How do you know your baby loves you back? Here are a few sweet and surprising ways they show it, from those first few weeks through the toddler years.

By Meagan Francis and Stephanie Dolgoff
Updated July 20, 2021
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Are you wondering, "Does my baby love me?" Let's be real: Newborns aren't going to give the feedback you might desperately want after that grueling labor and those sleepless nights. But as you and your baby get acquainted, you'll start to form a bond, and that can be more meaningful than a big declaration of love.

An image of a mother and her baby.
Credit: Getty Images.

"Attachment is a process," says Debbie Laible, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Lehigh University. When you take care of your baby, they fall more in love with you every day and says thanks in their own ways. Here are 13 signs your baby loves you.

1. They Recognize You

"Within a few weeks, babies can recognize their caregiver and they prefer her to other people," says Alison Gopnik, Ph.D., author of The Philosophical Baby and a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. In part, your infant is just following their nose: In one study, researchers put a nursing newborn between two breast pads, one belonging to their mother. The scent of Mom's milk was enough to get the baby to turn toward that pad.

To help with bonding, become the foremost expert on your baby's cries. Relentless and desperate wails usually mean hunger, abrupt crying might signal pain, and more plaintive tears can point to discomfort. You'll figure it out through trial and error, eventually grasping nuances that will baffle outsiders. The better you know your baby's language, the better you can meet their needs.

"When a baby's distressed and his parents respond, he learns he can count on them for comfort and relief and that he matters," says Linda Gilkerson, Ph.D., director of the Irving B. Harris Infant Studies Program at Erikson University. But don't worry if you can't always nail the wail: "You don't have to be perfect," says Dr. Gilkerson. In fact, she says, research shows that caregivers are in perfect sync with their babies only about 40 percent of the time. What's more important is that you'll learn to recognize and respond when your baby needs you. "Your baby learns 'I can rely on Mom. Even if I cry for a little bit, she gets to me soon enough that I don't fall apart,'" Dr. Gilkerson says.

2. They'll Flirt With You

"Within a month or so of being born, babies respond to the facial expressions of their mothers, and without thinking about it, the moms start doing it right back," says Dr. Gopnik. We're talking about the smiles, the meaningful looks, the coy looking away and back again. These goofy games are important in cementing a baby's attachment—just as much as your responses to their physical needs.

At around 4 months, they'll also be unable to take their eyes off of you. And who can blame them? By then, your baby has gotten accustomed to life on the outside. They can suck and swallow, and they're physiologically more regulated (no longer eating and sleeping like a jet-lagged traveler), so they pay attention to more than their immediate bodily needs, explains Dr. Gilkerson.

Flirt back with your baby—and don't be afraid to use exaggerated expressions. "Face-to-face interaction is part of how babies learn about positive give-and-take," says Dr. Gilkerson. Your child is realizing that with a single look, they can show you how happy they are that you're around—and that it's a feeling worth sharing, since you'll beam back.

3. They Smile, Even for a Split Second

You know those people who say that your baby's early smiles are just gas or an involuntary reflex? Don't listen to them. Recent research indicates that an infant's grin means a lot more. The goofy newborn smiles may be your baby reflecting your own smile. They're instinctively building a bond with you.

The first true social smiles start brightening your days between 6 and 8 weeks. Your baby may smile when they see your face—or Dad's or a big sibling's. They're starting to associate your face with feeling good. The bond deepens!

4. They'll Latch On to a Lovey

Babies often pick a favorite object, like a stuffed animal or a blankie, at around 1 year old. Dr. Gopnik says that these transitional objects symbolize you and your affection, which explains the histrionics if you—heaven forbid!—put it in the wash for an hour. "It represents your love, but in a way your child can control," she says.

Let your child keep their lovey close in situations where they might feel insecure. Don't worry that there's some set time to get rid of it. Chances are they won't be clutching it as they walk down the aisle on their wedding day (though, let's be honest, many of us still have Mr. Fuzzybear tucked away somewhere).

5. They Intently Stare At You

Right from birth, a baby can recognize their mother's voice and smell, says Dr. Laible. The next step is linking those sounds and smells with something they can see. That's why they'll start studying your face as if they're trying to memorize it. In a way, they are. They're making sure they know what comfort—and love—looks like. So next time you catch your baby's eyes locked on you, give them time to drink you in.

6. They Give You Smooches (Sort Of)

Sometime around 1 year old, babies start giving kisses—and they probably won't be chaste pecks. Expect wet and sloppy ones that land on whatever part of you is closest. This enthusiasm shows they've been paying attention to the way Mom shows affection, and they want to do the same, says Richard Gallagher, Ph.D., director of the Parenting Institute at the NYU Child Study Center. Babies are eager learners when it comes to physical affection, and there's no one they'd rather practice on than Mom and Dad.

7. They Hold Up Their Arms

Many babies adore being held from the start, but it takes about 6 months before they have the physical and cognitive abilities to ask for a pick-me-up. It's a body-language expression of how much they've come to trust and adore their parents. And it can be enough, especially on one of those endless days, to make your heart lurch, too.

8. They'll Pull Away, And Then Run Back

You'll start seeing this as soon as your baby crawls. "You're your child's warm, cozy, secure base. But they're also thinking 'Hey, wait! I can crawl! I want to get out there and find out what's in the world!'" Dr. Gopnik explains. So they do, until they get insecure, and they want to get back to the comfort of their parents.

Freedom to explore—and then bungee back to a safe place—is the reason behind this action, so let your baby do it. Of course, for many parents, it's harder than it sounds. But instead of hovering, put your energies into some extra babyproofing.

9. They're Bouncing, Wiggling, and Cheering for You

The way your baby acts when they see you after a few hours—or a few minutes? You'd be forgiven for thinking you're a bit of a rock star. This glee isn't just cute; it's a sign of the deep attachment that's grown between you.

On the flip side are your baby's wails of distress when you leave. It's part of their development, and they'll learn that you always come back. They understand object permanence now (you exist even when you're not around), so it's rough for them to know that the object of their affection is out there and not here to snuggle. Around this age, babies show big emotions, so whether it's heartbreak that you're gone or earthshaking excitement that you're back, one thing is clear: You are loved.

10. They Imitate You

Whoever said imitation is the sincerest form of flattery must have known a baby or toddler. Whether they're lugging a briefcase down the stairs or cooing over a baby doll, they're definitely showing how cool they think you are. Like all people—adults included!—little ones imitate the activities and behaviors of the people they love most, says Dr. Laible.

11. They Run to You When They're Hurt

The fact that your child turns to you for comfort—and then dries their eyes and runs off—means they love and need you. Of course, you may also notice even minor accidents can make for big drama when a parent is around to see it. Yes, there's a plea for attention there, but it really makes your baby feel better to get proof that you love them as much as they love you.

12. They Reserve Bad Behavior for You

What parent hasn't heard "He/she was an angel!" when picking up a toddler from a sitter, then witnessed downright devilish behavior mere minutes later? Toddlers test limits with abandon—but most often with people they love and trust. This isn't exactly the warmest, fuzziest way your child will say they love you, but that's exactly what they're doing.

"You know you've done your job well if he can hold it together in public but saves his blowups for you," says Elizabeth Short, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University. "He knows that you're safe—he can act up and you'll still love him." You may never welcome a meltdown, but at least you can stop thinking your thrashing, screaming toddler is out to get you.

13. They'll Freak Out When You Leave

Starting around their first birthday, and often continuing until they're 3 years old, your child may get upset when you leave—and rejoice when you return. "Separation anxiety is a sign he knows that the person he loves is different from others, and he's beginning to have object permanence—an understanding that people and things don't disappear the minute they're out of sight," says Dr. Gilkerson.

You don't want to reinforce this behavior, because it can be excruciating to listen to your child's wails as you leave them in daycare. Instead, offer reassurance. Say "I know you'll miss me, but Mrs. Rosie will take great care of you and I'll be back to pick you up." Rest assured that they'll be fine, says Dr. Gopnik, and know that you're teaching them to count on you to come back for them later.