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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Ages and Stages of Baby Emotion: A Natural History

In a recent query apparently directed to another reader, one reader of this blog asked, “when do babies start to feel grief and other emotions?” This is a question that can be talked about a lot. Whether it can be completely answered, or even what the reader meant exactly, is not so certain. I’m going to make some efforts at the “talking about” part.

There are some real difficulties about knowing the answer to this apparently simple question. One is that we can’t really know what any other person feels, in the sense that we can know what we feel ourselves. Even if someone can tell us in words, we can’t be sure that the feelings they experience are connected with the words in the same way that our own feelings would connect with those words. This is a basic problem of the human condition and one reason why most of us experience times of feeling isolated even though we are with other people. Babies, of course, can’t even tell us in words what they feel, so we are in especially deep waters when we try to know something like when they begin to have certain feelings. We have to use things like facial expressions, crying or other vocalizing, posture and gestures to guide us to some idea of the baby’s emotions. Even then, what we’re usually doing is asking ourselves, “all right, if I made that face or sound, what would I be feeling like?” Then we take our own feelings as a best guess about what is going on inside the baby.

A second complication is that all emotions may not begin at the same point in development. We can’t just assume that a display of one emotion means that all other emotions are possible for a baby at that same age. Different emotions may (and in fact apparently do) have different “natural histories”. Some are present at birth, it seems, but others may not come into play until 12 to 15 months of age.

A third complication is that there are probably big differences between a baby’s own experience of feeling and its responses to an adult’s emotions. Babies can have emotional responses to adult facial expressions that do not necessarily involve the same emotion as the one the adult shows. Edward Tronick, the leading infancy researcher, recently published an article showing a picture of a mother playing with her 4-month-old by tickling the baby with her hair. The baby grabbed the hair and gave it a good yank, and the mother tried to pull away, with a brief expression of pain and anger on her face-- whereupon the baby flung up its hands to cover its face and avoid seeing that expression.

What emotional behaviors does the baby have at birth? Just about the only thing that seems to be an expression of emotion is crying. Not surprisingly, newborn babies cry with hunger and with pain (and with different cry patterns in the two situations), but they also cry with anger or frustration, for instance when their arms are held down in dressing or bathing. They may also smile, but it doesn’t seem to matter to them whether they’re looking at a person or at the wall-- the smile is not really an indication of social pleasure at this point. Babies in the first few days also have a suprising ability to imitate the facial expressions of people whose faces are very near them, and will open their mouths, put out their tongues, and mimic happy, sad, or surprised expressions.

By about 4 months, babies become quite sociable, smile at people (including strangers), and will chuckle when tickled lightly. They get angry when frustrated. They are already beginning to be disturbed by an unresponsive face staring at them without responding to their sounds or expressions-- they turn away or even begin to cry within a short time after they begin to see this “still face”. What they don’t show at this age is fear. They are not afraid of strangers, separation, the dark, big dogs, snakes, or loud noises (although they might begin to cry when startled by a noise).

At 6 or 7 months, babies become wary about strange people. Rather than smiling at once, they look suspicious and give a new person the “once-over”, gradually warming up to them. Between 7 and 10 months, fear develops and becomes a major and dramatic feature of the baby’s life . An approaching stranger, no matter how friendly; a brief loss of balance; the noise of the garbage truck that has come once a week for the baby’s whole life-- these may all trigger a fearful expression, wailing, and clutching at a familiar caregiver. Now the baby shows a new interest in facial expressions, and when in a new situation carefully checks out the expression of a familiar adult. If that person looks frightened, the baby looks serious and does not move to explore new things or people; if the adult looks happy, the baby will gradually start to explore.

The new capacity for anxiety and fear are associated with attachment behavior. The baby is able to feel calm and comforted when in contact with a familiar caregiver; alone in a new situation (or with a stranger), he or she may be overwhelmed by the fear of the unfamiliar. Some people suggest that there would be a great evolutionary advantage to this, because most babies crawl or start to walk by this point and could easily move into danger if not “tied” by their fearfulness.

It’s when attachment and fearfulness have emerged that babies begin to have intense grief reactions to separation and loss of familiar people. An abrupt and long-term separation leads to many months of withdrawal, sadness, crying, difficulties in sleeping and eating, even weakened immunity, and there is only a little that unfamiliar people can do to help with this. Eventually, though, given good circumstances, separated babies can recover and be comfortable with new caregivers when they have become familiar.

It’s not until between 12 and 15 months that babies seem to develop the social emotions-- strong feelings that are based on what we expect other people to feel about us. These include shame, embarrassment, and pride. It seems that the baby has to be able to recognize himself or herself in the mirror before embarrassment is possible. (How do you know a child recognizes herself? Put a dab of lipstick on her nose and put her in front of the mirror. One who doesn’t recognize herself just looks at “that person” for a minute and walks away; one who does recognize immediately puts her hand to her nose.)

As you can see, emotions don’t all develop or appear at the same time, as far as we can tell. Some abilities, like imitating a facial expression, are surprisingly early in the schedule; others, like fear, are surprisingly late. It just goes to show that we can only understand infant development by looking carefully at infants rather than trying to work backward from adult characteristics.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for answering the question I could not answer, although I doubt any answer but one that agrees with preconceived notions will satisfy true believers.