Fostering social-emotional development for infants and toddlers is just as important as teaching them how to walk, talk, and eat. Social-emotional development refers to the child’s ability to experience, express, and manage their emotions and form positive and rewarding relationships with others (1).
Read this post as we delve deeper and explain what social-emotional development is, including the various developmental milestones, and give you tips on developing social and emotional skills in infants and toddlers.
Social and emotional learning is a process through which babies begin to learn and develop life skills to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions that will continue in their adult life (2).
Babies are born with the need and desire to connect with people around them. Primary caregivers and teachers play a crucial role in supporting development of social and emotional skills in babies (3).
Babies begin their emotional and social development at birth and achieve different milestones at different ages. The following are the usual developmental milestones seen in babies (4).
- At birth babies have the ability to turn to a familiar voice and follow a face or object with their gaze from a short distance. They have a range of ways of using their behavior to communicate, such as by turning away when they feel overwhelmed by sensory input.
- In the first few months they respond to emotions in a caregivers voice and react to their environment. By around 8 weeks babies begin to have a “social smile.”
- By around nine months they begin to show what is termed “stranger anxiety” although there is great variation in intensity and timing of these developmental steps.
Some babies reach developmental milestones sooner than others. If you suspect any delays in your baby, then do not hesitate to contact the doctor.
- Talk, read, and sing together: The primary mode of learning for infants is by interacting with the people around them. These simple interactions help the baby feel connected with their caregivers, thus helping them learn.
- Provide warm, responsive, and consistent care: Smile while interacting with your infant. Frequent cuddles and hugs are a way of expressing your love to the baby, and they learn to do the same when they grow up.
Try and understand the cues your non-verbal baby gives you by his/her actions. Babies feel loved when you respond to their basic needs like hunger, a wet diaper, need to be held in arms, etc. But do not expect to be perfectly in tune with your baby. We know from infant research that in typical, healthy relationships caregivers are out of sync with their infants in about 70% of interactions. Babies thrive and relationships grow when they have the opportunity to work through these moment-to-moment misunderstandings and repair missed connections. It takes time and countless interactions for parents and infants to figure each other out. Don’t be hard on yourself; you will get there. Do not aim to be perfect.
- As best you can, maintain some consistent, predictable routines: Try and provide them a consistent routine of feeding, napping, playtime, etc. They are more relaxed when they are aware of what to expect next.
- Know your baby and follow their lead: Try and understand your baby’s likes and dislikes. For example, some babies are cuddly and love to be swaddled, while others prefer to observe the world on their own with their arms and legs free to move.
- Play simple social games: Games such as peek-a-boo and cooing back and forth help develop a bond. These games, and the “games” of feeding, diaper changing, and going to sleep are all examples of ways your baby learns the ways of the world that are unique to their culture.
- Respond to vocalizations: Respond when the baby is blabbering or making cooing sounds. Nod your head and reply to them like you understand what they are trying to say. They learn turn taking of conversation well before they have words.
- Take them outdoors: Ask your pediatrician about when you can start taking the baby outdoors. Take them out for a stroll and introduce them to neighbors, friends, etc. Show them the sky, flowers, and animals. This way, they will begin to recognize people and things around them.
- Be an emotional role model: Babies are very adept at reading our emotions. Lead by example. As best you can, respond calmly to good or bad situations, show kindness towards others, and be emotionally available to the baby when they need you. This encourages the baby to have healthy relationships when they grow up. Of course at times all parents are tired, and may lose their cool. If you feel overwhelmed try to get relief from another caregiver, such as your partner or another relative. As described above, as long as parents repair such moments of disruption relationships will grow in a healthy way.
- Recognize and talk about emotions: Even before they have words, if you narrate their emotional experience it helps them to connect their feelings with words.
Reflect their emotions without feeling that you need to imitate them exactly. When you show with your expression and voice that you understand their feelings but that their feelings are not exactly the same as yours, you help your child to take ownership of their emotional experience. Encourage your child to find ways to self-sooth. Thumb sucking is one way babies self-soothe. Some parents may prefer to have them use a pacifier. However, the thumb is always available and when parents do not call attention to the behavior, children typically stop on their own when the behavior is no longer age-appropriate.
Learn to give space to the baby when he/she is not in a mood to play and is overwhelmed or irritated. Talk softly, cuddle them, and sway with them back and forth to help them relax.
- Manage stranger anxiety: Stranger anxiety in babies tends to occur at around 9 months of age as they develop the thinking skills necessary to hold an image in their mind of caregivers even when they are out of sight. Give them confidence that even if you are not seen around, you are always there for them. Play games like peek-a-boo or hiding behind the door and peeping. Stand up in front of them, and say to them, “mommy is going” and walk out of the room. Come back in a few seconds and say, “mommy is back.”
Social-emotional development for infants and toddlers deals with developing skills in managing and expressing their emotions. This goes a long way to affect their decisions and relations with other people in the future. Smiling at parents or expressing anxiety about seeing strangers are signs of social-development milestones. Understanding your baby’s cues, playing with them, responding to their actions, and familiarizing them with other people help them develop this skill. Ensure you nurture your social and emotional wellness and lead by example. Identify what works the best for your little one, as every baby is different.
Having conversations with your baby or talking to them helps their language, vocabulary, and emotional development. Although your little one is not responding to your conversations, do not feel as if it is going in vain. Give this infographic a read to understand how talking to your baby will help their development.
- Social-Emotional Development Domain; California Department of Education
- What is SEL?; Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL)
- Fostering Healthy Social & Emotional Development in Young Children; Virginia Department of Education
- Chapter 4: Infancy and Toddlerhood; Maricopa Community Colleges
- Birth to 12 Months: Social-Emotional Development; ZERO TO THREE
Dr. Ritika Shah
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Claudia M. Gold(MD)
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