First Feelings

Can an infant understand when you're happy or sad?

Q: My husband thinks that our infant daughter understands when we're angry or sad. Isn't she too young to know this?

A: While babies can't understand the complexity of a situation, they can tell the difference between a parent who is happy and one who is sad. Even infants as young as 4 months are able to distinguish different emotions in adults, revealed a recent study from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ. Researchers used the game of peekaboo to act out anger, fear, and sadness for the babies and found that they reacted differently to each one. For example, over the course of the experiment the infants paid more attention in response to anger and avoided looking when sadness was conveyed. "These patterns suggest that the babies are sensitive to the meaning of each expression," according to Diane Montague, Ph.D., study researcher and currently an assistant professor of psychology at La Salle University in Philadelphia.

"Minor conflicts in front of the child are fine and, if handled constructively, eventually teach her that there's an appropriate way to deal with them," she explains. "But full-blown confrontations, particularly on a regular basis, are best handled away from the child."

To encourage healthy emotional development, set aside special time each day for fun when you and your baby are feeling well rested and alert. In addition to playing familiar games such as patty-cake, try reading books and singing songs.

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