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: Veronica Smith, University of Alberta

Social and emotional processes play a multitude of roles in language learning. The social and emotional capacities that infants possess and develop in the early months of life are critical to the development of language and literacy across the lifespan. Language is an inherently social phenomenon and acquisition, in some form, rides on social factors. Early on, the most important of these social factors are mediated by infant caregivers. The theories and research related to early emotional and social development tend to focus on the relationship between young children and their primary caregivers. This relationship is considered critical for organizing and supporting early socio-emotional development in children.

Two major sections follow. The first addresses babies' interests and abilities, and the second addresses caregiver support for babies' social and emotional development.

Babies' Interests and Abilities that Support Emotional and Social Development

Understanding of Emotional Expressions

Emotions play an important role in the organization of relationships with caregivers, exploration of the environment, and discovery of the self. Infants' ability to express basic emotions such as happiness, anger, sadness, fear, and to respond to the emotions of others expands over the first year of life. Because infants cannot describe their feelings, determining exactly which emotions they are experiencing is a challenge. Although vocalizations and body movements provide some information, facial expressions offer the most consistent cues. Researchers have studied infants' facial patterns carefully to determine the range of emotions that they display at different ages (Berk, 2002; 2006). Although signs of some emotions are present in early infancy, babies' emotional life is relatively undifferentiated at birth, consisting of little more than two global arousal states: attraction to pleasant stimulation, and withdrawal from unpleasant stimulation (Berk, 2006). Over time, discrete emotions emerge from an originally diffuse arousal state (Infant Development, 2004) and emotions become clear, well-organized signals (Berk, 2006).

Expressions of Happiness or "Well Being". Happiness contributes to many aspects of development. During the early weeks after birth, newborn babies smile after they are fed, and during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Babies also smile in response to gentle touches, stroking of the skin, and to sounds such as the mother's soft, high-pitched voice, and to rocking (Berk, 2006). By the end of the first month, infants smile at interesting sights, but these must be vibrant and eye-catching. Between 6 and 10 weeks of age, the human face will evoke a broad grin that is called the 'social smile' (Berk, 2002).

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 too much or too little stimulation (Berk, 2006).

Emotional Self-Regulation

Emotional self-regulation refers to the strategies used to adjust emotional states to a comfortable level of intensity in order to accomplish goals. Self-regulation requires several cognitive capacities including (a) the ability to shift and focus attention; (b) the ability to inhibit thoughts and behavior; and, (c) the ability to plan or actively take steps to relieve a stressful situation (Berk, 2002).

In the early months of life, infants have only a limited capacity to regulate their emotional states. Although they can turn away from unpleasant stimulation, they are easily overwhelmed by internal and external stimuli and appear to depend on soothing interventions of a caregiver, such as rocking, and talking softly in order to calm down (Saarni, 1999). Parents who respond contingently to their child's emotional cues have infants who are less fussy, more easily soothed, and more interested in exploration, a basic building block of language development. Parents who wait to intervene until the child has reached a high level of distress will reinforce the baby's rapid rise to intense distress (Berk, 2006) and, possibly, circumvent opportunities for coordinated attention, an activity that facilitates language learning opportunities.

Responding to the Emotions of Others

Responding to the emotions of others, or the development of empathy, is considered an important foundation for developing social relationships. Empathy involves a complex interaction of cognition and affect: the ability to detect different emotions, to take another's emotional perspective, and to feel with that person, or to respond emotionally in a similar way. Empathy has roots in early development. Newborn babies tend to cry in response to the cry of another baby, a reaction that may be the primitive beginnings of empathic response (Saarni, 1999).


Ethological theory (Bowlby, 1975) is the most widely accepted view of the development of the infant-caregiver relationship. According to this view, attachment evolved over the history of our species to promote survival. Findings from research (Berk, 2002) show that responding promptly, consistently, and appropriately to infant signals supports secure attachment, whereas less responsive caregiving is linked to attachment insecurity.

Children's unique temperamental styles, apparent in early infancy, also impact the responses infants solicit from their caregiver and the responses that they receive. Heredity influences early temperament, but child-rearing experiences determine whether a child's temperament is sustained or modified over time. At the same time, the patterns of early relationships are affected by individual differences in the temperaments and environments in which they occur. Because children and parents are embedded in larger contexts, family circumstances such as family size, resources, and health influence attachment quality. Cultural factors also affect attachment patterns.

According to Bowlby (1975), the infant's relationship with the caregiver begins as a set of innate signals that call the adult to the baby's side. Over time, a true affectionate bond develops, supported by new emotional and cognitive capacities. This attachment leads infants to feel pleasure when interacting with the special people in their lives, and to be comforted by their presence in times of stress. Accordingly, attachment develops in four phases (Berk, 2006). Only two of the four phases of attachment occur during the first three months of life and they are introduced next (Please refer to development at 4-6 months and up to 24 months to read about the later third and fourth phases of development).

Pre-attachment phase (birth to 6 weeks). Built-in signals including grasping, smiling, crying, and gazing into the adult's eyes, help bring newborn babies in close contact with their caregiver. Once an adult responds, infants encourage the caregiver to remain nearby because closeness comforts them. Babies at this age recognize their mother's smell and voice, and they will soon recognize her face. However, based on our current understanding of this behaviour, they are not yet attached to their mothers, since they do not mind being left with an unfamiliar adult at this early period of their lives (Berk, 2002; 2006).

Attachment in-the-making phase (6 weeks to 6-8 months). During this second 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, and may be quicker to settle when picked up. As infants interact with the parent 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, the expectation that a caregiver will respond when signaled, but they still do not protest when separated and left with another adult (Berk, 2006).

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 (McDevitt & Ormond, 2007). They discover, for instance, their hands, or feet, or legs. In the early stages of life, babies begin to learn how to reciprocate emotions with others by engaging in activities such as smiling.

Interpersonal Social Behaviours

In the past 10 years, behavioural observations have shown that infants are ready to begin to interact with their environment from the first minutes of life. An intriguing study by some Scandinavian researchers found that if infants are left on their mother's abdomen after birth, they begin to crawl toward the breast to initiate suckling (as cited in Klaus, 1998). They are guided, it is thought, by the odor of milk on the nipple.

Other studies have found that a mother will breastfeed more successfully and for longer periods of time when she is permitted to have very early contact and suckling with her infant within the first hour after birth. It is speculated that these early infant behaviours and mother's corresponding responses are triggered by evolutionary explanations of survival of the species and the release of neurochemicals that promote a sense of well being that stimulates these very early interactions (Klaus, 1998).

The newborn exhibits a rich variety of emotional expressions that indicate individuality and uniqueness. By approximately two months of age, an important transition occurs. This transition is typified by the onset and blossoming of the social smile. It is supplemented by the infant's increased wakefulness and an enhanced capacity for social contact through eye-to-eye gaze. Social engagement occurs through mutual give and take in behaviours such as coos, gazes, or smiles (Bornstein & Tamis-Lemonda, 2004). Infants and caregivers engage in reciprocal turntaking through vocalizations and smiles. According to Emde (1998), parents typically respond to these changes in socialization not only by increasing their interactions with their child but also by taking their infant outside of the home in order to increase interactions with others. Parents often report that at this time their child seems to 'wake up', they become more attentive and less like a doll and more like a human.

Joint attention. From birth, infants are able to engage in shared attentiveness with caregivers. Infants may look attentively at the caregiver’s face and react with smiles and facial movements in the first three months of life. This joint attention is an important building block towards the development of later joint attention skills.

Shared attention. Infants also begin to interact with their caregiver through mutual gaze. Mutual gaze interaction is referred to in the research literature as shared attention and is evident in the first 3 months of life (Butterworth, 2004).

Caregiver Support for Social and Emotional Development

One of the most critical variables identified in many studies of child development is the child’s relationship with a supportive adult. The absence of close, supportive relationships with adult caregivers appear to put children at risk for a whole range of problems, particularly in the domain of social-emotional development. Close, supportive and caring experiences facilitate children’s optimal development. Such warm and close relationships serve as a powerful protective mechanism. 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).

Research guided by attachment theory has provided strong evidence of the importance of the infant-caregiver relationship for laying a secure foundation on which later social and emotional development is based. For some children, especially those with developmental disabilities that prevent high levels of responsiveness to caregivers, establishing this relationship can be especially challenging.

Social Input

All researchers agree that language learning takes place only in a social mileau; that is, language learning depends on the presence of linguistic input, which, by definition, is social (Baldwin & Meyer, 2007). However, despite knowing much about the form linguistic and social input must take to influence language development, there is still much to be learned regarding the variability of input and the precise aspects of language that are directly associated with social input. That being said, there are several aspects of social input that are important to highlight in the first three months of life.

From birth, infants experience a social world full of meaning-rich information. The language that they hear is crowded with multimodal clues to meaning; this is especially true of language that speakers in many cultures direct toward infants - now called infant-directed talk (IDT) (Baldwin & Meyer, 2007).

Particularly significant within the first three months of life is the way adults tend to modulate their intonation in ways that correlate with emotional content and communicative intentions. For example, mothers speaking in numerous languages 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; and high pitched rapid-excursion intonation for attentional enhancement). These intonational contours provide infants with meaning-laden information well before infants have access to the meaning of the specific words involved. Interestingly, even fetuses have the opportunity to begin processing intonation patterns, a socially rich dimension of speech that carries meaning throughout life.

Social Responsiveness

While in utero, infants are already sensitive to a range of linguistic properties, including some prosodic characteristics of their native language (Nazzi, Bertoncini & Mehler, 1998). It is not surprising then, that infants love IDT (Baldwin & Meyer, 2007; Werker & McLeod, 1989) which, among other things, exaggerates the prosodic characteristics of language. Very young infants seem to be sensitive to the emotional correlates of distinct intonation contours within IDT (as mentioned in the previous section on social input). For instance, infants show higher rates of attention and smiling when hearing utterances couched in intonations characteristic of approval than when hearing intonation typical of prohibition. These early inclinations toward establishing coordinated attention are important precursors for later language development.

Smith, V. (2008). Research Review: 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