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Parents Corner

Mad, Glad & Scared

By Jenny Friedman,PhD

Three-month-old David Powers, of Washington, D.C., always starts his day on a high note. Each morning he wakes up to see his morn and dads smiling faces peering over the crib at him. "Seeing us makes him break into a tremendous grin," says his mother, Stefanie. Is David just copying his parents' smiles because it brings more laughs and smiles, or is he truly happy?

Similarly, do babies experience fear and anger—or are their cries just responses to being hungry or stressed?

Most experts agree that the roots of joy, fear, and anger take hold at a very young age.

Right from birth, babies are social beings, interested in interacting with other people.

Feelings are their first language. As babies get older and learn more about the world around them, their capacity to feel emotions grows with their ability to express them. "It's analogous to the development of speech," explains loe Campos, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.

When children first learn to speak, they don't have perfect grammar. But as they grow older, their language becomes increasingly articulate. Similarly, facial expressions become more sophisticated and precise as your baby grows, so that it becomes more apparent to you exactly what he is feeling.

The number and variety of situations in which infants communicate particular emotions also increases with age. This is because a baby's emotional development is tied so closely to his growing understanding of the world. The ntellect and the emotions unfold together, says Alan Sroufe) professor at the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis.

So while a 3-month-old smiles when his morn walks into the room, by 9 months he can also find pleasure in a silly picture book or finally being able to pick up a banana slice.

Your ability to read and respond to his emotions will lay a foundation of security and trust, helping him form relationships with other people and feel understood and accepted. Here's how the three basic emotions develop in baby's remarkable first year, JOY TO THE WORLD You may have seen your newborn smiling in her sleep and wondered, "Could she possibly be having a good dream?" Probably not. The earliest smiles almost always occur when infants are asleep and are caused by random neurological discharges. "It's a reflex," says Sroufe, "like shivering when you're cold."

When your baby is about 2 or 3 weeks old, she'll start smiling when she's awake in response to gentle touches and sounds, such as your voice.

But the first "real" smile—one of the most thrilling moments of parenthood—doesn't develop until sometime between 8 and 12 weeks. It's broader than the earlier versions, and it's often accompanied by crinkling eyes and delighted coos. These winning grins also have a very real purpose: They encourage caregivers to be nurturing and affectionate, strengthening the attachment between parent and child.

Interestingly, the beginning of the social smile is accompanied by other momentous developmental changes: Your child will probably be less fussy, develop more consistent sleep patterns, and become much more responsive. One reason babies become more responsive is that at around 10 weeks they learn to read and mimic our facial expressions. So when you smile, she smiles back. (Similarly, when you're sad, your baby may frown and look away.)

The next big milestone in your baby's ability to express happiness is her first laugh, which usually happens at around 4 months of age. While the type of comedy that an adult finds funny tends to be very individual, in babies and toddlers humor is more a reflection of their stage of development. At 4 months, physical sensations, like stomach kissing and being swung in the air, are most likely to trigger giggles.

As babies get older, more subtle forms of fun do the trick. Six-month-old Will Barney, of Modesto, California, laughs hysterically when his two older sisters make funny faces and talk in exaggerated voices. A baby's biggest breakthrough is when he starts to laugh at the unexpected— Morn crawling on the floor, for example. This ability to be surprised represents a cognitive advance, because it means the child had a certain expectation (mothers walk, they don't crawl), and he noticed when things were different.

First Fright

Some researchers refer to the earliest form of fear as "wariness." It occurs when a baby locks eyes with someone who doesn't smile or show emotion.

Typically, the baby stares for a moment and then begins to cry. Why? A baby's smile is usually contagious; being met with a stone face makes him nervous.

Children's first full-fledged fears are of being separated from parents and of strangers —and a "stranger" can be anyone who's not you. When your baby hides her head or howls at the sight of your mother, who's just arrived for a long-awaited visit, it's completely normal and nothing your morn should take personally.

In fact, stranger anxiety, which typically sets in at around 8 months, is a good sign—it indicates that your child is attached to you and recognizes you as a special person. Of course, your baby knows who you are before this age. But it's not until the second half of the first year that he can compare you to someone else, which requires the ability to hold two different images in his mind at once. When they play a critical role in how well children manage their feelings.

Recent brain research reinforces the importance of early nurturing to emotional development. It turns out that early attachments actually serve a protective biological function, allowing children to better adapt to difficult circumstances throughout childhood. "What Is essential for healthy development is love and guidance from caring adults," says Alan Sroufe, professor at the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis. "The qualities of the infant-caregiver relationship are the critical features Influencing the course of development." Here's how you can give your baby a head start in emotional health:

  • Respond promptly and accurately to your child's displays of emotion. Comfort her when she cries, and smile at her when she grins.
  • Let your baby know you understand what she's feeling.
  • Remember that more is not always better when it comes to a stimulating environment.

Sometimes your child may prefer to quietly watch you do housework rather than engage in a game or play with a new toy. The type of interaction she prefers will depend on her temperament, her level of development, her interests, and her mood.

  • Babies express preferences. Even as a newborn, your baby will stare intently at sights, sounds, and movements that interest her. She'll let you know how she wants to be held, how she wants to play, and what she wants to look at. Try to respond to these signals.
  • Be aware when your baby no longer shows the same intense interest or delight in your games. She may begin to get fussy, look away, put her fists in front of her face, close her eyes, or go to sleep. Your baby may be telling you she wants to be rocked quietly or nap rather than play more peekaboo.
  • When searching for child-care for your baby, choose a provider who is sensitive and responsive. According to a report on infant brain development issued by the Families and Work Institute, "Secure attachments to consistent child care providers—especially when providers are well trained and care for a small number of children—have been associated with better cognitive and social development, greater language proficiency, and fewer behavior problems."

At the same time your baby is feeling anxious about strangers, separation anxiety surfaces. This desire to keep you in sight at all times is based on another cognitive leap, the development of object permanence. When you're out of your child's radar, he knows you're somewhere, just not with him—an idea that he finds upsetting. Since he lives in the perpetual present, he doesn't know when—if ever—you're coming back.

Separation anxiety usually peaks between 10 and 18 months, then subsides as your child gets close to the age of 2.

At around 8 or 9 months, a baby also develops fears based on sensitivity to the environment. Loud noises, such as the roar of a vacuum cleaner or a screeching siren, can make some little ones cry because they're startled. And at around 10 or 11 months, children learn to be cautious about heights, because this is when they develop the ability to perceive a three-dimensional drop-off.

In one study, babies were placed on a glass table top. On one side of the table there was another surface directly beneath the glass. On the other side, the surface was some distance below, giving the illusion of a drop-off. Five-month-olds noticed the cliff but showed no negative reaction. But 9-month-old babies cried and their heart raced when they perceived the drop.

As children get older, they look to you for cues as to whether they should be afraid. In another version of the above study, researchers encouraged 12-month-olds to cross a glass-topped table while their mother—and a ferris wheel toy— waited on the other side.

None of the babies were willing to cross the table if their mother seemed afraid. But when their mother was smiling and encouraging them to come, three-fourths of the infants made the trip. For these babies, their mothers' smiles indicated that the table was safe.

A child's ability to tune in to his parents' emotional signals increases rapidly between the ages of land 2 years and provides him with a way to understand and interpret the world through the experiences of an adult. This can be both good and bad.

We want our children to be afraid of crossing the street by themselves or of jumping into a swimming pool when no one is there to catch them. But you wouldn't want your child to develop a fear of the water or of dogs just because you're afraid of those things.

The best way to help your child handle fears—whatever they are— is to take his feelings into consideration while giving him manageable ways to cope. For instance:

  • Soothe your child when he becomes distressed, but don't completely avoid stressful situations. Instead, introduce him to novel and unfamiliar events while staying close so he feels secure.
  • Let him greet strangers from the safety of your arms, and try to schedule social occasions for times when he is well-rested and fed.
  • Ask friends to approach him slowly, speak softly, and offer a toy.
  • To help your child deal with separation, have "practice" sessions at home. If he crawls out of your sight, wait a minute or two before you follow him. You can also periodically go into another room for a few seconds, telling your child you'll be right back. If he fusses, call to him that everything is okay. Gradually he'll learn that nothing terrible happens when you're out of sight, and that you always come back.

Anger Unleashed

Anger is a difficult emotion to gauge in babies. The first appearance of an angry expression (a furrowed brow, raised nose, and square mouth) appears between 2 and 3 months. It's not surprising that anger emerges at this point, because that's when babies develop "voluntary reaching," the ability to grab at things.

Now that she can finally go after what she wants, she can also experience the frustration of an obstacle in her way—whether it's her own inability to reach far enough, or the fact that you're taking steps to prevent her from getting her hands on it.

Babies, like everyone else, get mad when they can't have what they want. Once your child can crawl and walk, the situations that anger her only multiply, Lynette Ciervo, of Rockville, Maryland, noticed a dramatic increase in her daughter Sydney's expressions of anger when she began crawling at 7 months. "Having to sit in her high. chair or car seat, or not being allowed to play with an electric cord can really set her off," says Ciervo, whose daughter is now 9 months old. Sydney arches her back, stiffens, and cries when restrictions are placed on her movements. Frustrating though such anger might be, says Cynthia Sifter, PhD, associate professor of human development at Pennsylvania State University, in University Park, it plays an important function: It motivates babies to try again so they can eventually master developmental tasks. A baby who is angry about a toy that is just out of reach will struggle to become mobile in order to grab it, and frustration at the inability to fit a square shape in a round hole may inspire a child to gain important problem solving skills.

When your child is mad, remove the obstacle that is causing the anger, or provide alternative activities to distract her. As your child gets older, talk about her anger at appropriate times. Even before she can understand your words, she'll understand the tone of empathy. Give permission to your child to express her frustrations, but set firm limits on how those emotions are expressed. Say things like, "I know you're mad, but I can't let you hit."

Helping Hands

During the first six months of life, a baby's coping skills are primitive. When life gets too disturbing, he may fall asleep, turn his head when overstimulated, or simply cry. But babies almost always need the aid of others to calm down, whether it's bugging and soothing the child or removing him from the troubling situation. By 10 months, your baby can let you know if he needs assistance by gesturing, calling, or moving toward you for comfort. In the toddler years, parents help in a less direct way by providing guidance and limits.

More complex feelings, like shame, embarrassment, guilt, envy, and pride, emerge at the end of the second year, when the child develops a sense of self. Responding to your child's feelings in a loving way will lay the foundation for a healthy emotional life.

Months 1- 3

  • Cries for assistance Quiets at being held or seeing faces
  • Makes eye contact Responds to mother's smile Responds to human voice
  • Responds to person's presence with excitement
  • Visually prefers person to object
  • Stays awake longer if people interact with him
  • First expression of anger
  • Begins to recognize and differentiate family members
  • Smiles easily and spontaneously
  • Gurgles and coos in response to sounds
  • Tries to attract the attention of parents

Months 4-6

  • Laughs while socializing
  • Vocalizes to initiate socializing
  • May interrupt feedings with play
  • Laughs when tickled
  • Expresses protest
  • Knows parent and siblings; may resent strangers
  • Vocalizes pleasure and displeasure
  • Turns when own name is heard
  • Has abrupt mood changes
  • Smiles at mirror image

Months 7 -9

  • Begins to learn implications of own actions
  • Shows humor and teases
  • Resists pressure to do something undesirable
  • Is learning meaning of "no" by tone of voice
  • Shows desire to be included in social interactions
  • Expressions of anger become more dramatic
  • Is attached to parents; may be wary of strangers
  • Shouts for attention
  • Imitates people and behaviors out of sight and earshot
  • Can recall past events
  • Can solve simple problems
  • Grows bored with repetitive activity
  • Can follow simple instructions
  • May be sensitive to other children
  • May learn to protect herself and her possessions
  • Performs for audience, repeats if act applauded
  • Develops fear based on sensitivity to environment

Months 10-12

  • Grows aware of self and seeks social approval
  • Seeks companionship and attention
  • Fears strange places
  • Gestures to you for comfort
  • Cautious of heights
  • Tries to avoid disapproval
  • Is not always cooperative
  • Gives affection to people and favored objects
  • Reacts sharply to separation from parents
  • Shows emerging sense of humor
  • Cares for baby doll or teddy bear by feeding, cuddling, and bathing
  • Resists napping; may have tantrums
  • Takes cues from parents as to whether he should be afraid or not

Compiled by Elizabeth Hoas

Jenny Friedman, PhD, is a freelance writer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She is the mother of three children.

AMERICAN BABY OCTOBER 1999

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Last modified: January 26, 2013