Your Baby’s Emotional Development

Babies of all cultures smile, frown, and cry with the same facial and vocal expressions. Your baby’s first emotions are instinctual responses to internal states or external stimuli. He can feel before he can think. When he is wet or hungry, he feels discomfort and communicates it by crying, groaning, or arching his back. When he is satisfied and content, he expresses his feelings by smiling, making eye contact, and cooing.

As your baby grows, these primary emotions branch off into secondary emotions, and eventually develop into more complex emotions. Your child learns about and develops feelings that vary in intensity, frequency, and duration. His unique rate of development, experiences, physical constitution and condition, hormones, gender, language, culture, temperament, and personality influence his emotions and how he expresses and interprets them.

Your baby’s emotions are tied to experiences, memories, and associations that color his lens of perception. His first relationships become the structure upon which he builds other relationships. For example, his experiences with his first caregivers create a filter for his view of reality, his beliefs, and his attitudes, which in turn becomes the foundation of his worldview. He adds experiences, memories, and associations to this worldview throughout his life, but the supportive foundation is established in his first three years.

He adds experiences, memories, and associations to this worldview throughout his life, but the supportive foundation is established in his first three years.

Knowledge about your baby’s emotional developmental stages helps you mindfully provide for his needs and wants. For instance, when you know that it is natural for a nine-month-old to be shy, you can be understanding and compassionate about his behavior when a stranger approaches him. When your two-year-old throws a temper tantrum, you can set boundaries patiently as you realize that he is expressing his independence.

Earlier and faster development is not necessarily better because healthy development builds upon the successful completion of the previous stage. Though each child moves at his own pace, experts agree that children share certain general stages in social-emotional development. The milestones discussed throughout this article are flexible guidelines that can vary from child to child. You can use them to enhance your understanding of your baby’s emotional and social growth and to become aware of any issues that may warrant outside guidance from a professional.

Primary emotions develop during the time from birth to 3 months. First emotions are categorized as pleasant or unpleasant, positive or negative.

baby discomfort and contentment faces

Secondary emotions develop during the time from 3 to 7 months. His emotions become more distinct, as he becomes more aware of himself and his environment. 


sadness, anger, fear, surprise, joy

Complex emotions develop during the time from 18 to 24 months. His emotions become more sophisticated, as he develops his sense of self and relationships with others. 


pride, eagerness, embarrassment


Birth to 3 months:
  • He has pleasure and annoyance with people or experiences.
  • At first, his smile is an involuntary neurological activity. Later he develops a social smile that is spontaneous and invites interaction.
  • He expresses his emotions through behavioral or facial expressions such as crying, cooing, or smiling.
  • He begins to imitate and engage reciprocally.
  • He distinguishes his parents from others and recognizes the way one person holds him from another.
3 to 6 months:
  • He anticipates the bottle or breast before feeding.
  • He smiles and laughs when he sees you.
  • He shows excitement by waving his arms and legs.
  • He has a distinct cry when hungry and laughs at active stimulation.
  • He makes high-pitched squeals and sounds such as, ”ah,“ ”eh,“ and ”ugh.“
  • He may comfort himself with his thumb or pacifier.
  • He can be comforted most of the time.
6 to 12 months:
  • He insists on doing things by himself.
  • He pushes away things that he does not want.
  • He enjoys daily routines.
  • He responds to his own name.
  • He enjoys social play and reciprocal exchanges with caregivers.
  • He reaches for familiar people, and he can be wary of strangers.
  • He prefers his primary caregiver to others and cries when his caregiver leaves the room.
  • He may comfort himself by sucking his thumb or pacifier, or holding a special blanket.
12 to 18 months:
  • If you hold out your hand, he will put a toy or an object into it.
  • He greets people with “hi” and gives hugs and kisses to show affection.
  • He starts to show feelings in a more tangible way by squeezing, holding on, and expressing positive emotions.
  • He reacts to changes in daily routines.
  • He may show obstinacy and defiance.
  • He may express separation anxiety and possessiveness.
18 to 24 months:
  • He has a rapidly expanding vocabulary, which helps him to express his feelings.
  • He responds to “no” and sometimes says it himself.
  • He plays alongside other children.
  • He shows enthusiasm.
  • He does not like to be left alone.
  • He may experience frustrations and temper tantrums.
  • He shows self-conscious emotions of shame, embarrassment, guilt, and pride.
  • He shows sympathy and empathy to other children and reaches out to comfort them.
24 to 36 months:
  • He plays independently.
  • He uses pronouns and follows multistep instructions.
  • He becomes consciously aware of himself as separate from others.
  • He imitates the behavior of others.
  • He gives directions to other children.
  • He plays games cooperatively with other children.
  • He enjoys dramatic play and pretends to be familiar role models.
  • He shows compassion and affection for friends and toys.
Grow Healthy. Grow Happy. Guide
By Grow Healthy. Grow Happy. The Whole Baby Guide. ™

A comprehensive and accessible resource for natural baby care. Nurture your baby with nature's principles for a radiant life. Grow Healthy. Grow Happy. The Whole Baby Guide is a complete resource for parents to give their babies a healthy beginning for the first three years.

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