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Social and Emotional Development

Emotional and Social Development - Infant

At this age, your infant's emotional and social development is one and the same—and it grows from your infant's relationship with you.

Infants' emotions are seen when they feel pleasure or distress in different situations. A well-fed, sleepy, and comfortable baby will be very peaceful. This satisfied state can quickly give way to frantic crying when an infant is hungry, uncomfortable or has a wet diaper.

As an infant's brain develops, they will smile and coo when they like something. They will become excited about people, toys, and food. They will also let you know they're unhappy if they dislike their bath, have to wait for food, or are left sitting in their car seat or stroller for too long.

Infants have almost no ability to control their emotions and will, at times, be overwhelmed, even with things that usually make them feel good. They need your help to feel comforted. At this stage, your infant's emotions are expressed with three messages: "I like it", "I don't like it", and "I need you."

Infants will give you cues to tell you how they are feeling:

  • I like it-they will be quietly alert, look relaxed, watch with interest, brighten, and smile. Your response to this cue can be to play, talk, sing, read, and have fun.
  • I don't like it-they will put their hand up, turn away, look tense, partly close their eyes, wrinkle their nose or lip, or whimper. Stop or change the activity or let your infant rest. Follow your baby's lead. Limit the things she doesn't like as much as you can and stop when she tells you "enough".
  • I need you-your baby will reach for you, look at or search for you, lean or crawl toward you, and be more vocal or cry. Comfort your infant, especially when she is ill, hurt, or upset. You won't always be able to stop the crying, but you can always be there for your infant.

Share in your infant's happiness and excitement with smiles and encouragement. As much and as often as you can, show your infant your love, joy, and other positive feelings. Let your baby explore her world, but also let her know that you will protect her.

The more secure your child is in her relationship with you, the more her self-esteem (how she thinks about herself) will grow. Secure attachment (the emotional tie that helps your baby know you will protect and comfort her) in your baby's first year is the foundation for all future relationships and learning.

If these feelings or actions of closeness don't come naturally to you, you are not alone. Help is available. Call Health Link Alberta and ask for information about attachment-based programs for parents.

Your child's social and emotional development can be greatly affected by circumstances such as ongoing stress, family violence, neglect, or abuse. If this is a problem for you or your family, help is available. Call Health Link Alberta for more information.

Your Baby's Temperament

Part of what makes a baby unique right from birth is the way they respond to the world around them. For example, some babies are quiet and seldom cry; others are more vocal and cry more often. Some babies never seem to hold still; others seem to be content to stay in one place. Some welcome anything new with smiles and excitement; others greet new experiences with tears and anxiety.

The pattern of a child's response is called temperament. Everyone has their own temperament-even you. Temperament helps explain why children in the same family with the same parents act and react differently to the same things.

Child development experts often refer to three types of temperament:

  • Easy or flexible: These children adapt quickly to change, are most often in a good mood, and tend to show their emotions (both happy and sad) in a moderate way.
  • Slow-to-warm-up: These children tend to take more time to adapt to change, often seem shy, and show their emotions more mildly.
  • Intense: These children have trouble getting used to any change, get into a negative mood easily, and have strong emotional reactions.

Many children have a mixture of these characteristics.

Your child's temperament is what it is—he was born with it. Your temperament may be very different from your child's. You can't change either one, but you can find different ways to work with your child's individuality. This doesn't simply mean you say, "Well, that's just the way my child is." It means working out a good match with your child. For example, if your child has a hard time meeting new people and you enjoy meeting new people, you need to find a balance between your needs and your child's needs. This is called "goodness of fit". While a child's basic temperament won't change, what your child experiences and how you respond can often change the way they see themselves and their world. Your understanding and willingness to work with your child is very important to your child's healthy development.


Crying is one way your baby communicates. Babies cry when they need something (ex: food, a diaper change, a cuddle, some comfort) or when they don't feel well. You will soon be able to figure out what your baby's cries mean.

You can't spoil a baby by picking them up when they're crying. Crying infants who are consistently picked up and comforted in their first 6 months tend to cry less in the next 6 months of their lives.

Almost everyone's heard an infant cry. As a new parent you'll soon learn that your baby cries differently for different reasons. A crying baby does not mean that a baby is "bad" or angry with you. At times, babies cry for no apparent reason. Sometimes they can't stop, nor can they be comforted, no matter what you do (and this does not mean that you are a "bad" parent either). If you are worried about your baby's crying, talk to your doctor or public health nurse.

You can try to soothe a crying infant in several ways:

Make baby comfortable

  • Snuggle baby close to your chest; your heartbeat may soothe him.
  • Offer a favourite blanket or soft toy while cuddling.
  • Check the back of your baby's neck to see if he is too hot or cold (sweaty or cool to touch).
  • Check baby's diaper; babies like to be clean and dry.
  • Encourage your baby to suck.
  • Give your baby a gentle back rub.

Gentle motion

  • Gently walk or rock with your baby. Use a baby swing if you have one; make sure the safety strap is fastened.
  • Take your baby for a walk in a stroller.
  • Carry your baby in a sling or baby carrier.
  • Some babies like to go for a car ride; make sure they're secured in an infant car seat.

Sound and music

  • Try humming or singing a lullaby.
  • The sound of a vacuum cleaner, clothes dryer, or dishwasher can sometimes calm a baby.

Check your environment

  • Is the radio always playing?
  • Is the TV always on?
  • Are people always coming and going?

Too much activity can overstimulate babies and young children, leading to fussing and crying.

Some babies like lots of activity; others find too much activity overwhelming and may need to move to a quieter place for a while. By watching your child's response, you'll soon learn what he needs.

The Pattern of Crying

All babies cry and some babies cry more than others. You may find that crying can be very frustrating. Understanding infant crying won't make your baby stop crying, but it can help you get through the first few months.

Research shows that the crying patterns of normal, healthy infants are very similar.

Parents find it helps to know that crying:

  • peaks around 2 months of age and decreases after that
  • can come and go unexpectedly for no apparent reason
  • can sometimes continue despite the efforts of caregivers. Sometimes, babies just can't stop crying.
  • can make healthy infants look as if they are in pain, although they might not be
  • can go on for 30 to 40 minutes or longer
  • happens more in the afternoon and evening

When your baby can't stop crying

Stay calm. Although they generally quiet when comforted, most babies have times during their day when they are unable to stop crying. Some babies will cry more often and others will cry for longer periods. If you are getting frustrated or angry, place your baby in a safe place, such as the crib, leave the room and gently shut the door. Take a 10-minute break to give yourself a chance to calm down before trying to comfort your baby again. Letting your baby cry for a few minutes will not harm them; getting frustrated and shaking your baby can be deadly.

Never shake a baby. Frustration with being unable to comfort a crying infant is the most common reason given for shaking a baby. Make sure that everyone who looks after your baby knows not to shake them.

Plan ahead and find someone who can help you. Try to arrange for regular child care so you can get some rest. Ask a trusted friend or relative to act as an immediate backup for times when the crying is too much for you to handle and keep their phone numbers nearby. Sometimes just talking to someone can be enough to get you through. Remember, you can call Health Link Alberta anytime at 1-866-408-LINK (5465) toll free.


Long periods of crying, generally more than three hours a day and more than three times a week, are often called colic. Colic tends to follow the same pattern as normal infant crying - it increases at 2 weeks, peaks in intensity at 5 to 7 weeks, and gradually decreases, usually by 3 to 4 months of age. It may seem as if colic will never end. If you think your baby has colic, see your doctor to make sure there are not any medical causes. You can also talk to your public health nurse about feeding and coping.

Take good care of yourself too - colic is very hard on parents. Try to get as much help as you can and keep responding to your baby, even if it doesn't seem to be working. Your infant will know that you are trying.

From "Growing Miracles", Alberta Health Services, 2010.
Reprinted with permission.

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