What's behind your baby's cries and coos.

By Kristen Finello
October 03, 2005

3 Emotions

As you look at your new baby, you probably wonder what he or she is thinking or feeling at that moment. Does crying mean he's sad? Is a smile a true indication that she's happy? While it's tempting to ascribe grown-up feelings and motivations to even very young babies, there are huge differences between adult and baby emotions simply because emotions are tied to cognitive and physical development. Since babies haven't yet gained the experience that adults have, they are unable to experience emotions in quite the same way.

"Generally speaking, emotions begin in infancy in ways that look familiar but aren't true emotional experiences," says Pamela Cole, PhD, a researcher and professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University. For example, the earliest "smile" -- that of a 2- or 3-week-old baby -- is the result of neurological activity, not an indication that the baby is happy, as we might expect. "During the first six months of life, it is not necessarily the case that babies are 'experiencing' emotions," explains Dr. Cole. "For example, when it comes to what we think of as happiness, babies feel the sensation of a good and pleasant state -- which is related to, but not the same as, the concept we have when we say we're happy." For every emotion, the seeds of the emotions we, as adults, feel can be seen in very young babies, but the ability to truly feel those emotions comes later.

Here's a look at how some of your baby's basic emotions -- happiness, anger, and fear -- develop during the first year of life.

Happiness and Anger


"Babies coo early on -- which is how we think that they are feeling well," says Dr. Cole. "Out of this eventually come a smile and a laugh." While a newborn's "smiles" are the result of involuntary neurological activity, at around 3 months of age babies typically develop a "social smile." Instead of their smile being the result of an internal state, babies can now react to external stimuli -- particularly faces, which babies this age love to look at, says Dr. Cole. "An important milestone is when babies are smiling in relation to someone and coordinating their behavior with the other person's." What form does this take? Usually, a face-to-face "conversation" with a caregiver in which the baby coos, the caregiver responds (perhaps by smiling and saying something like, "Yes, you are happy!"), and the baby responds by smiling and cooing some more.


A wailing, red-faced baby may seem angry, but is that an accurate assessment of what he's feeling? Maybe not. What adults might see as anger, a very young baby (under 6 months) feels as the sensations of an unpleasant state -- he could be wet, hungry, or tired, for example. During the first six months of life, it's important for a baby to discover that when he has these sensations -- which will later become emotions -- things will get fixed. Discovering this helps give him a sense of security.

In order to reach the point where they can feel anger as adults do, babies have to go through a building-block process in which they develop the experience and expectations to feel anger and frustration. Between 3 and 6 months, babies are gaining experience with relationships and objects in the world, and as their memories develop, they begin to form expectations of what they think will happen. For example, experience may tell a baby "When I can't reach the ball, Mommy will roll it toward me." If, for some reason, Mommy is delayed in handing over the ball, baby might get angry. "When babies form expectations about what is supposed to happen and it doesn't happen, then they experience distress from not getting what they want," explains Dr. Cole.


"It is not precisely clear when fear develops, but you don't really see fear in young babies," says Dr. Cole. "Fear is not an instinct, it is something that babies learn as they develop a memory." Without the ability to remember things -- such as what situations and people are familiar -- a baby can't determine what's outside the norm and could be a cause for alarm. For example, babies develop stranger anxiety only after they develop a memory and have the ability to realize that they haven't seen that "strange" face before. "Once a child develops an awareness of strangers, then he can develop the capacity to be afraid of leaving the ones he's familiar with. This is separation distress," explains Dr. Cole. Separation distress is most common around 6 to 8 months of age, when babies have developed attachments to their caregivers and don't want to be separated from those people. If a child has a healthy, secure attachment to her caregivers, her distress can be soothed and she'll handle the separation okay, but she'll still be happy to reconnect when that person returns, notes Dr. Cole.

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