consistency of caregiving, babies can develop feelings of mistrust resulting in a fear of their environment and those around them. So a baby is learning which people (other than Mum/Dad) are caring or threatening, funny or dull and what situations present to be safe or scary. Furthermore, the positive partnership that your baby forms with you is the root to his development of emotional and social competency into childhood.

Below is a general guide to babies' social and emotional development within the first year:

  • Baby in HandsDuring the first few weeks after birth babies' initial signs of needing and enjoying social interactions occur as they gaze into their parent's face and listen to the sensitive tone of speech, when nestled in safe arms and feeling warmth from the use of gentle touch. Babies' enjoyment is shown by movements of their mouth and tongue, as though they are trying to smile. These mouth movements continue to develop (which is also associated with their physical development) and from as early as 3 weeks some babies begin to really show a smile.

Note: Scientific findings have shown that what used to be thought of as 'babies having wind' when they show pursing of their little lips is actually the development of a smile!!! This smile then progresses to babies showing their delight at being in the company of Mum/Dad during loving interactions.

  • Baby Waving HandsFrom 4-12 weeks further signs of babies' enjoyment of parents' loving and playful interactions are shown by their excited movements e.g. 'waving' like hand gestures as they concentrate on Mum/Dad's vocal and facial expressions and gestures. To indicate how sensitive and emotionally 'tuned' they are, babies at 4 weeks of development prefer to focus on a smiling adult's face than an unhappy face. From 6-12 weeks of age research shows that if a mother's happy, playful interactions are interrupted by her looking away for a moment, and then she looks again at the baby with a blank-faced expression, the baby can become distressed. Such findings reinforce babies' early understanding of the emotions of others and how much they need and want the loving contact of parents.
  • By 3 to 4 months babies are really showing their social skills as they partner their parents in having fun. By now, parents' 'goofy' playful sounds will bring on their baby's laughter/giggles. Babies' playfulness is further displayed as they begin to anticipate parents' actions in playing games associated with nonsense rhymes, playsongs, knee jogging, hand-clapping and peek-a-boo.

Four BabiesBabies in a group situation at this age (and further developing in the following months) are also starting to show signs of their enjoyment in being sociable together. I have watched with great delight as babies in small groups play on the floor, reaching out trying to touch hands and look at each other, and then begin to 'talk' to each other. Babies are truly 'programmed' as social little being. (See the difference in development of the younger baby second from the left in the photograph to the others - it shows how much overall development occurs within a few months.)

  • From 4 to 6 months they are becoming more aware of the people and the environment around them. Depending on the parent's communicative ability to attract the baby's attention and the baby's interest in these actions, he may focus more attention toward the environment than to his parent. However, from my research (including the use of the Songs, Rhymes and Music) and that of others, babies remain stimulated when their parent/s playfully vary facial and vocal expressions of joy, and surprise/suspense in games such as peek-a-boo. By this age babies are very aware of other emotions displayed in facial expressions. Research shows that an adult's facial expressions of fear, sadness and anger cause babies to become distressed.
  • Infant Banging Drums By 6 months and into the second half of their first year babies are physically energetic and have the desire to explore their environment and delight in 'showing off' to an audience of familiar people. Now that they are physically becoming more capable and asserting some independence, babies display intense pleasure from their ability to imitate other people's actions (e.g. hand clapping, banging on objects such as beating a 'drum', which can be as simple as banging a saucepan!) and create their own games of playful behaviour - yet there will also be moments of them showing their frustration.

By now they know what they want but may not have the physical capability to achieve it or the language skills to say what they want. Despite the outbursts of frustration, their vocal cheerfulness is all part of fun-loving development indicating they are now showing social and emotional competence. This stage also sees babies learning to imitate social actions e.g. waving 'bye-bye' and blowing a kiss.

During this stage, babies are developing stranger anxiety - showing their awareness of unfamiliar people. Baby may show distress at an unfamiliar adult paying attention to her, or could for example, be frightened by someone wearing spectacles if she hasn't seen this before. Research suggests that such reactions show babies can sense possible danger, which becomes a protective element for their own wellbeing. By showing distress/crying they are alerting their parents that they are frightened and need protection. Eventually babies become familiar with the world around from the supportive social experiences parents provide (such as meeting with other parents and babies, going on outings).

Separation anxiety from parents (especially Mum if she has been primary caregiver) can also start during this later half of the first year and can continue into the early years. During the first 6 months, you and Baby have developed a secure, loving partnership and when you are away from her she may feel insecure causing anxiety so she becomes distressed e.g. Baby begins daycare in an unfamiliar environment and with a carer whom she has not yet developed a feeling of trust. However, through repetition of gradual separation from you, and with consistent sensitivity of the carer, Baby will develop a sense of trust, which will relieve her anxiety.

A general guide to babies' social/emotional development during the first year: