Social Emotional Development of the Young Infant
By Vicki Thrasher Cronin
Licensed Parent Educator, Pre-K Teacher
Social Emotional Development Birth to 8 months
Social emotional development is receiving a lot of attention of late and for good reason. Over the past decade there has been more awareness of and a greater emphasis placed on the foundation developed in the first three years of life, a foundation on which a child’s future success is built. This foundation is a child’s ability to be successful in relationships, a sense of self as a competent person and an ability to achieve her goals.
The process of social emotional development is a child’s development of trust in their approach to and security in their place in the world. When your baby is secure in her relationship with you she knows that no matter what you’ll be there to help her settle, to fish her out of scary situations and to help her learn how to be a friend, what to say and what to do. This sense of safety provides her with the security to reach out and explore the world.
In the first three years babies are working all day every day to develop the four components of social emotional development: trust and emotional security, self-awareness, self-regulation and relationships with other children.
For Young Infants (birth to 8 months), the first of four components is developing Trust and Emotional Security. That means that your baby spends most of her waking time gazing into your eyes and falling in love with you. During these first 8 months, first her eyes, then her head and finally her whole body will follow you wherever you go, the expression on her face making it clear that she wants to be with YOU. She will love cooing interchanges with you, listening to your voice and listening to stories. Be sure to include her at meal time; talk to her, tell her what you are doing. She’ll love watching you prepare her food and is eager to start feeding herself soft finger foods.
Each month you will notice that your child is becoming more wary of people who are not her familiar family and friends. This development tells you that you are your baby’s trusted adult and she will count on you to ensure that she is always safe. Take your lead from her cues and allow her to warm up to family members and guests. Introduce her to new people and let her know that you trust these people. When she’s ready, she’ll reach out to be held by others. This is trust and emotional security.
Self-Awareness is the second component of social emotional development. Babies are born learning and your little one will be fascinated discovering her hands, fingers and feet. Your baby will also become delighted with her reflection in the mirror. She will also be discovering her feelings: comfort, discomfort, joy and sadness, as well as how to manage those feelings. You will be her model and teacher. When you acknowledge and name her feelings she will feel valued and respected.
The next component of social emotional development is Self-Regulation (or Infant Self-Regulation). Self-regulation starts out as a physiological process of maturation of the central nervous system and quickly becomes a part of your baby’s awareness about how to respond to and manage all of the input she is getting from the outside world. In the early months, your baby is entirely dependent upon you to help her learn what she needs to do to soothe herself. She will thrive on the predictability of schedules and routines to help her predict what’s coming up next and how she needs to respond. Sensitive, intentional care-giving is critical in these early months.
The final component, Relationships with Other Children, starts out slowly in these first eight months and builds rapidly as your baby matures and becomes interested in others, especially others their size! Around three months your baby will begin to watch other children from a distance. You will notice that she is particularly interested in their voices, especially when they say her name. She will enjoy vocalizing with other children and will imitate their facial expressions. Siblings love this game! Be sure that your baby is safely positioned so that she can see what other children are doing and help them engage in talking, cooing and making faces with your baby. As your baby gets older teach the older children how to show the baby a rattle, hand her soft toys that she can grab and put in her mouth. To their delight, she will soon be offering toys to the older ones! Respectful, trusting relationships are learned over time right from birth.
More information on social emotional development can be found in Minnesota’s Early Learning Guidelines for Birth to Three, Early Childhood Indicators of Progress. Released in 2007, the guidelines provide a framework for parents and caregivers to understand how social emotional development occurs. You can view this document and/or download it at dhs.state.mn.us.
In this parent-friendly document you will find four Domains (major areas of development) divided into Components, followed by Case Studies (story examples about a child at each age) with Indicators that tell you specific, observable outcomes for the child, Examples of what behavior looks like at this stage, and Caregiver Strategies (things you can do to promote your child’s development).
Your baby’s social emotional development is the foundation of her success in school and life. It is through her trusted relationship with you that she discovers her sense of self, learns how to regulate her body, emotions and behavior and develops meaningful relationships with others. Take your time, parenting can’t be rushed.