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Until recently, most experts believed that babies were not able to experience emotion until they were toddlers able to speak in words. Although babies cannot necessarily express their emotions, new research suggests that feelings develop much earlier than previously believed. Obviously, the way babies experience their emotions is quite different from how adults experience theirs because they lack the same level of self-awareness, but there are some basic similarities.
Happiness, Sadness, and Anger
Babies are able to experience basic emotions such as happiness, sadness, and anger within the first few months of their lives. By the age of 3 months, many babies have developed a social smile as a response to external stimuli, such as an adult smiling at them first. Before then, babies may smile, but those smiles are merely involuntary neurological reactions instead of genuine expressions of emotion. Around this age, babies may also begin laughing to express joy, a sign that they are developing a sense of humour.
Babies can feel sadness for many of the same reasons an adult might, such as loneliness. From an early age, they can experience separation anxiety from their parents, which could lead to feeling sad and lonely.
Anger begins as a distressed response to unpleasant sensations, such as hunger or tiredness. As the baby matures and develops, anger changes from a simple reaction to something bad to more of a response to unmet expectations. By the time a baby is 6 months old, they have formed some basic expectations about the world around them. For example, a baby may expect that their mother will hand them a toy off of a shelf that they cannot reach. If these expectations are not met in a timely manner, the baby will become frustrated, much like an adult who cannot accomplish something they would like to.
Once you know the signs, it is easy to tell the difference between a sad baby and an angry one. Babies express their sadness by crying with a downturned mouth. When a baby is expressing anger, their bodies become tense and they cry with a wide, shouting mouth.
How You Help Your Baby Learn About Emotions
By the age of 3 months, babies are also able to make sense of other people’s happy or sad expressions. This means that your baby may cry because they see you looking upset. Once they get closer to a year old, they begin to take this a step further by using “social referencing” to decide whether a new situation is good or bad. When your baby encounters something they have not seen before, they may look to your face for an indication of how they should react to the new object or situation.
Your baby also learns more about emotions every time you express your own emotions and every time you respond to theirs. For example, if you cry in front of your baby, they learn that crying is a normal phenomenon. When you respond to their cries, they also learn that problems will be fixed and how to cope with their sadness. This helps them learn to regulate their negative emotions.
As your baby gets older and begins to learn how to speak, you can encourage them to put words to how they are feeling. They easily pick up on emotional words such as “happy” and “sad”. Giving these emotions a name is an important step in learning to identify and cope with them.
The most important thing to remember is to make sure your baby feels that their emotions are recognized and respected, even before they can put them into words. Do not dismiss their feelings, no matter how trivial the issue. Acknowledge them and try your best to comfort your child.