How Your Baby Learns to Love

Most children form deep, loving bonds with their parents at an early age. But how? Read on to learn how your baby learns to love.

black mother smiling at baby
Photo: Getty

Even before your baby is born they get to know the sound of your voice—and the feeling of being wrapped up in your love. Most children can recognize their parent's voice in utero by or around 5 months. But do young children feel love and, more importantly, how do babies express love? Here's everything you need to know about infant compassion, devotion, and emotion.

Do Babies Feel Love?

In short, yes: Babies do feel love. Even though it will be quite a while before they're able to verbalize their feelings, they can and do understand emotional attachment. Affection, for example can be felt. But how do babies come to feel love when everything is new and unfamiliar? By forming a secure attachment, which is a special relationship that involves the exchange of comfort, care, and pleasure.

"Attachment is a process," Debbie Laible, Ph.D. and professor of psychology at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania previously told Parents. "As part of that process, when you take care of your baby, they fall more in love with you every day," she added.

Forming a secure attachment

Forming a secure attachment is something that happens naturally in most cases. This bond is strongest when your baby realizes that if they need to be fed, changed, or is too hot or cold, they can cry out, and you will come Being able to rely on their caretakers forms a secure attachment because your baby knows their needs will be met.

Skin-to-skin bonding

Skin-to-skin is something that's encouraged from moment one. Not only will your voice be familiar and reassuring to your little one, listening to your heartbeat will provide comfort and safety as well.

How Do Babies Express Love?

Even though babies express love through non-verbal communication, the level of affection and intimacy is the same.

The look of love

From the moment they're in your arms, all you want to do is snuggle, cuddle, and look into their beautiful little eyes. And yes, when your baby is awake and alert, that's one of their favorite things to do, too. They do this as part of the attachment process.

They recognize your smell

Aside from snuggling up to you for a nursing session, babies also feel comfort recognizing your smell. Before they're even born, your newborn has developed a sense of smell that makes you familiar and helps them recognize you even before they can clearly see you.

Cuddles and nuzzles galore

Choosing to snuggle into your arms and chest is a sign of affection for babies the same way it is for adults. It's a way of saying I trust you and feel comfortable with you, and connect on an emotional level.

Do Babies Like Hugs, Kisses, and Other Signs of Affection?

Clearly, there are many different ways in which babies express their affection for their parents and caregivers. But do they enjoy being on the receiving end? In short, yes. These signs of affection are all part of forming a secure bond.

"When a baby's distressed and their parents respond, they learn they can count on [their parents] for comfort and relief and that they matter," Linda Gilkerson, Ph.D. and director of the Irving B. Harris Infant Studies Program at Erikson University previously told Parents.

At What Age Do Babies Learn How to Love?

So now that we know how babies express their love and how important secure attachments are, let's dive into what social-emotional milestones you have to look forward to.

1 to 3 months old

Around this age, your baby will develop a social smile. When you play with them, and they feel safe and comforted, they'll give you a little grin. This is also when they might cry or be upset if you stop playing peek-a-boo before they're ready to be done. They communicate and express themselves by making faces and wiggling around.

4 to 6 months old

They say imitation is the highest form of flattery, and that's particularly true when it comes to babies. Around 4 to 6 months, your little love bug will start mimicking your facial expressions. When they're excited and happy, they'll know to smile. And don't forget to keep an ear out for the most adorable noise of all: their intentional laugh and little giggles.

7 to 9 months old

This is probably one of the less endearing—but equally necessary—phases of your baby's social-emotional development: Yes, we're talking about stranger danger, that time when your baby wants nothing to do with anyone who isn't you. The good news is this is just a phase. As time goes on, your little love bug will realize that not all new people are something to worry about. Maybe the babysitter or great-aunt can win them over by playing a few games with them, as they are also really into that by this time. But be patient. This takes time. In the interim, remind yourself this attachment is an expression of their love.

10 to 12 months old

The moment you've finally been waiting for! Your baby is at the age where they might not be talking just yet, but they've started making connections between the words you say and the feelings that go along with them. Just wait for it. After they've mastered the coveted "mama" or "dada," "I love you" will be right around the corner!

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