It’s easy to spot physical developmental milestones in babies. One day, they stay exactly where you put them. The next day, they are rolling away! Often, we track these milestones and record them in baby books. Rarely do we think about the milestones of baby’s emotional development.
Just as physical development starts at birth, so does your baby’s emotional development. Sometimes referred to as mental health, the term “emotional development” refers to your child’s growing ability to interact socially and regulate her emotions. Your child’s earliest experiences shape her brain so this development can occur. Understanding early emotional development can be key to preventing mental health issues such as depression and anxiety later in life.
Your child’s emotional development is an important part of her overall wellness. As a parent or caregiver, your awareness of this development is necessary in order to give her the best start possible in life.
A key component of your child’s healthy social-emotional development is the ability to establish a close bond with a caregiver. This attachment creates a foundation of security that sets the child up for stronger self-esteem in the long run. You can begin to form a bond with your baby before she’s even born by talking, reading, and singing to her in utero.
Studies suggest that babies prefer Mommy’s voice to any other sound because of its familiarity. In fact, some baby’s display visible recognition of their mother’s voice on the day they are born. You can also bond with your newborn with skin-to-skin contact and baby massage. When she is scared, hurt, or upset, hold her and comfort her with smiles and reassurance.
Some signs of a healthy attachment are when your baby looks to you for reassurance or help and when she uses good eye contact. Starting around three months, you can also tell she has a healthy attachment if she is interactive and appears to feel more comfortable with you than strangers.
Your child’s physical growth, literacy, cognitive development, and overall health can be boosted by her emotional well-being. Young children who do not meet early social-emotional milestones are more likely to fall behind in the other important areas of development throughout their preschool and school-age years. Strong emotional health serves as a foundation for these other important skills that rely on a strong sense of self-esteem and confidence.
Don’t worry about temper tantrums — all toddlers have them. Temper tantrums typically peak between 24 and 30 months and are a part of healthy development.
Just as positive experiences create strong emotional health, negative experiences can cause adverse effects on brain development and mental health. Children who live in families experiencing “toxic stress” in the form of parental loss, substance abuse, mental illness, or extreme poverty have higher rates of mental health disturbances as they get older. Studies show that between 9.5 percent and 14.2 percent of children from birth to age five experience emotional or behavioral disturbances that result in difficulties with social and emotional development.
Sometimes, infant stress can be avoided when parents and other caregivers get help from the community. For example, it is possible (and recommended) for mothers to seek assistance with postpartum depression. Some organizations that may be helpful are the resource group Plant the Seed of Learning and the nonprofit organization Nurse-Family Partnership.
A baby’s mental health is closely intertwined with that of her parents or caregivers. If your own stressors inhibit you from healthy interactions with your baby and you are unable to meet her needs, it can ultimately affect her mental health and well-being. Parenting can be very hard; that’s why it is so important to take care of yourself first and seek help when needed from family, friends, or organizations in the community.
Here are some signs of healthy emotional development in a young child.
From birth to 12 months, an emotionally healthy baby should respond to your cues, express distress when separated from a parent, and show interest in others.
Between 12 and 24 months, an emotionally healthy child feels secure enough to explore independently. She will imitate others during play and show a complete range of emotional expressions.
Between 24 and 36 months, an emotionally healthy child strongly distinguishes herself as a separate person. She will begin to obey simple rules and may be strongly possessive of loved ones.