When does a child’s emotional development start?

image with baby in uterus

Although we have already made great progress studying babies before birth, it remains difficult to study the emotions of a baby in the womb. And yet we are learning more all the time. Even in the womb, emotions are accompanied by the production of hormones.

That part of the emotions can be measured physically. Being startled is the consequence of emotions and it is perceivable. You can see and feel that a baby in the womb already has emotions.

If there is a sudden loud noise near you, your baby reacts with a strong turning movement or a kick. They are startled. Some babies even seem to get startled by an echo and try to hide behind the pubic bone.

Emotions in the first year

The first year is exceptionally important as a basis for healthy emotional relationships. Just after birth a baby still responds instinctively. Your little child explores and learns with their senses. Contact is therefore very important: talking, cuddling, and eye contact. Your baby will soon start seeking out contact with others. They will try to get your attention by crying, smiling, or making sounds.

By the time a baby is approximately three months’ old the frequency of interaction increases. They laugh or smile when someone else laughs or smiles. Or they hold out their arms to be picked up, and you will hear a greater range of emotions when they cry than before. At around seven to eight months, your baby gets a better understanding of intonation and mimicry. And at around nine months, baby gets their ‘own consciousness.’ At this time, they are more fearful of being left alone.

Even if you just pop into the kitchen, your baby may ‘think’ that you have disappeared completely. You can thus understand that secure attachment bonds are very important for your baby during this period.

Emotions in the second year

In the second year your (still egocentric) child starts learning what other people do or do not like. Sharing is difficult: little children simply grab and pull toys out of each others’ hands for instance. Neither do they understand that something like pulling hair, or tugging at a cat or dog’s tail can hurt the other. Your child learns from the reactions their actions provoke.

You will also notice your child becoming increasingly helpful (by wanting to assist with the housekeeping, for example) and wanting to show their love (such as by giving a kiss). You will also notice that they join in ‘waving goodbye’ to visitors. Furthermore, your child’s vocabulary is continually growing.

That means: being better able to indicate what they do and do not want, an increased interest in other children and getting better at being able to play with others. By the end of the second year, your child is developing a strong personal will (‘me do’, tantrums and stubborn behavior).

So also in the second year, your child is occupied with laying the foundations for (social) emotional development.