Handbook of Language and Literacy Development - a Roadmap from 0 to 60 Months

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Social-Emotional Development (0-3 Months)click to print Print
Research Review / Parent

Written by: Michaela Jelen and Veronica Smith, University of Alberta

Introduction to Emotional and Social Development

Social and emotional growth plays many roles in children's overall development. Social and emotional capacities develop in the early months of life and are critical to the development of language and literacy across the lifespan. The most significant social influences in infants' lives are their parents/caregivers. The relationship between infants and their parents is critically important for organizing and supporting early social and emotional development. In this discussion of social and emotional development, we will focus first on infants' developing interests and abilities and then address the features of caregiver support that encourage and promote infants' social and emotional development.

Babies' Interests and Abilities that Support Emotional and Social Development

Understanding of Emotional Expressions

Infants' emotional experiences play an important role in how they sort out their relationships with caregivers, explore their immediate surroundings, and discover themselves. You may have noticed that newborns have the ability to express basic emotions such as happiness, anger, sadness, and fear. You may also have noticed that their ability to respond to the emotions of others grows over the first year of life.

Infants cannot describe their feelings and so the challenge for caregivers during the first few months of life is to determine exactly which emotions their infants are experiencing. Although vocalizations and body movements provide some information, facial expressions are telling and offer the most consistent cues. Emotions that are most consistent in the early weeks of life are happiness or distress.

Expressions of Happiness. During the early weeks of life newborn babies smile after they are fed and during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Babies also smile in response to gentle touches such as stroking of their skin, and soft, high-pitched sounds of the mother's voice, and to rocking. By the end of the first month of life, infants smile at interesting sights, especially those that are vibrant and eye-catching.

Between 6 and 10 weeks of age, babies start to demonstrate a broad grin that is called the 'social smile'. For instance, Chayton's mother has noticed that Chayton will smile contentedly after he has been breast-fed. He also smiles when he hears his mother talking to him as he is lying in his crib kicking at his mobile. Mahdi's mother wonders how Mahdi perceives two shirts that she wears, one shirt has busy patterns on it and the other is covered in small sequins. Each time she wears one of the two shirts, Mahdi appears mesmerized by the patterns and colours. She stares at the shirt for up to 30 seconds at a time and often has a pleasant smile on her face. Mahdi is also starting to smile when she closely observes her mother's face as she looks at her.

Distress/Crying. Newborn babies respond with generalized distress to a variety of unpleasant experiences that include hunger, painful medical procedures, changes in body temperature, and either too much or too little stimulation. At 2 months of age, Mahdi received her first immunization shot. She was highly distressed during the experience and screamed for thirty minutes following the procedure.

Chayton gets very fussy if he has not eaten for more three hours. He expresses his displeasure by crying and making whining sounds. Chayton also becomes upset if he is not held on a regular basis or when he is put down to fall asleep on his own because he prefers to be rocked to sleep. As Mahdi and Chayton grow, their happiness and distress emotions will become more refined and the signals to their parents/caregivers will become more obvious.

Emotional Self-Regulation

In the early months of life, infants have only a limited capacity to control their emotional states. Although they can turn away from an unpleasant stimulation, they are easily overwhelmed by what is happening to them. They seek the soothing interventions of a caregiver such as rocking, and talking softly in order to calm them down and to put them at ease. When Chayton becomes upset, he constantly sucks on his fingers and often puts his whole hand in his mouth. He usually calms down when his mother or father take him up and rock him from side to side.

Parents who respond right away to their child's emotional cues tend to have babies who are less fussy, more easily soothed, and more interested in exploration. This interest in the world around them is a basic building block of language development. Mahdi's mother is highly attentive to her signals of distress. She has learned that before Mahdi starts to cry and become highly upset, Mahdi will start to whimper quietly and rub her face. When her mother sees these signs she often picks her up and talks quietly and softly to her.

Parents who do not respond to their babies' emotional cues right away and wait to intervene when the child has reached a high level of distress will reinforce the baby's rapid rise to intense distress. Frequent intense levels of stress may prevent opportunities for the child to develop coordinated attention with caregivers, an essential activity for language-learning opportunities.

Responding to the Emotions of Others

Newborn babies tend to cry in response to the cry of another baby, a reaction that may be the early beginnings of responding to the emotions of others. When Mahdi and her mother visit with friends who have a baby, Mahdi seems to be aware of the baby especially if it cries loudly. If Mahdi hears the baby cry, she will begin to cry as well. Chayton's mother became tense and frightened when she saw the neighbour's large and misbehaved dog running towards them. Chayton felt her body change and immediately started to cry. Infants can sense and respond to different emotions. Infants' ability to sense others' emotions is an important foundation for developing social relationships and for beginning to feel empathy for others.


A secure connection and bond between infants and caregivers is built by parents and caregivers who respond promptly, consistently, and appropriately to infant signals. On the other hand, less prompt, inconsistent, and inappropriate responses by parents/caregivers to infants often causes an insecure relationship between them.

Infants have unique temperamental styles and these are sometimes apparent in early infancy. These unique styles may impact the responses infants solicit from their caregiver and the responses that they receive. Chayton's mother, for example, loves to see Chayton smile when he sees her face after he has had a nap, and he usually begins to coo.

An infant's relationship with the parent begins as a set of natural or innate signals that call the adult to the baby's side. Over time, a true affectionate bond develops, and is supported by new emotional and developing cognitive capacities. Mahdi and her mother have developed a feeding routine when Mahdi is bottle-fed. When Mahdi has finished eating, her mother sings her a song, Mahdi smiles and coos in response to her mother's voice. This sort of attachment leads babies to feel pleasure when interacting with the special people in their lives, and to feel secure about being comforted by their presence in times of distress.

Attachment develops in four phases. The first two phases of pre-attachment and attachment-in-the-making start to develop during the first three months of life. Please refer to development at 4-6 months and up to 24 months to read about the later phases of attachment.

Pre-attachment phase (birth to 6 weeks). Grasping, smiling, crying, and gazing into the adult's eyes, help bring newborn babies in close contact with their caregiver. When an adult responds, infants encourage the adult to remain nearby because closeness comforts the infant. Mahdi's mother enjoys seeing Mahdi smile and stare into her eyes. When Mahdi makes a quiet cooing sound, her mother is charmed. It often takes Mahdi's mother a long time to put Mahdi down for a nap because she encourages Mahdi's many facial expressions and the sounds she makes.

Newborns recognize their mother's smell and voice, and they will soon recognize her face. However, based on current understanding of this behaviour, they are not yet attached to their mothers, since they do not yet mind being left with an unfamiliar adult.

Attachment in-the-making phase (6 weeks to 6-8 months). During this phase, infants respond differently to a familiar caregiver than to a stranger. For instance, the baby may smile, laugh, and babble more freely with the mother than to a less familiar person, and may be quicker to settle when picked up. When Chayton becomes highly distressed, it often seems that his mother can comfort him better than anyone else. Although he might calm down when others soothe him, he seems to calm down sooner when his mother holds and cuddles him.

As infants interact with parents and experience relief from distress, they learn that their own actions affect the behavior of those around them. Babies now begin to develop a sense of trust and an expectation that a caregiver will respond when signaled by crying or cooing. Infants still do not protest when separated from their mother or caregiver.

The Development of a Sense of Self

During the first 3 months of life, infants begin to discover that they have bodies which can bring them discomfort and pleasure. Mahdi is becoming highly interested in her hands. She is constantly putting them in her mouth, taking them out and staring at them. In the early stages of life, babies begin to learn how to reciprocate emotions with others by engaging in activities such as exchanging smiles.

Interpersonal Social Behaviours

Infants are born ready to begin to interact with their surroundings right from the first few minutes of life. For example, it is known that if infants are left on their mother's abdomen after birth they smell the odor of the mother's nipple and begin to crawl toward the breast to initiate suckling. Also, it is known that a mother will breastfeed more successfully and for longer periods of time if she is permitted to have early contact and suckling with her infant in the first hour after birth. Both of these behaviours promote a sense of well being between the infants and their mothers which in turn stimulates very early interactions.

Newborns exhibit a rich variety of emotional expressions that indicate individuality and uniqueness and these become more refined with time. By approximately two months of age, an important change occurs and the infant develops a social smile. At around the same time, the infant is awake more and develops a greater capacity for social contact through eye-to-eye gaze.

Further social engagement occurs through mutual exchanges of behaviours such as coos, gazes, or smiles. Chayton is starting to notice when others smile at him. During close interactions with others, he seems to be aware that others are smiling at him and he is starting to smile back. Infants and caregivers engage in turn taking through exchanges of vocalizations and smiles. Parents typically respond to these changes in socialization by increasing their interactions with their child and by increasing the infants' interactions with others outside of the home.

Parents often report that at around two months of age their child seems to 'wake up' becoming less like a doll and more like a human. Mahdi's mother has noticed that Mahdi is forming a distinct personality. Madhi obviously dislikes the sound of the vacuum cleaner and likes the sound of the dishwasher. Madhi is clearly a very smart little girl! Her attention to these sounds has caught the attention of her mother.

Shared attention

From birth, infants are able to engage in shared attentiveness and mutual gaze with caregivers. Infants may look attentively at the caregiver's face reacting with smiles and facial movements in the first three months of life. Mahdi is fascinated with the facial expressions of others. She stares intently at the eyes and mouths of those playing with her.

If Chayton sees his mother looking at him, she has noticed that he will often meet her gaze and stare intently into her eyes. Babies' ability to focus attention towards the eyes and mouths of others sets up the building blocks for later development of joint attention skills which emerge at around 9 months of age.

Caregiver Support for Social and Emotional Development

An infant's relationship with a supportive adult is vitally important to all aspects of development. A close, supportive, and loving relationship with a parent or caregiver maximizes the child's overall development.

Children without a close, supportive and loving relationship are at risk of developing a whole range of social and emotional problems.

During the early months and years in a child's life, the most important adult is typically the parent, especially the mother (at least in Western cultures). A strong and loving infant-caregiver relationship lays a secure foundation for later development. For some children, especially those with developmental disabilities that prevent high levels of responsiveness to caregivers, establishing a strong relationship can be especially challenging.

Social Input

Language learning takes place through socialization and exposure to oral language. In the first three months of life, infants experience a social world full of meaning-rich information. The language that they hear is crowded with many kinds of clues to meaning. Talk that is directed toward infants is described by researchers as infant-directed talk (IDT).

IDT is the way adults tend to adjust their intonation in ways that are related to emotional content and the various intentions behind a communication. Intonation changes are common across all cultures. Researchers have found that mothers from different language groups all display a similar set of distinctive intonational patterns when conveying emotion-laden messages to infants (e.g., low-pitched, fluid intonation for soothing; low-pitched, staccato intonation for prohibiting; high pitched rapid-excursion intonation for attentional enhancement). These patterns can be seen in the mothers described in this section.

Mahdi's mother talks to her in a quiet and calm voice when they are engaged in a calm play interaction such as responding to Mahdi's coos and smiles by saying things like "is that funny?" in a calm and gentle voice. When Mahdi is clearly happy and smiling at her mother, her mother often raises the intonation and pitch of her voice.

When Chayton is fussing or crying, his mother often tries to soothe him by speaking to him in a low-pitched and soothing voice. When Mahdi's and Chayton's moms are reading to them, their intonation and pitch rises and lowers as they say some words and, ask and answer questions for the babies about pictures in their books. These intonational differences provide meaningful information to infants well before they have access to the meanings of the specific words being used.

Social Responsiveness

While in utero, infants begin to become sensitive to a range of variations in their native language. It is not surprising then, that when infants are born they love talk directed at them that exaggerates characteristics of language such as saying things like "are you excited?!" in a raised voice. Very young infants are more socially responsive to the emotional characteristics of distinct intonations within IDT (as mentioned in the section on social input).

For example, infants show more attention to and smile more when they hear approval tones of voice from their caregivers than when they hear tones of disapproval. When his parents are talking to each other in their usual 'adult' voices, Chayton often occupies himself by looking at objects around him. He is not paying attention to others in the room. As soon as his parents start to give him a bath, they start talking to him. They use happy tones and engage him by saying "Stinky baby, are you a stinky baby, yes you are, yes you are". They change the intonation and pitch of their voices and highly exaggerate certain words such as, "Yeessss, you are". Chayton immediately shifts his gaze towards them and often reacts with coos or smiles and moves his arms and legs wildly. These early responses by Chayton to his parents show a shared attention and are an important and positive sign for later language development.

Jelen, M., & Smith, V. (2008). Parent/Caregiver Narrative: Social and Emotional Development 0 – 3 Months. In L.M. Phillips (Ed.), Handbook of language and literacy development: A Roadmap from 0 - 60 Months. [online], pp. 1 - 9. London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Available at: Handbook of language and literacy development