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How Your Baby Learns to Love

mother kissing baby

Many parents are surprised when their little ones demonstrate strong feelings of affection -- does a baby or toddler actually have the emotional skills to show such feelings? The answer is a resounding yes. Most children form deep, loving bonds with their parents and friends from a very early age. It starts before a child can verbally express his likes or dislikes, according to Lawrence Cohen, PhD, author of Playful Parenting (Ballantine). Even newborns feel attachment from the moment they're born!

During their time in the womb, babies hear, feel, and even smell their mothers, so it's not hard to believe that they're attached right from birth. But as any adoptive parent will tell you, biology is only part of the love story. Young babies bond emotionally with people who give them regular care and affection. In fact, the first step in ensuring that your baby will bond with others is to attend to his needs in a timely fashion and let him know that he's loved. A baby is dependent on caregivers for everything from nourishment to safety, so her initial bond is very strong, explains D'Arcy Lyness, PhD, a child psychologist and psychology editor for KidsHealth.org. It also sets the standard for what a baby expects in later relationships in terms of emotional security, trust, and predictability. All of your loving care comes back when your baby reaches or babbles to you.

We've all heard that imitation is a form of flattery. This is true for babies too. In fact, imitation is a way in which babies show their preference for certain people over others. You'll see that between 3 and 6 months of age, your baby will try to mimic your actions.

Before 8 months of age, a baby's signs of affection are rather subtle. That is, until stranger anxiety and separation anxiety kick in. Hand your baby to a relative or babysitter -- even someone he's met before -- and he'll cry for you. As flattering as this may seem at first, it'll get old if hysteria sets in every time you leave the room. Fortunately, separation anxiety will lessen over time, and the same tactics you've always employed to make sure your baby feels save and secure -- meeting his needs and showing him love -- will give him the security to explore relationships with others.

It's also around this time that babies start to demonstrate affection for their peers, provided they've spent lots of time with other babies. The signs may be subtle: Your 9-month-old lights up when a friend comes over and is sad when he leaves. You may also notice that as soon as your baby can crawl, he'll go to one special friend, adds Cohen.

Around the 1-year mark, babies learn affectionate behaviors such as kissing. It starts as an imitative behavior, says Lyness, but as a baby repeats these behaviors and sees that they bring happy responses from the people he's attached to, he becomes aware that he's pleasing the people he loves. As a result, your baby will start to use these behaviors more frequently.

For lots of kids, toddlerhood is a prime time for friendship. Toddlers have the memory to recall enjoyable experiences with others, can clearly demonstrate their affection for other kids verbally, and are beginning to understand empathy. Encourage your child to form friendships as a toddler: Studies show that the earlier kids learn to form positive relationships, the better they are at relating to others as teenagers and adults. Playing with peers also helps kids practice social behaviors, such as kindness, sharing, and cooperation, says Lyness.

Even so, how quickly your child develops into a social creature may also depend on his temperament. Some toddlers are very social, but others are shy. In addition, the way that toddlers demonstrate that they like other children is markedly different from what adults think of as expressions of friendship. Research at Ohio State University in Columbus found that a toddler's way of saying "I like you" during play is likely to come in the form of mimicking a friend's behavior.

This seemingly unusual way of demonstrating affection can result in unpleasant behavior. After all, toddlers are still toddlers. Regardless of how much they like a playmate, they may still grab his toys, throw tantrums, refuse to share, and get bossy. But experts say that this is a normal and necessary part of friendship for kids this age. Through play experiences, toddlers learn social rules, says Lyness. That's why it's so important to take an active roll in your toddler's social encounters by setting limits and offering frequent reminders of what they are. When you establish these guidelines, explain the reasons behind them. ("Hitting hurts. If you want a toy, ask for it nicely.")

Begin by helping your child learn compassion ("Ben is crying. What's making him so sad? Maybe he wants the ball and you have it now"), then suggest how he could resolve the problem ("Maybe he would feel better if you give him a turn"). When your child shares or shows empathy toward a friend, praise him. ("Ben stopped crying! You made him feel better.")

Another way to encourage healthy social interaction is by encouraging kids to use words -- not fists -- to express how they feel. It's also important to be mindful of how your child's personality affects playtime. Kids are cranky when they're sleepy or hungry, points out Lyness, so schedule playtime when they're refreshed.

Regardless of how your child makes chums, one thing is certain: Friendships enrich our lives.

Copyright © 2003 AmericanBaby.com.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.