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

children image

parent narrative

Social-Emotional Development (4-6 Months)click to print Print
Research Review / Parent

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

Introduction to Emotional and Social Development

In the four-to six-month period, play, object exploration, rituals, and games become important activities for interaction between infants and caregivers. These parent and caregiver activities facilitate development of language and joint attention. Infants' understanding and use of emotions become more varied and, with emerging control of motor skills, infants extend themselves into the world socially.

By 4 months of age, infants can lift their chests as well as their heads and can carefully observe what is happening around them. By observing people, infants learn the beginnings of how they should behave and how others behave towards them. Caregivers continue to support interaction by treating infant behaviours as communicative, sensitively supporting their social initiations and responding to their emotions. Infants, in turn, exhibit increasing interest in the world around them and display a broader range of responses to stimuli.

Two important sections follow. The first addresses babies' interests and abilities that support their social and emotional development, and the second addresses how caregivers support babies' social and emotional development.

Babies' Interests and Abilities that Support Emotional and Social Development

The two early emotional expressions of happiness and distress demonstrated by newborns become more systematic by four months.

Understanding of Emotional Expressions

Expressions of Happiness. By 4 months of age, infants smile most often when interacting with familiar people, a change that parallels the development of their ability to process visual patterns and the human face. Most infants have begun to laugh by 4 months, especially as their ability to handle information speeds up. These changes add to emotional growth by allowing infants to sort out situations more quickly and make simple evaluations of the order of events. As with smiling, the first laughs occur in response to very active stimuli such as the parents saying playfully, "I'm going to get you" and kissing the baby's tummy.

Mahdi's mother has noticed that Mahdi is starting to giggle in a predictable way when her mother plays a tickling game with her during a diaper change. Mahdi also becomes very excited when her mother walks into her room after a nap, she smiles and coos in response to seeing her mother's familiar face. Around the middle of the first year of life infants smile and laugh more, particularly with their parents/caregivers, thereby strengthening the parent-child bond.

Chayton is starting to become more and more excited when his father comes home from work. He stops what he is doing and smiles and laughs upon seeing his dad's familiar face. As infants understand more about their world they begin to laugh at less obvious elements of interaction and become more aware of small changes in facial expressions and tone of voice. Infants start to understand and anticipate predictable sequences of events such as the play routine noted above.

Expressions of Sadness/Distress.From the ages of 4 to 6 months and into the first year of life, infants clearly demonstrate when they are distressed or unhappy. Older infants react with anger in a wider range of situations like when a desired toy or object is removed, or when they are put down for a nap.

Chayton has started to become upset when it is his naptime. He will often cry and fuss when his mother is putting him down in his crib for a nap. Distress reactions increase with age primarily because cognitive and motor development are related. As infants acquire the capacity for intentional behaviour, they value control over their own actions and the effects they produce.

Expressions of sadness occur in response to pain, or removal of a favorite object, but they are less frequent than distress. Mahdi's mother has noticed that Mahdi is starting to become angry when someone takes a favorite item away from her. When someone takes an unsafe object away from her she often starts to cry and scream in reaction. Sadness is also common when infants are deprived of a familiar, loving caregiver or when caregiver-infant communication is disrupted.

Emotional Self-Regulation

By 4 months of age, the ability to shift attention helps infants control their emotions. Babies who more readily turn away from unpleasant events are less prone to experience distress. Once caregivers begin initiating face-to-face play and directing attention toward objects, they produce pleasure in the baby and will often adjust the pace of their behaviour so the infant does not become overwhelmed and distressed. As a result, the baby's tolerance for stimulation increases.

When Mahdi starts to become upset, her mother has noticed that Madhi often calms down when her mother starts speaking to her in a quiet voice and rocks her from side to side. Newly emerging motor skills, such as rolling away and crawling teach infants to regulate their feelings by approaching or retreating from various stimuli. For example, they might move towards objects of interest but stay away from objects they are not familiar with or events that they might feel more comfortable observing from a distance.

Chayton is fascinated with lights. He particularly loves a lamp in the corner of the living room where he is often laying on his back. Chayton has learned to roll over onto his stomach and then again onto his back to get closer to the light he loves to look at.

Responding to the Emotions of Others

Infant emotional expressiveness is tied to their ability to read the emotional cues of others. Early on, babies detect others' emotions through a process of emotional mirroring, just as we tend to feel sad when we sense these emotions from others. Around 4 months of age, infants become sensitive to the structure and timing of face-to-face interactions. When they gaze, smile, or vocalize, they now expect their social partner to do the same.

Mahdi is starting to try and engage her mother in social smiles. She often smiles at her mother and becomes excited when her mother smiles back. Around 5 months of age, infants see facial expressions as organized patterns; this recognition indicates that these expressions are meaningful to them. As joint attention between caregivers and the infants improves, infants realize that an emotional expression not only has meaning but is also a meaningful reaction to a specific object or event.

Chayton has started to mirror his mother's emotional expressions. When his mother is engaged in a conversation with another person, Chayton often smiles during times of laughter and shows a stern expression during times of deep conversation. In sensitive, face-to-face communication, infants "connect" emotionally with their caregivers-experiences thought to be the foundation of empathy and concern for others.


During the 4 to 6 month period of development, the infant's attachment or relationship with the parent continues to grow. Over time, a true affectionate bond develops, supported by new abilities. 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. By this time in the infants' lives, they are well into the second phase of attachment. The later phases of development will be taken up in the 7 to 12 months and up to 24 months sections.

Most infants between 4 and 6 months of age are still in the 'attachment in the making' phase. These infants respond differently to a familiar caregiver than to a stranger. For example, 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 behaviour of those around them.

Chayton continues to become upset when his mother leaves the room. If he observes his mother leaving, he will start to cry and becomes very difficult to soothe. During the later months of the first year of life, infants are often fearful of unfamiliar adults and seek the comfort of a familiar caregiver. Infants will often request to be picked up by familiar caregivers when strangers are present in their environment. Separation anxiety suggests that infants have a clear understanding that their caregivers continue to exist when not in view (object permanence). Older infants may not only protest a parent's departure, but also try harder to maintain the parent's presence. They may approach, follow, and climb on the parent, using him or her as a secure base from which to explore.

When Mahdi is close by and sees her mother putting on her coat, she will often crawl over to her and request to be picked up. If her mother leaves in a hurry, Mahdi will often start to cry until someone is able to occupy her with a favorite object or activity.

The Development of a Sense of Self

Increasing social competence and more intentional behaviours are seen as signs that babies in the second half of the first year of life are becoming aware of their own needs and how to express them. Infants are developing an awareness that they are different beings from their caregivers and that they have the capacity to start interactions with others. Babies become much more interested in imitating others and it is thought that this increased imitation contributes to the infants' development of understanding themselves.

Chayton dislikes going down for a nap. He is starting to scream as soon as his parents leave the room in anticipation of them returning and trying to soothe him by rocking him to sleep. 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 from their mother.

The Development of a Sense of Self

Between 4 and 6 months of age, infants begin recognizing familiar faces, smells, and voices. They also start to discover themselves. However, most of the reflexes that they are born with are no longer present and they are gradually replaced with self-controlled action. With better motor control, infants continue to discover their bodies such as their hands and feet and will spend several minutes at a time watching these body parts and studying their movements.

Chayton has become fascinated with his fingers. He often stares at them and tries to put them into his mouth. At about 5 months of age, most infants achieve something called a 'visually guided reach.' This is a complex co-ordination – to look, reach out, and successfully grasp an object. Mahdi is starting to take objects she is holding in her hand and successfully put them into her mouth. On occasion, she has been able to spot her pacifier in her crib, pick it up, and successfully place it into her mouth. Now begins a period of exploration of objects with the hands, the eyes, and the mouth used alone or together.

Interpersonal Social Behaviours

Joint Attention. Although joint attention is not yet fully developed, from 4 to 6 months of age infants begin to develop skills that will later help them in achieving joint attention abilities. At about 4 months of age, the infant starts to gaze shift between caregivers. While interacting with one caregiver, he/she may shift attention and emotional affect (e.g., smiling) to another caregiver present in the interaction.

At dinnertime, Chayton's parents often try to feed him while they are eating. Chayton is starting to shift his attention between both of them. If his father makes a funny face, Chayton will now laugh and then look at his mother as if looking to see her reaction. By 6 months, infants develop awareness toward characteristics of their social partners. For example, they notice tones of voice and respond in a 'mirror-like' fashion. During this stage of development, infants begin to monitor and pay attention to others interacting with them. If Mahdi sees others smiling at her, she will frequently start smiling in response while maintaining eye contact with her social partner. This gaze shifting builds toward the development of joint attention skills that typically develop before the end of the first year of life.

Caregiver Support for Social and Emotional Development

The child's relationship with a supportive adult continues to be important in this stage of development. Research guided by attachment theory has provided strong support for the importance of the infant-caregiver relationship for laying a secure foundation on which later development is based.

Social and Emotional Input

Parents who are more responsive to their infants' physical needs, to their signals of distress, and to their attempts to communicate tend to have infants who are securely attached to them. But caregivers do not only respond to their child, they also change the pace and nature of the language with a range of techniques: introducing new objects, imitating and expanding on the infant's sounds or actions, or making it easier for the child to reach something of interest. Chayton's mother has become very skilled at anticipating what toy Chayton wants to hold and explore. She is very attentive to his gaze and will often hold a toy within Chayton's reach long enough for him to grasp it.

When infants are between 4 to 6 months of age, some caregivers have been observed to have synchronous 'attunement' with their infants and this relationship has positive effects on the nature of their social interaction. Synchronous attunement is the ability of mothers to mirror their child's emotional being in a way that is sensitive to small and subtle changes of mood or behaviour.

Mahdi's mother has started to imitate many of Mahdi's sounds. During social interactions, Mahdi and her mother will carry on imitating each other in cooing sounds for five to ten minutes. Caregivers who tend to make slowed-down exaggerated imitations of their babies' motor and verbal behaviours tend to have babies who are more enthusiastic about imitating them. The more similar the maternal and baby behaviour, the less difference the babies have to deal with, and the more attentive they will be.

On the other hand, some parents over-stimulate their babies, ignoring social cues from their infant, such as turning away or closing their eyes, cues that indicate that their infant has had enough.

Alternatively, some parents under-stimulate their babies, ignoring babbling or bids for attention. Over- and under-stimulated babies appear to be 'less securely' attached which has deleterious effects on socialization. These babies tend to have more difficulty settling down to engage in social interactions. More securely attached babies are often more sociable, better able to soothe themselves, and more likely to persist in exploration of objects or events in their environment, all positive indicators for better language development.

Social Responsiveness

Infants between 4 to 6 months of age continue to enjoy infant-directed-talk (IDT). IDT at this stage of development helps the infants in exploring the regularities within continuous speech. For example, infants at this age listen differentially to language sounds in their native language, a skill that promotes their later ability to encode and recognize words within spoken language. It appears that this language learning is adjusted by social responsiveness. Infants, for example, appear to tune in to adult speech more frequently and effectively while the adult is present when compared to conditions of hearing recorded adult speech. For example, if Chayton is sitting near a TV that is on, when his parents start talking in the same room, he will usually turn his head towards his parents rather than towards the TV. Thus, direct interaction seems to be an important aspect of maintaining and stimulating social responsiveness.

Jelen, M. & Smith, V. (2008). Parent/Caregiver Narrative: Social and Emotional Development 4 – 6 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