This is an emotional intelligence focused post that aims to summarise the development and progression you may want to aim for if you want your child to be awesome. The more we understand about a child’s emotional and social development, the more we can provide what is needed in order for them to develop into emotionally healthy and happy teenagers and adults.
I’ve just become the proud father of a 4-day old son. I have set out to discover what I can learn about these very early stages in a child’s life through curiosity and current research, that might help me maximise my child’s emotional development, whilst managing my own emotions through this exciting and challenging time.
First things first, the sign that all proud new parents look for, a baby’s first smile.
Apparently, in the first few months, those smiles we see from a newborn don’t really mean much, and it’s suggested to be, just a reflex (Wolff, 1966). This was fuelled by the idea that babies don’t have the experience to feel and express emotions, including happiness, by displaying as a smile. Some researchers suggest this is due to a specific lack of social experience but is also linked to the idea that they can occur during sleep, so without any stimulus.
There is however a theory that challenges this, which states that newborns are much more complex than a small twitching child. Babies are experiencing social interactions and learning from the minute they are born (maybe well before) and studies have looked at newborns reactions to stressful distractions, where they sleep to remove themselves from the stimulus or cry to encourage attention (Nagy, et al 2017).
The gaze is also used as a key indicator in the early stages of a child’s development, by around the 4-month mark babies are able to recognise (visually and cognitively) when someone is looking at them and giving them attention. This is confirmed by studies using electroencephalography (EEG) which highlights activation in the orbital frontal cortex; babies like to be looked at and seek out this ‘gaze interaction’ (Grossmann, & Johnson, 2007), which aids communication and learning. Even at 4 months, there is evidence to support the idea that babies begin to understand how to get what they want… we are being manipulated right from the start!
Grossman states that there is a bias to stimuli provided by humans. This bias is focused on developing a baby’s social and cognitive abilities:
‘In particular, it has been shown that newborns prefer faces over other kinds of visual stimuli, voices over other kinds of auditory stimuli, and biological motion over other kinds of motion.’ (Grossmann, 2015).
To try and distinguish between the different types of smiles in newborns, one study suggested eye gaze needed to be observed before a smile could be recorded; this was to confirm eye contact was being made during the smile (Söderling, 1959). The research found that in the first week none of the 400 babies met the smile parameter, then only 11% registered social smiles in the second week, increasing to a huge 60% in the third week, and by the fourth week all 400 babies had registered a ‘social smile’. Over time the social smile has been said to appear between 6 and 12 weeks. If after this time you feel a genuine smile expression has not appeared, then a visit to your general practitioner is suggested.
The smile however is the most cherished and easiest behaviour for parents to spot – and more recent research shows that babies have been smiling while still in-utero, thanks to 4d scanning (Kawakami & Yanaihar, 2012) – suggesting that these spontaneous smiles are a separate form social influence. Could they be training the smile muscles ready for emotional displays, are they experiencing pleasure in the womb, or is this an innate trigger for attracting connection from parents?
I do believe that the first smiles are not just facial twitches (or wind!), but it’s clear that more work is needed to investigate the differences between smiles during pregnancy (foetus smiles), spontaneous smiles (during sleep) and social smiles, which likely have the most meaning.
Beyond the smile…
There seem to be two key areas for a child’s social and emotional development; attachment and temperament. (Malik F, Marwaha R. 2020)
Attachment refers to the child’s development of relationships and social interactions, first explored with caregivers. During times of stress, a deep bond between caregivers and newborns develops trust and is the building blocks for future emotion and social development. (Malik F, Marwaha R. 2020).
Temperament refers to a child’s personality or character – specifically it’s their personal expression of emotions and the management of these emotions. Most of this can be influenced by the caregivers early on. Some children develop a relaxed and flexible temperament, or an unsettled and active one, others a more cautious or shy disposition.
Interestingly, caregivers can manage and adapt parenting styles to influence their child’s temperament toward a socially flexible and acceptable one (Goldsmith et al 1987).
A caregiver’s behaviour and emotional intelligence is an important factor that can influence both attachment and temperament. A baby’s emotions are grown from one to one interactions with a parent but also from witnessing parents own interactions with others (Moges & Weber, 2014). When parents do not make an effort to express emotions and attention (possibly struggling to manage their own emotional reactions), then over time children from these families can have lower emotional awareness and management throughout life (Halberstadt, Crisp, & Eaton, 1999).
I am sure all parents and caregivers are aiming to give their child support so they can develop good emotion regulation, as this can impact every facet of a person’s life – from physical and mental health to academic success and strong relationships with others (Koole 2009). Parents can support this through their own emotion management and behaviour. The demands of raising children are never-ending (I’m learning this after only day 4!) – clearly it is important for parents to continue to regulate their own emotional state as well as influence and manage their child’s. Things to consider to help us do this include:
- Eye contact – this is the first one to work on. Don’t try and force it, but when eye contact is made, it’s our job to hold it for as long as we can and spend that time interacting, whether it be talking or singing ensure you are expressive with your face and smile!
- Our feelings influence their feelings – being aware that your vocal tone can be recognised at an early age means that you can ensure it doesn’t impact negatively. If you find yourself a little worse for wear, the tiredness and stress is building up, then focus on not passing your stress to your child. Managing your emotions and awareness of your vocal pitch will help provide a supportive environment.
- Be mindful – mindfulness has shown to improve the relationship between parents and children (Kabat Zinn, 1997), and can also help you to manage the stresses of looking after your child. Mindfulness allows you to be in the moment and focus your support by reading your child’s behaviour; crying, tense body, sucking, eye contact etc. which can all indicate a state or feeling that your child is experiencing. Learning to interpret them will allow you to minimise prolonged states of stress or discomfort. Personally I have found the ‘Calm’ app to be great in helping me practise mindfulness.
- The more you talk to your baby the better – this undivided attention increases the bond between you and your baby.
- Refocus your child’s attention away from any stressful events.
- Cuddling and skin contact provides the feeling of comfort and security – if they begin to show signs of restlessness or looking away, then they my need some quiet time.
- Be consistent with your emotions, behaviour and attention – ultimately demonstrating the kind of behaviour you want to instil in your child.
- With the final reminder being that all children are different – we have to be flexible to their needs.
So, I’ll be working hard on managing my own emotions around my newborn baby; I cannot wait to see his first ‘social smile’.
- Grossmann, T. (2015). The development of social brain functions in infancy. Psychological Bulletin, 141(6), 1266–1287.
- Grossmann, T., & Johnson, M. H. (2007). The development of the social brain in human infancy. European Journal of Neuroscience, 25(4), 909–919.
- Halberstadt, A. G., Crisp, V. W., & Eaton, K. L. (1999). Family expressiveness. A retrospective and new directions for research. The social context of nonverbal behavior, 09–155).
- Kabat-Zinn, M., & Kabat-Zinn, J. (1997). Everyday blessings: The inner work of mindful parenting. New York: Hyperion.
- Koole, S. L. (2009). The psychology of emotion regulation: An integrative review. Cognition and Emotion, 23(1), 4–41.
- Malik, F., & Marwaha, R. (2020). Developmental Stages of Social Emotional Development In Children. StatPearls Publishing [Internet].
- Mellin, A. E., Neumark-Sztainer, D., Story, M., Ireland, M., & Resnick, M. D. (2002). Unhealthy behaviors and psychosocial difficulties among overweight adolescents. The potential impact of familial factors. Journal of Adolescent Health, 31,145–153.
- Moges, B., & Weber, K. (2014). Parental Influence on the Emotional Development of Children. Developmental Psychology at Vanderbilt
- Nagy, E., Pilling, K., Watt, R., Pal, A., & Orvos, H. (2017). Neonates’ responses to repeated exposure to a still face. PLOS ONE, 12(8),
- Söderling, B. (1959). The First Smile A Developmental Study. Acta Pædiatrica, 47: 78-82.
- Wolff, P. H. (1963) Observations on the early development of smiling. In B. M. Foss, (Ed.), Determinants of Infant Behaviour. Vol. 2. 113-134