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

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Social-Emotional Development (7-12 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 interactions between infants and caregivers in the first six months have laid the groundwork for the increasing communicative role infants take in the 7- to 12-month period of life. By 7 months of age, babies barely resemble their newborn selves. Typically developing seven-month-olds clearly understand and respect the rules of turn-taking in their interactions and they enjoy their newly-acquired ability to creep or crawl around to take responsibility for getting close to their parents at will, instead of waiting for others to come to them in response to their facial expressions, cries, and coos. Between 7 and 12 months social behaviour becomes intentional, clearer and more effective. Accordingly, caregivers continue to promote interaction by successfully interpreting their infants' social and emotional offers and extending their understanding of more complex emotions and social routines.

Chayton's mother watches 7½ month old Chayton pull himself with his elbows and push with his feet because he is intent on reaching the big yellow truck over 4 feet away. She becomes Chayton's cheerleader, saying "That's it, keep going, it's hard, but you're gonna get there!" with her voice expressing encouragement and empathy for the struggle. When Chayton touches the truck, her mother says, "You did it! You went all the way by yourself!" Chayton turns to smile at his mom and laughs in triumph.

Babies' Interests and Abilities that Support Emotional and Social Development

Understanding of Emotional Expressions

Expressions of Happiness. As infants understand more about their world they begin to laugh at more subtle events in their environment. Around the middle of the first year, infants smile and laugh more when interacting with familiar people and this strengthens the parent-child bond.

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.

Mahdi is frequently sharing smiles and laughter with others. She is often smiling and laughing when interacting with her mother and familiar caregivers. Similar to adults, 7-12 month old infants have several smiles, which vary with the context. They show a broad, cheek-raised smile to a parent's greeting, a reserved, muted smile to a friendly stranger, and a mouth-open smile during stimulating play.

Chayton's parents have noticed that he expresses different smiles for different situations. During story time, Chayton has a contented closed mouth smile on his face. During play-time, he is often laughing and giggling with a wide-open mouth.

Expressions of Anger and Sadness. By 7 to 9 months and into the second year, infant angry expressions are more frequently detected by adult caregivers. Older infants react with anger in a wider range of situations like when a desired toy or object is removed, or they are put down for a nap.

Chayton has started to get frustrated when he can't access an item or location that he wants. He is very interested in shiny objects such as the knobs on the fireplace insert. His parents are worried that he will fall and hurt himself and often try and block him when he tries to crawl onto the fireplace. Chayton has started to scream and grunt in frustration when he cannot climb onto the fireplace the way that he wants to.

Angry reactions increase with age primarily because cognitive and motor development is intertwined. For example, at around 9 months, if exposed to peers, infants may hit other peers who take their toys. As infants learn to use intentional behaviour, they value control over their own actions and the effects they produce. Mahdi has a play partner down the street who often comes to visit. Lately, they have both become interested in the same ball. If Mahdi's friend gets the ball and Mahdi is not occupied with something else, she may hit her play partner and attempt to get the ball from her. Expressions of sadness occur in response to pain, or removal of a favorite object, but they are less frequent than anger. Sadness is common when infants are deprived of a familiar, loving caregiver or when caregiver-infant communication is seriously disrupted.

Expressions of Fear. Fear begins to become evident during the second half of the first year. Older infants hesitate before playing with a new toy, and newly crawling infants soon show fear of heights. If Chayton manages to climb up onto the fireplace without his parents noticing, he will often start to cry when he is unable to get down. The most frequent expression of fear is toward unfamiliar adults, a reaction called 'stranger anxiety'. The intensity of stranger anxiety depends on several factors: the child's temperament, past experiences with strangers, and the current situation.

A stranger's style of interacting - expressing warmth, holding and showing a new toy, and approaching slowly rather than abruptly – can reduce the baby's fear. The rise in fear after 6 months of age keeps the newly crawling and walking babies' enthusiasm for exploration in check. Once wariness develops, infants use familiar caregivers as a secure base, or a point from which to explore. Mahdi has begun to vocally express fear with unfamiliar adults. She will often cry and scream if someone that she has not seen and interacted with in recent days comes close to her. If her mother or a familiar caregiver is not near by to comfort and soothe her, Mahdi is often difficult to console.

Emotional Self-Regulation

During the second half of the first year, babies advance quickly in their cognitive and emotional development. Cognitively, a baby's understanding of the world becomes more sophisticated, he or she begins to understand cause and effect and intentionality. This understanding can be seen in infants' intentional abilities to amplify or control their emotional displays. Infants, for instance, may cry louder than is typical to gain the attention of their caregivers in another room and smile broadly at familiar people in their environment.

Chayton's parents have discovered that Chayton cries when they are in the next room after they put him down for a nap. They have decided to sit at the other end of the house so that he cannot hear them close by. Chayton will often start screaming louder when he realizes that they are not in the room next door as they often used to be. Alternatively, as some infants understand more about their surroundings they may delay crying. This behaviour can be seen when the baby wakes in the morning, he or she may not cry for the parent to come but instead will play – with objects in the crib or with his or her own voice – for up to half an hour before becoming fussy and alerting the parent to come. Mahdi will often lay awake in her crib and play with her stuffed bear. She can be heard making cooing and gurgling sounds. When her mother enters the room, Madhi will offer her a big smile as if to say hello.

Responding to the Emotions of Others

Seven- to twelve-month-old babies are becoming more selective in their responses to the emotions of others. Babies tend to look less at facial expressions that they have seen frequently, preferring instead to seek out 'new' expressions that they have not encountered. This response suggests that as babies mature, they not only can identify changes of emotion, they actually seek experiences to broaden and expand their understanding.

When Mahdi's grandmother visits, Madhi looks curiously at the faces her grandmother makes. Mahdi will often hesitate before she smiles at the funny faces her grandmother is making in an attempt to connect to her grandchild. By 7 months most babies appreciate that a given expression goes with a particular tone of voice. It appears that babies are beginning to develop 'concepts' of emotions, building associations between the facial expression and other events occurring at the same time– the tone of voice, activities that occur before the facial expression, and associations with their own behaviours. Thus, at about the 7 to 9 month age babies appear to be both seeking out new experiences to expand their emotional repertoire and making connections with people and emotions to build their understanding.


Although babies become much more interested in objects and events in their environment between 7 and 12 months of age, this change does not mean that they become less interested in their parents, quite the opposite. During this stage of development, babies become highly attached to familiar caregivers. Preferential attachment reaches its height between 7 and 9 months. Infants frequently reach out when they want to be picked up by caregivers, protest when they are separated from their caregivers, and give looks of recognition when familiar caregivers walk into the room.

Clear-cut attachment phase (6-8 months to 18 months-2 years). At this stage attachment to the familiar caregiver is clear. Babies show separation anxiety-upset behaviours when the adult they have come to rely on leaves. These behaviours are dependent on infant temperament and on the specific situation.

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 is fascinated with his facial features when he sees them in the mirror and can't stop looking at himself when he sees his own reflection. Mahdi is not too interested in looking at herself in the mirror but she loves to look at the person who is holding her. She will sometimes imitate the expressions of those holding her close if they hold and exaggerate the expression long enough. When imitating the actions and sounds of others, infants come to recognize that they can copy the actions of others with their own bodies. This realization, accompanied by motor skill development, allows infants to become more successful accomplishing goals (however small, even just activating a jack in the box!) independently. By 10-12 months of age, typically developing babies have come a long way from having no awareness of themselves to being individuals who interact with their environments. Their beginning 'sense of self' is a realization that will continue to develop throughout childhood.

Interpersonal Social Behaviours

It is known that around 7 months of age, infants begin to reach out to be picked up by familiar caregivers, do not like to be separated from caregivers, and show looks of recognition when caregivers walk into the room. Around 9 months, infants may begin 'social referencing,' meaning that they look at familiar caregivers during uncertain situations.

Chayton has started to look to his mother when he is in an unfamiliar environment. He will often look to an unfamiliar object or person and then look at his mother expectantly as if to ask her approval or to see what she thinks about the object or person. Also at around 9 months of age, infants begin to show interest and enjoyment in coordinated activities with caregivers. Infants enjoy jointly engaging in activities with others such as banging on a table together and they start to imitate others' facial expressions and motor movements, such as smiling or copying hand gestures. Chayton's father has developed a 'drumming' routine with Chayton during his dinnertime routine. Chayton loves to bang on the table with his spoon and has started to anticipate his father doing the same thing. They often bang the table together and Chayton's father will sing a song to go with the 'drumming beat.'

Social Gestures. Seven- to twelve-month-old infants start to use specific gestures to convey desires and interests. Gestures may include reaching both arms out as a request to be picked up, or reaching a hand out in request of a particular object.

Nine-month-old Mahdi will frequently crawl over to her crib in pursuit of her favorite stuffed bear. She will reach up towards it and look at her mother expectantly, waiting for her mother to give her the desired bear.

Chayton has started to reach his arms out when he wants to be picked up. He will reach his arms out when someone comes to get him out of his crib or when he wants to be lifted from his highchair. Around 12 months, infants begin to request objects through pointing. Mahdi is starting to point to things that are out of reach that she wants when she is sitting in her highchair.

Imitation. Older infants increase their abilities to imitate motor movements, and facial expressions such as smiling, reaching, or pointing. By the end of the first year, infants begin to remember others' actions over time and imitate them in a later situation; this is referred to as 'deferred imitation'. Chayton will sometimes start to 'wave' as if he is practicing this new gesture that is associated with greetings and departures of people.

Joint Attention. Typically developing babies at 7 to 9 months become more interested in adults' attempts to get their attention. This is fortunate because greater ability to 'jointly attend' to objects and events in the environment allows babies exposure to more models of language and, therefore, more opportunities for language learning. At around 6 to 9 months, infants begin to use eye gaze to direct a caregiver to an object of interest. They may begin by looking at something that a familiar caregiver is not looking at and, through a combination of eye gaze, gestures, and vocalizations, eventually direct an adult's attention. From approximately 9 months onwards, infants become capable of sharing objects with caregivers, this three-way communication of self, other, and object indicates the emergence of jointly sharing attention with others. By 9-10 months, infants start to become aware that someone else is looking at the same thing that they are looking at. When we see these 'joint attention' behaviours, it has been said that infants are beginning to develop an understanding of "we-ness" with a caregiver.

Babies at this age start to understand that other people act in specific ways so that they can accomplish certain goals and draw inferences about what others want to do. For example, if they hear a telephone ringing they might look to the telephone and back to the parent indicating that they understand that the parent will do something (i.e., pick it up) that they have seen them do before. Chayton will often stop what he is doing and crawl towards his mother when he hears the telephone ring. He will look up at her and then look at the phone as if to say, "answer it mom!"

Caregiver Support for Social and Emotional Development

The importance of child-adult relationships to social and emotional development has been recognized for a very long time. Relationships continually influence, and are influenced by, the individual participants and by the diverse traits of those individuals, the societies in which they are embedded, the sociocultural beliefs and values, and the physical environment. The first year of life is associated with major developments in social and emotional development and caregivers are influential in both promoting and inhibiting development.

Social and Emotional Input

The language that babies hear is full of a range of clues for discovering word meanings and learning grammar. When their children are 7 to 12 months old, parents tend to talk to them about events in the here and now, using simple one or two-word phrases, and place the 'important' content words at the final position of a sentence or emphasize them with volume or intonation changes. These modifications help babies learn important parts of the speech stream and link these parts to the object or event close by.

Caregivers of babies who are 7-9 months old tend to work hard to gain their children's attention by using exaggerated language or animated facial expressions and they carefully follow their children's emerging attempts for joint attention (i.e., when a child tries to get a parent's attention to look at something of interest). Mahdi's mother has noticed that her daughter is learning to understand her points and gestures, or her 'bids' to get her daughter's attention. Mahdi's mother is starting to pair her pointing gesture with the words such as "look Mahdi!" to alert her attention to something that she thinks Mahdi would be interested in.

Some babies require more work from their parents and caregivers in this regard than others. Understanding how to 'socially tune in' to their baby's unique temperament is important for parents and caregivers to grasp. Chayton often requires coaxing to complete an action that he has started. Chayton's mother has become Chayton's cheerleader, saying things like "That's it, keep going" with the kind of enthusiasm that will maintain his attention. This extra effort on behalf of parents and caregivers allows babies to begin to understand the co-ordination of gestures (e.g., pointing and showing) and words and allows parents and caregivers to understand how to socially co-ordinate with their babies to direct their babies' attention toward objects and events of interest. With most mothers, dual understanding in the relationship between mother and infants develops in due course. However, for mothers with depression, either postpartum or ongoing, this relationship is altered. Depressed mothers either distort or have difficulty reading their infant's signals. This lack of social coordination has been found to have profound effects on infants and may result in delays in their development and achievement in later life.

Social Responsiveness

During the second half of the first year of life, babies reliably follow others' gaze and pointing gestures. In the past month, Chayton has readily started to notice where his parents are looking and will often look in the same direction. He is also starting to consistently look in the direction that his parents are pointing when there is an object of interest in the vicinity.

Social interaction appears to be important for many aspects of language learning. The brain seems to be 'hard wired' to learn some of the complex tasks related to language learning only in social contexts. During the latter months of the first year, infants regularly look at caregivers' faces when receiving objects as well as during breaks in play. Infants begin to show a willingness to engage and share experiences with caregivers in a consistent manner. During social interactions and play, infant actions start to be more deliberate. More consistently, babies between 10-12 months solicit adults' help when trying to accomplish a goal and they keep a keen eye on what the adults around them are up to.

Chayton has learned to point and vocalize when he needs help with something. During meals if his milk cup falls on the floor, he will look at his parents, point to the cup, and grunt so his parents pay attention to him. If his parents leave the room as he is eating, Chayton may verbally protest to ensure that they stay in the same room as him.

One interesting new behaviour that older babies demonstrate is the ability to learn to perform new actions simply by observing others. For example, babies are able to copy an adult operating a toy just by watching them perform the action once.

Mahdi has started to imitate the actions of her mother when she sings a song and points to her body parts. Mahdi will try to copy her mother as she points to her nose, ears, eyes, and mouth. Observing how people emotionally respond to objects is also an avenue that infants use to expand their knowledge base about the world. This behaviour is described by psychologists as 'social referencing': relying on emotional cues from caregivers to understand about how to deal with the objects. By 12 months of age, infants will interact with an object when a positive expression is posed by a caregiver but exhibit delayed and or reduced object contact if negative affect (e.g., fear) is conveyed by their mothers.

Mahdi loves to put everything in her mouth. When her mother comments warmly and calmly and says things like "are you chewing your teddy bear?!" Mahdi happily chews on. When Madhi picks up something from the floor and takes it to her mouth, her mother shows a negative expression and says something like "yuk!" Mahdi will look at her mother as if to ask what is wrong and will often take the object out of her mouth.

Interestingly, for 10-month infants 'emotional eavesdropping' is displayed towards people, as well. For example, babies display less wary behaviour around strangers after their mothers speak to the stranger with a positive, warm tone. Just the opposite is true if their mothers address a stranger with a negative or fearful tone. These observations demonstrate how socially responsive infants are at this age – they can modify their actions in response to emotional communication, even communication that does not directly involve them!

Social and Emotional Understanding

The ability to understand how others think is a skill that children develop so that they can understand what people want, how they feel, and how they will behave in different situations; this skill plays an important role in language learning. Although children's understanding of another's mental life does not appear to develop completely in children younger than 4 years of age, infants do display budding skills for reasoning to others' thinking. At 7 to 12 months of age, infants start to anticipate how others will respond to them and seek out opportunities to get others' attention. Infants' success in coordinating attention with adults improves their ability to predict adult behaviour and improves their reciprocal responses; these abilities are building blocks for understanding how others think and feel, understanding that will influence how they behave in the many social situations that they will encounter.

Jelen, M., & Smith, V. (2008). Parent/Cargiver Narrative: Social and Emotional Development 7 – 12 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